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Stepping up electrical safety

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Network Rail has launched its Electrical Safety Step Up to strengthen the culture of safety among staff working with or near electricity.

Electrical Safety is a key priority for Network Rail. Over the last five years, the industry has seen four concerning electrical safety-related incidents which have resulted in life-changing injuries. Network Rail wants everyone to go home safe every day and to eliminate the belief that ‘accidents just happen’. In support of its ongoing programme to improve electrical safety, Network Rail launched its Electrical Safety Step Up in January 2023, to strengthen the culture of safety for staff working with, or near, High Voltage traction power, as well as office-based personnel who are involved in the planning of work.

The Step Up is an interactive, 90-minute safety event that guides participants through a series of films and discussions around safety culture. The sessions focus on the importance of safety rules and processes, the consequences of not obeying these rules, and recognising good practice. They drive home the message that the behaviour of those working on the track is key to reducing accidents and encourage workers to talk openly about how their actions have an impact on everyone’s overall safety.

Case studies
The Electrical Safety Step Up is delivered with the aid of a number of safety videos, including scenarios looking at working with High Voltage (HV) Distribution, Overhead Line Equipment (OLE), and DC Conductor Rail Equipment.
The sessions also feature an interview with Bryant Latham, a retired Engineering Specialist who, in September 1981 received an electric shock while repairing overhead cables. Bryant was reaching to take a piece of equipment when his arm touched a live tube and, because he was earthed, 25,000 V shot through him.

“There was just a bang, flash, and a pain I can’t describe to you,” says Bryant. “It was like being microwaved. I remember the smell of burning.”

Bryant fell to the track below, damaging his back and feels the pain of that injury to this day. He suffered burns to his chest, scarring, and remembers that his young children were unable to hug him because of his injuries.

Although his body healed, Bryant was not prepared for the mental injuries he sustained, and it was a long while before he sought help. “I’d never heard of PTSD,” he says. “Today it’s a constant mental battle I have with myself about not getting help sooner.”

Though Bryant survived his accident, his story provides a reminder to all about the dangers of working with electricity.

Key aims
By the end of each Step Up session, each participant should understand where the actions and behaviours of the individuals or teams in each video scenario has created an unsafe environment or led to safety incidents. Attendees are expected to leave with a full awareness of the importance of electrical safety and appreciate why they must always follow safety procedures.

The Step Up drives home the message of ‘Choose to Challenge’ and the idea that every employee is empowered to question and challenge poor safety, whether that be behaviour, process, planning, or ability. Participants are encouraged to make a personal commitment to building and continuing to challenge unsafe processes or behaviour in the workplace and leading by example in how they behave.

“To get everyone home safe every day requires more than just the tools, skills and processes for the job, it requires us to challenge and to feel happy being challenged,” says Felix Langley, Network Technical Head Power Distribution HV/LV. “It requires us to listen and learn from our colleagues and requires us to look out for each other at all times. If we all work together on this we can make a real difference.”

But although the sessions emphasise responsibility, they do not assign blame. Each of the scenario videos highlights the time pressures that track workers are under and how this can lead to accidents which cause serious injury. The Step Up aims to tackle the culture that rail workers can ‘get the job done’ no matter what, and underscore the importance of taking a step back, assessing the situation, and proceeding with care.

Equally, employees also need to believe their concerns are being heard and the Step Up aims to help create a culture where management and leadership teams actively listen to what they are being told by employees and take what they hear seriously.

Word from the top
Introducing the sessions, Andrew Haines, chief executive at Network Rail, emphasises the responsibility that workers have to keeping themselves and everyone on their teams safe.

“We’ve seen real injuries in the last few years from people who’ve encountered our electrical assets when that shouldn’t have been the case, when that needn’t have been the case, and we as a system have let them down.

“And that’s why we’re undertaking this Step Up. Because we want to explore with everyone involved, the risks of not putting our safety first, and what we can all do as individuals to keep ourselves and our colleagues safe from harm.”

Everyone home safely
Ultimately, the Electrical Step Up is designed to share ideas, develop the skills that many workers already have, and increase their confidence in challenging co-workers and superiors when situations don’t look or feel safe. Doing this takes courage, and the Step Up aims to give workers the tools they need to handle these situations with confidence, and foster a culture where questions about health and safety are part of everyday conversations. At the end of the day, every day, workers want to go home to their friends and families safely.

For more information about the Electrical Safety Step Up, please contact [email protected] or see the Safety Central page.