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A problem shared is a problem halved

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Health and safety concerns may be going unnoticed but reporting them is as important as ever.

As the end of 2020 rapidly approaches, CIRAS urges everyone to take a moment to consider how the year’s challenges might have changed them. Has it made you think differently about what matters most?

Perhaps how you perceive risk has changed too. Think back to before 2020, a time before Covid-19, and to what concerned you in the workplace then. You may recall health and safety issues that you haven’t thought about for a while, because you have been too busy adjusting to new ways of working.

Those issues may still exist, even if they aren’t on your mind. But, according to reporting trends at confidential reporting service CIRAS, and at CIRAS member companies across the railway industry, people are not reporting them as often as before. When they are speaking up about health and safety, it is often about COVID-19.

You might have carried the mental load of these other health, safety and wellbeing concerns with you throughout the year, but not wanted to tell anyone “because it isn’t a priority” with the virus taking centre stage.

The truth is that those concerns do still matter. If not now, then when will the issues be resolved? Months into the future might be too late to prevent an accident or other harm coming to colleagues, passengers or anyone in your workplace.

If not you, then who? You might be reluctant to voice your concerns if you are new to the team, or the youngest or most junior employee – just in case you ‘get it wrong’, or out of fear that you might be ridiculed – but often a fresh pair of eyes is exactly what it takes to spot the problem. Maybe you have a sense that something isn’t right, but you aren’t confident enough to raise it formally or ask.

Hazard blindness can occur where a risk or hazard becomes so familiar that, over time, those who grow accustomed to it, seeing it regularly, stop recognising it as a potential threat to safety. Sometimes people simply do not see what they are not looking for.

You might assume that someone else would have spoken up if there was a problem – but, this year, everyone has been more preoccupied than usual, so a serious issue could slip past unnoticed. It could be you who people are depending on to stay safe.

Ways to share

These days, most companies have internal reporting channels for health and safety concerns, and it can make sense to raise a concern with your line manager. Even if you don’t want to report anything now, it is a good idea to find out the options, so you are ready if the time comes.

There are also ways to report real-time incidents and concerns that could lead to imminent danger, so that they can be resolved as quickly as possible. If you are worried about a colleague working under the influence of drugs or alcohol, report this to your company straight away, because it is a real-time issue that endangers lives.

If you prefer to speak up without being identified, you can use the confidential reporting service CIRAS. When you get in touch – by phone, text, freepost or online form – a trained analyst will contact you and arrange to discuss your concern whenever it suits you.

They will ask you questions, to uncover the full picture of what’s concerning you and what you do, so they can decide whether your identity could be protected and, therefore, whether CIRAS can take it forward. CIRAS has never breached confidentiality and will never release details that could identify anyone raising a concern.

If CIRAS can take your concern forward, it will go to the company with all information that could identify you removed. You’ll see the company’s response and be able to give feedback and ask further questions, again confidentially. CIRAS gives the company a time limit and escalates your concern if the time limit passes without a response.

Why report in confidence?

People often raise concerns confidentially when they do not want to use other reporting channels. They could have watched other colleagues’ concerns go unanswered or not be addressed how they would have liked, so they try another reporting route.

Other times, there is a fear of reporting internally. Someone could be reluctant to tell anyone what’s going on in case of consequences, such as being singled out at work for having the courage to speak up. Whether this is likely or not, the fear discourages them. With confidential reporting, people can pass on their concerns or safety suggestions with their identity protected, so that there is no fear of personal consequences and the company can focus on the safety issues, not the person.

Sometimes people are just not aware of internal reporting channels. CIRAS also listens to third-party concerns, where someone wants to raise a health and safety issue about a work site or project run by a company that is not their employer. It may not be possible to report these another way.

You can still contact CIRAS if you have already reported an issue to your company, and almost three-quarters of those who raised concerns with CIRAS in the financial year 2019/20 did so after trying internal channels.

Acting on concerns

Anything that puts health and safety at risk is worth raising – whether it is about the risk to individuals, including long-term occupational health issues, or about something operational that could lead to an incident. What is concerning you? 

Nights are closing in, days are shorter, and teams may feel pressured to do more, in less time, so as to keep work within daylight hours. This could lead to stress, with decisions made hurriedly or without a clear head, meaning more chance of accidents. Staying alert and speaking up if you are concerned can keep the focus on working safely and protect your colleagues.

Rostering is a frequent issue: for example, travel times to and from site not being considered at the planning stage, especially when travel could take longer in winter weather or at busier times. Or double shifts – working two back-to-back – causing fatigue and a lack of concentration.

If your colleagues take unsafe shortcuts with their work, you might not feel able to challenge them face-to-face or tell your manager, but you can use confidential reporting to be heard. Then the company can investigate and act, perhaps by providing better training or by looking at why someone decides to take those shortcuts.

You might consider that the training on offer for your team is not suited to your tasks or roles. If you identify gaps in training or competence, or question whether you are being taught the safest approach, you can speak up, using confidential channels, without feeling that people think you are a ‘troublemaker’.

Ultimately, it is worth speaking up. You can take comfort from knowing that you have done the right thing – which is all you can do in most instances – and that the issue may be resolved as a result.

For example, a concern raised with CIRAS about trespassers accessing a site resulted in new measures to stop trespassers entering. Another report, about the quality of GSM-R radios, led to a sound quality check across the fleet of trains. There is often a simple solution, once the right people know about the problem.

Don’t let problems go unnoticed. Whichever channels you choose, speak up for the safety and wellbeing of yourself, colleagues and others.