Rail industry needs to engineer out risk not just protect from it

Sue Johnston from the ORR – one of the speakers at the Rail Safety Summit on April 28 – discusses the role of the ORR moving into CP5.

Q: We talk about ‘zero’ targets in safety, but where do you think the focus should be going into CP5?

A: The industry should continue to ensure it addresses its efforts to the highest risks and has effective health and safety management systems in place to deliver continuous improvement for rail passengers, the rail workforce and the public who interface with the railway.

ORR’s funding of Network Rail is sufficient to allow the company to meet its legal health and safety obligations across its business in CP5.

The determination for CP5 identifies and includes specific funding for some key Network Rail managed risks:

      • Level crossings – £99m provided to secure further risk reduction and is a regulated (monitored ) output
      • Track workers – £163m to improve electrical isolations and reduce the risk of electric shock and electrocution; £10m to improve the protection and warning systems for people working on the track, to prevent them from being hit by trains.
      • Road rail vehicles – £70m to replace existing machines; £10m to develop new safer machines, to reduce the risk to track workers from runaway and over turning machines
      • Incentives for Network Rail to improve occupational health management, which has been neglected by the industry until fairly recently.

Train operators also have a significant role to play and we have identified weaknesses, and in some cases adverse trends, in:

      • SPAD risk,
      • Platform-Train interface
      • Rolling stock maintenance – door systems

Meeting the challenge of moving towards a ‘zero’ target requires the industry to work together to manage interface risks and to allow sufficient track access for Network Rail to maintain its infrastructure to minimise asset failures.

The industry fully understands the risks to passengers, the workforce and the public and should implement long-term strategies to manage these risks, based on a sound health and safety culture.

How significant do you hope additional funding toward track worker safety over the next five years be?

Recent trends in track worker safety are concerning and Network Rail has missed its own target for improvement in CP4.

Additional funding is being provided in CP5 for improving the protection and warning provided to track workers, to prevent them being hit by trains; for taking safer electrical isolations, to prevent electric shocks and electrocution and for safer road rail vehicles; some of the current equipment is of a poor design for use on the railway.

However, track worker safety is not dependent on more money; Network Rail is funded through the settlement to comply with health and safety law and to make continuous improvements.

Improvements could be made to the current safety arrangements for track workers without spending additional money, for example a large number of incidents to track workers are the result of slips, trips and falls and these would be reduced in number and severity if the railway was kept tidy and free of scrap and other debris. Issues such as fatigue and occupational health can be addressed without spending additional money; in fact there is financial benefit for companies where these issues are well managed because absenteeism is reduced.

Network Rail has set itself challenging targets to eliminate all industry caused fatalities and major injuries by the end of CP5. This will obviously deliver a marked improvement in risk to track workers and we will be monitoring their progress to deliver this commitment.

What has driven the ORR’s focus on occupational health in CP5?

The railway sector does not compare well with broadly equivalent sectors on occupational health risk management, such as construction. Across the industry occupational health has not received the same attention as safety. A few years ago, the ORR launched its own occupational health strategy to raise awareness in the industry and about the costs to individuals and businesses from poor occupational health management.

This year we will carry out some survey work to assess the effectiveness of our campaign, but anecdotally we know that our occupational health strategy has been well received in the rail industry and we believe we are making a difference.

The first step is for the industry to get accurate data so that we know where to put the effort to achieve the greatest improvement. Certain risks are well known, for example hand-arm vibration, but the actual effect on the workforce in terms of harm and days lost are not understood and other issues such as stress are very poorly recorded or understood. There is too much reliance in the industry on using personal protective equipment as a control measure, rather than engineering controls to remove or reduce the risk of harm. Better data will help the industry make the right choices in terms of improvements and we are encouraging this in CP5.

The ORR cited incidents in Spain, Canada and France in its 2013 report. What should the UK learn from devastating accidents in other parts of the world?

We and the railway industry in Britain obviously need to learn the lessons from any accidents wherever they occur. Fortunately train accidents are low frequency events but can be of high consequence. No matter how good the safety record, we should never be complacent. We know from industry data that the risk precursors have increased for passengers in the last control period. We must also learn from accidents in other industries, for example from the Texas City refinery accident report.

The role of human behaviour is common across industry and international boundaries and the railway has no monopoly on good practice to address risk.

A lot of the focus tends to be around track worker safety, but what does the ORR do to ensure the safety of passengers?

A safe infrastructure is key to achieving passenger safety, for example safe track, points, bridges, level crossings and rolling stock. A safe infrastructure comes through robust and sustainable asset management and this was a core theme in our CP5 determination. In the last few years we have taken some significant formal enforcement action requiring Network Rail to improve its management of track to reduce track faults and its management of civil structures and earthworks to mitigate risk if these assets fail. In CP5 the ORR will be monitoring Network Rail to ensure it delivers the volumes of asset maintenance and renewals it has set out in its delivery plan.

Through our proactive inspection of train operating companies, we ensure that they maintain their rolling stock and this will be particularly important in CP5 as franchises come to an end.

How important is it to have an annual forum, such as the Rail Safety Summit, for safety executives to discuss current issues and share best practice?

The industry must work collaboratively if it is to achieve excellence in health and safety management now and in the future.

Forums such as this are important, but working together should be business as usual and engrained in day to day activities.

The sheer number of interfaces means that several players can be adversely affected by the failure of just one to control risk, so it pays to work together and share experience and best practice.

Are there any innovative ways of working that you have seen that you think should to be developed across the UK to improve safety standards?

We do not dictate how the industry works, so it is really for the industry to identify innovative ways of working and we strongly encourage this. Through our proactive inspection of Network Rail we realised that their standards-based approach to maintaining the infrastructure was ineffective because of the number and complexity the standards in use. We encouraged a review and Network Rail is currently moving towards a risk-based approach instead.

The outputs of Network Rail’s research into new ways of reducing level crossing risk should be rolled out to provide better information on train position to signallers and on whether it is safe to cross to users without the need to telephone, or guess.

In terms of Health & Safety best practise, is there anything that the rail industry can learn from other industries?

It is always good to be inquisitive and too often the rail industry does something because it has always done it that way. It could learn about other industry approaches to risk assessment, assurance, safety by design and management of occupational health for example, particularly from other industries that could be subject to low frequency – high consequence events such as the oil, gas and petrochemical industry.