As office workers work from home, and those out and about on the network practice social distancing, how are employers keeping everyone safe?
Health and safety are always of the highest priority on the railway, and as an industry, we are used to ensuring that every individual who goes to work ‘gets home safely’. However, in these uncertain times, never has a keen awareness of safety practices taken on a higher importance. Polly Rivers reviews some of the additional practices being introduced in workplaces and on sites across the country in a bid to ensure, not only the safety of the teams in place, but the wider community as well.
As the twists and turns of the ongoing changes continue to shake the UK to the core, many organisations have scrambled to pull together a plan to ensure the safety of their employees, whilst continuing to operate as fully as possible.
Government guidelines provide clear details on how to manage social distancing and hand hygiene, while giving clear instructions on how to minimise the spread of Coronavirus within day-to-day life. However, when dealing with more specialist issues, such as the management of a rail maintenance site or manufacturing facility, organisations are turning to industry bodies for more sector-specific advice.
Elaine Clark from Rail Forum Midlands noted that there has been a flurry of activity from across the industry, with organisations from train operators to plant firms moving swiftly to implement new procedures designed to keep people as safe as possible.
“From what we see, most organisations have adapted very quickly and professionally to put in place appropriate systems and processes, others have taken the view that it’s safer to pause their activity and have temporarily closed.
“Companies working on Network Rail infrastructure are liaising closely with Network Rail, who themselves have been incredibly supportive of their supply chain to safeguard essential works.
“We have spent a lot of time listening to members concerns and issues and feeding these into government in a co-ordinated way to help shape the policy and support mechanisms that have been launched. Some of these are welcomed by our members, others less so. Some of the schemes, such as the job retention scheme, have specific practical implementation issues which aren’t ideal for rail.
“We have also launched a series of online support events for our members – covering specific topics such as furlough and contracting to mental health and general queries, which are key at this time.”
Working from where?
We are reliant on the work that office-based teams provide to ensure that everything is in place to ensure that essential maintenance can go ahead.
But, with many offices now deserted, and teams working exclusively from home, we are more reliant than ever on the wonders of technology to keep us connected.
With entire offices logging on remotely, many businesses are having to adjust to an entirely new way of working. Encouraging regular and open communication is key, with many organisations turning to tools such as Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, Skype and Zoom to ensure that face-to-face video meetings can still go ahead, albeit from employees’ homes. Instant messaging, available on platforms such as Skype and Slack, also provides the ‘in office’ chat facility, allowing colleagues to easily ping questions back and forth, without the need for inbox-clogging email trails. These forms of interaction can be a great way of help to fend off the feelings of loneliness that working from home (and enforced social isolation!) can bring and bolster a feeling of togetherness within a team.
With many employees now juggling the requirements of a busy job with home-schooling and childcare, managing a normal day-to-day workload can be a challenge. Whilst the wheels of industry have kept on turning in our sector, it is understandable that productivity may be somewhat compromised when you have one eye on your workload and one eye on GCSE geography. Nothing about the situation we have found ourselves in is normal, but many employers have excelled themselves in their understanding, and most working-from-home teams have been pleasantly surprised at the way they have been supported through this challenging experience.
Employees used to working in an office environment will be familiar with the habit of turning off their computer, picking up their coat and hat and walking away from the working day. Leaving the building signals the end of work and the start of ‘home time’. Now that we all have constant communication in our pockets via our mobile phones, this line is somewhat blurred, but it is much easier to draw a line under things when you are not physically sat behind your desk. When finishing work only means shutting your laptop lid and walking from one room of your house to another, clocking off can be much harder to do. Companies have a responsibility to their staff to put a clear end to the working day, it can be all too easy for the hours to run away with you!
Of course, it is impossible to keep the railway working without the appropriate equipment. Our industry’s manufacturing organisations are still having to work hard, providing supplies to meet the continuing demand.
Scott Harrison, chief operating officer at equipment manufacturer Permaquip, noted the complexities involved with managing potential contamination within a manufacturing environment: “In addition to the obvious, more stringent, personal hygiene requirements, we have had to ensure that all staff within the manufacturing environment are positioned at a safe working distance, with ‘safe zone areas’ clearly identified.
“Work zones are kept to one person and thoroughly cleaned as per the government recommendation at the start and finish of every shift. Any materials that enter the factory are held in a decontamination area before being moved onto the factory floor, and no product is sent out of the factory before being held in a separate dispatch area.
“We have one member of staff who is in a vulnerable group, so they have been moved to work-from-home on full pay – we are not prepared to take the risk.”
Boots on ballast
Team Orange is playing a key role in ensuring that our country’s vital network is able to continue to provide key workers and freight operators with a safe infrastructure, to make sure they can rely on the rails.
At Quattro Plant, all staff were issued with clear guidance on how to approach the increasing health and safety changes on site.
Bob Browning, head of corporate strategy at Quattro Plant, said: “We understand the challenges that our teams working on site face. However, we have implemented new procedures to ensure that our teams, their loved ones and the wider communities that we all live within are as protected as they can be against the spread of COVID-19.
“As well as trying to encourage more frequent hand-washing with the provision of on-track welfare units with full facilities, we have undertaken a deep-clean of all plant and provided alcohol wipes for operators to use to sanitise on-track-plant prior to change-over shifts. All POS planning now works on minimising in-cab travelling for crane and machine controllers and, where it is not possible to avoid this (or during the operation of MEWPs where there is more than one team member in the basket), additional disposable facemasks and latex gloves must be worn.
“Many of the measures that we have introduced are reliant on the teams we work alongside working closely together. As an industry, we are so proud of how everyone has really pulled together to attack this head on.”
As well as keeping on-track-plant clean, Quattro Plant’s DECT Comm II (Digital Enhanced Cordless Technology) communication systems has undergone a full clean and sterilisation by High Motive, which is providing sterilisation services across the industry.
“Ensuring that safety critical equipment, such as air-fed masks, helmets and Setcom kits, are fully sterilised is absolutely key to ensuring our railway family stays safe during this impossible time,” said Phil Miles, director at High Motive.
“As well as working hard, ensuring that we are able to provide a service to the rail sector, we are delighted to say that we have also been able to share the technology that is helping keep the rail network on track with our wonderful NHS teams as well. We’re proud to have provided sterilisation equipment to hospitals and GP surgeries in Cardiff.”
During this challenging time, nothing is quite normal. The sun is shining, and the birds are singing, but there is a feeling of suspended reality about everything – it’s life, but not at all as we know it.
However, it will eventually return to normal. We’re not sure when, but at some stage, day-to-day life will start to fall back into place. But, will everything that we have so successfully implemented return to exactly as it was pre-COVID-19? The hundreds of new procedures that have hurriedly been put into place, all designed to safeguard our workplaces and keep us that little bit more secure, will they all disappear or will they become the new norm? Only time will tell.
In the meantime, as an industry, we should be proud of what we have achieved today. With such a burden on our shoulders, mountains have been moved to ensure that we can continue going quietly about our role, safely providing a network to move the nation’s heroes.