The latest annual report from the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) tells us that Britain’s railways remain the safest of the top 10 biggest railway systems in the EU. While this is brilliant news, the rail industry can never afford to be complacent on health and safety. There is always room for improvement and even one incident can change the shape of things dramatically. So, while Network Rail report that track worker safety has improved in recent years: there have been six fatalities in the past nine years compared to 25 in the previous 9, it’s crucial to remember that even one death is too many. Every worker has the right to return home safely and without injury after their shift ends.
High numbers of near-misses
Despite regulation by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) and the standards set by the RSSB, Simon French, chief inspector for the government’s Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB), has issued a spate of warnings recently that the rail industry is failing to tackle some of its important safety issues effectively. This includes high number of ‘close calls’ and workers often having no clarity on who is in charge on site.
The warnings come after the death of a rail worker in Purley, South London during 2018 and unfortunately were not heeded in time to prevent the deaths of two more rail workers in South Wales during June 2019. In this latter case, it is thought that the workers were wearing ear defenders and may not have heard the approach of the passenger train which caused their deaths. The incidents were both avoidable through straightforward health and safety measures and employer Network Rail has now responded to pressure from ORR and union bodies to step up their efforts to safeguard the people who maintain and repair their tracks.
Network Rail has pledged investment of £70m in a new safety initiative and task force, which will accelerate its existing Near Miss Reduction Programme and attempt to eliminate fatalities for those working on or near their track system. The task force will be responsible for a broad range of new measures, including the implementation of advancements in technology and warning systems for safer trackside working, better monitoring of contractor training and competencies, a ‘procuring for safety’ programme to encourage and reward contractors for safe practices, a medical standards project, and better risk management processes. There will also be new measures for managing fatigue and improving mental wellbeing both major contributors to raised overall health and safety standards in the workplace.
It is thought that the South London worker who lost their life was not only put at risk by the failure of a fellow contractor to arrive for work but was also on a zero-hours contract and likely to be suffering from fatigue – and the topic has also received particular attention in the RSSB’s report. The investigation is ongoing, but one thing is clear: while fatalities are falling, the number of near misses remains unacceptably high. It’s time for employers and employees across the sector to take a fresh look at their own health and safety measures, particularly where there are high number of contractors and it may be more difficult to have a clear oversight of their skills and training.
As in every UK employment scenario, rail industry employers have a duty to their employees under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. Failure to fulfil that duty can not only have negative impact on productivity, profitability and reputation; it can also mean that employers lose valuable team members and face costly penalties. While the duty of a rail business as an employer is the same as in any other industry, the high-risk nature of railways work means that it requires specialised enforcement focus. This duty is now separately overseen by the ORR rather than the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), thanks to powers handed over by the Health and Safety (Enforcing Authority for Railways and Other Guided Transport Systems) Regulations 2006 (EARR). Since taking responsibility back in 2006, the ORR have issued penalties ranging between £65K and £4m for breaches of health and safety regulations.
According to the ORR, one regularly occurring factor when accidents occur and the employer is found responsible, is that inadequate measures had been taken to plan safe systems of work or properly assess risk*. Thankfully, this is one area in which help is available to take effective action. We can help you review and revise current processes to ensure they are carefully aligned with SSIP, as well as providing unique insights into the health and safety culture that exists right across your organisation. Yours is a complex business and you want to make sure the people you are responsible for are fully skilled, properly trained and safely managed. We can make safe procurement easier, reducing the load on your internal teams and keeping paperwork to a minimum.
*For more information on health and safety from the ORR click here.