Rail Safety: Layering the groundwork for success

Date: December 2014

The government has committed to funding £38 billion in rail over the next five years. But contractors shouldn’t forget the health and safety risk this investment inevitably brings says ADComms Managing Director Jason Pearce.

The government’s welcomed investment into the rail sector brings with it inevitable health and safety risks. Faced with one of the most exciting periods of growth in the UK’s rail infrastructure, the industry needs to have a properly educated and disciplined workforce to cope with unprecedented demands and pressures to deliver projects on time and within budget.

Rail safety

The statistics do not make good reading, with rail workforce fatalities having risen consistently since 2010/11. During Control Period 4 (2008-13), 10 Network Rail employees or contractors lost their lives in workplace incidents. More recently, there were three workforce fatalities in 2013/14 and a total of 122 major injuries during the year, compared with 104 in the previous year.

Network Rail has recently set a clear direction of travel for safety on the railways. The challenge facing contractors is how to respond to this rallying cry and act accordingly. Alongside the strong initiatives being driven by Network Rail I believe there are three other areas where contractors working in the rail sector can focus efforts to actively support our industry to achieve world-class levels of safety.

Firstly, we need to recognise the impact that mental health can have on people’s performance. Secondly, we need to build more collaboration amongst contractors to ensure that best safety practice is always shared. Lastly, we need to embrace technology even more to keep our people safe, especially lone workers.

In June 2014 the ORR published an important paper on stress in the rail industry. While much of the content is well known, it’s a recognition that one in four people in the UK are now affected by mental health. While the impact on lost time is one thing, the risks associated with unwell individuals continuing to work in a high safety risk environment, is significant. The ORR’s proposed management approach to the issue is to be applauded, with the very fact that the problem has been openly recognised, marking a crucial watershed in the industry.

Mental health issues in the workplace are real. As all industries seek to demand more businesses, we need to seek further innovation to work smarter and in parallel introduce the right environment, systems and methodologies that actively support individuals. Culture within organisations usually cascades from the boardroom and contractors of every size need to ensure that occupational safety, including mental health safety is part of their DNA. It’s not an optional extra.

Sharing best practice is another big challenge for an industry that has sometimes tended to operate in silos, and where collaborative working has not been the traditional method of working among some contractors. That mind-set simply has to change. Other sectors such as the airline and defence sectors have shown that collaboration delivers significant benefit, including driving an improved safety environment. Network Rail are leading with collaboration, but the rest of the industry must now take more of a lead and adopt a far more open dialogue, sharing health and safety best practice among us. It would be great to see major contractors in particular working closely alongside the SME sector to share best practice.

Finally, technology has a huge role to play in making it easier for contractors to remain safety trackside, dramatically cutting down on paperwork and manual errors that can lead to incidents.

IPS, part of the ADComms Group, has adopted the use of iPads when working on London Underground projects, streamlining safety procedures and making arduous paper exercises far more efficient. The use of existing technology has also meant that worker adoption has been high, with relatively little training needed to get them using the robust and portable devices to remain in communication at all times. This has proven to be especially useful where lone workers are operating out of hours.

The ORR has taken a firm stance on recent instances of proven failures in health and safety among contractors. And this robust approach will quite rightly remain in place for some time to come. We’ve all got an important job to do to bring the UK rail industry to best in class, but putting safety anywhere else but the top of the agenda just won’t work.

For more information, please contact St John White or Natalia Gameson at Prova on 01926 776900.