HomeRail NewsPutting people first will improve safety

Putting people first will improve safety

The Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) recently issued its 2013/14 annual report. It identifies their Strategic Safety Objective as the “Drive for a safer railway”. Writes Colin Wheeler

Under the title of “Occupational Health” it identifies the need for “a more co-ordinated approach to occupational health management, including worker fatigue”. It then claims that there was “an 11% improvement in overall industry worker safety” before referring to “the 8% decline in track worker safety”.

The latter it says was “primarily due to slips, trips and falls”. Commenting recently on the ORR report the RMT trade union added that during 2013/14 there were 3 rail worker fatalities and 79 suffered major injuries.

Skilled perception

Admittedly these are only headlines, but I am disappointed by the fact that words like, “sadly yet another year without the industry being able to claim the achievement of zero track worker fatalities” are missing. Some of us remember when British Rail (without the assistance of the sophisticated equipment of today) went well over a year without a single track worker fatality.

By now we ought to consider this achievement to be the norm. Sadly I do not believe that their Control Period 5 (CP5) funding of £250 million “to help improve worker safety, to be invested in new equipment and safer working practices” will alone achieve the zero target we all seek. I hear more and more about remote monitoring. Of course the fewer the number of people on track the lower the risk of them being hit by trains. But I could write an entire article describing my experiences of skilled, experienced individuals whose perception, intuitiveness and inward conviction that something just was not right resulted in the avoidance of an accident! People need to feel valued and appreciated. Remote, disinterested management who rarely listen remains a key area of weakness.

New track renewal contracts

People are the key. Their motivation, team-working, interest, skills, ingenuity, inventiveness, and judgement are paramount if work is to be done safely and well. Management by performance indices remotely monitored by IT systems with inadequate face to face contact is I believe one of the biggest underlying reasons why fatalities are still happening.

fig 5 [online]

Another major concern is fatigue. Hopefully the changes to track renewals contracting which Network Rail brings in this September will, due to their duration and improved planning (including the direct involvement of those doing the actual work) be of benefit. The local identification of construction site management and greater involvement of supervisors in work planning are overdue initiatives.

Fatigue and safety critical working

Fatigue remains a major concern. I recall the development of the compromise when agency staff were regularly travelling large distances for work and working long shifts. The principle of a maximum of 12 hours plus up to two hours travelling, with the alternative of employers supplying local accommodation was a good first step.

But using local people whose travel times are less and who can sleep at home is better for all concerned. I believe safety and productivity can both benefit. We talk of safety critical rail working. Recently I have been talking to NHS nurses in different parts of the country and have been shocked to learn of the demands of their shifts.

Currently nurses working in intensive care units tell me they work in two shifts to cover each 24 hour period. Dayshifts are generally 0730 until 2000 hours; overlapping for changeovers with the 1930 until 0800 nightshifts. Both include one unpaid hour which is split into three 20 minute breaks, presumably for refreshment. These short breaks effectively prevent nurses from enjoying the services of staff canteens etc. I discovered that parking at major hospitals is a problem area for many. Typically a 6 am departure from home to a car park from which a staff minibus to the hospital can be accessed is necessary so as to be on duty for 0730.

A 2000 hour finishing time results in arriving home at around 2130 hours. Typically the nurses are rostered to work four such shifts in a row. But worryingly they are permitted to volunteer for as many additional shifts as they wish! With just eight and a half hours at home to eat, sleep etc. between shifts I am led to question whether fatigue is an issue. Surely there are few jobs more safety critical then those of intensive care unit nurses?

Concentration and situational awareness

Steve Featherstone of Network Rail in one of his “Track Delivery Updates” quotes an example of an accident caused by a lack of “situational awareness”- for those who only speak English this means knowing what is going on around you!

On August 27th 2006 the pilot with a co-pilot on Cornair Flight 5191 attempted a take-off from the wrong runway- it was too short! Taxi-ing out they took a wrong turn whilst chatting when they should have been concentrating. Neither of them realised what they had done until it was too late to abort the take-off. 49 people were killed as a result.

LOWS returns

On February 21st this year an incident occurred on track which resulted in the Zollner LOWS (Lookout Warning System) being withdrawn from use by Network Rail. Within days the investigation revealed that the immediate cause was “operator error”.

I assume that is safety specialist speak for someone making a mistake. LOWS was quickly reintroduced for Network Rail use but the root cause was identified as problems with “safety, competency and quality management systems”.

Now Rail Safety Solutions has become the first contractor to receive temporary approval to use LOWS on Network Rail’s infrastructure.

Runaway Scottish MEWP

The Rail Accident Investigation Branch has recently issued its report on the road/ rail mobile elevated work platform that ran away in Glasgow at 0300 hours on the morning of Sunday 21st April last year. It was being on-tracked north of Glasgow Queen Street when it ran away downhill into the tunnel. There it struck two scaffolds that were being used for tunnel wall repairs (See figure 5, 6, & 7).

fig 6 and 7 [online]

Two people in the tunnel had near misses but a third working on a scaffold was thrown to the ground and sustained severe injuries to his shoulder. The road rail vehicle had been converted for rail use and was braked when on rail by the road tyres being held against the extended hubs of the rail wheels (see Picture-i.e. Fig 7).

The procedures for on and off tracking specifies that each end of the machine must be treated separately so that it is never in a state where both ends are unbraked. The report says that the operator did not appreciate the severity of the incline and that he and machine controller had not worked together previously. I wonder if he had “forgotten” to treat both ends of the machine separately before that day?

A site visit and a trench collapse

I read with interest a report into a site visit that took place on 23rd July this year. The report commented positively on the Controller of Site Safety’s understanding of the site management and patrolling paperwork as well as the briefing he gave.

Concerns were expressed about the loose lifting chains left in the cess and the used disc cutter blades abandoned on the ballast shoulder. There were no recorded comments about how the track staff were working or their skills.

Surely I cannot be alone in believing that everyone working on rail (or indeed on construction sites) understands the dangers inherent in working in trenches? Network Rail’s Safety Bulletin 332 relates to a trench collapse that occurred at Stafford on Sunday July 6th this year.

Whilst excavating for a new track crossing chamber the injured man was trapped by the partial collapse of the trench. When the report was issued ten days later he was still described
as being “in a serious but stable condition” in hospital. Then incident is under investigation by both the British Transport Police and the ORR.

The Solution

It is true that we now have a lot more plant and machinery than was the case a few decades ago. We have better and more varied methods of communication and protective clothing. More detailed training also; so why have we yet to surpass British Rail’s track safety performances of the past?

My strong belief is that the focus must change with more face to face management and teams working together regularly who accept that their local listening “boss” (who they see very often and regularly) really means it when he says put safety first. Then we stand a good chance of a year with zero track worker fatalities and productivity will also increase.

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