Stuart McOnie highlights the issue of fatigue and asks: ‘are you doing all you can?’

Our rail network has experienced a 116 per cent increase in passenger usage and a 34 per cent rise in freight use over the last 20 years. These figures are set to double again over the next thirty years. The current system is described by Philippa Oldham, Head of Transport for the Institution of Mechanical Engineers as “operating on some of the oldest infrastructure which has lacked investment”. Projects such as Crossrail 2 and HS2 demonstrate the effort being made to improve this. As the rail news continues to be dominated by cancellations, delays and changes in timetables, there is increased pressure on maintenance staff to ensure public confidence is restored.

Network Rail has promised “a better railway for Britain” in its 2019-2024 £47.9bn strategic business plan including the target of a 15 per cent reduction in train delays and 6400 new train services a week running across the country by 2024. Maintenance and operations will be a core part of this plan. Chief Executive Mark Carne describes the new strategy as exciting, a “radical plan, an ambitious plan.” Specific reference to worker health includes being injury-free, further improving the Lost Time Injury Frequency Rate measure by 54 per cent, and reducing mental ill health absenteeism by 2024.

The very nature of industry staff’s working pattern can create safety risks if not properly controlled, and this must be carefully managed. Though not specifically referenced in the Network Rail’s latest strategy document, fatigue remains a real threat. It can be caused by a number of factors, including the job design, workload, the length and timing of shifts, the nature of the changes between shifts, and insufficient breaks. Fatigue has been a recent issue in Canada, with disputes between the Canadian Pacific Railway workers against the employer. Doug Finnson, the national president for the union representing engineers and conductors said that fatigue management was a central issue, with the union keen to see programmes in place to prevent employees from working excessive hours.

Fighting fatigue
Fatigue was cited as a contributing factor for a small crash at King’s Cross Station in the UK in August 2017, with the Rail Accident Investigation Branch report stating that the driver was suffering from fatigue and coming to the end of a “relatively demanding night shift.” Though not specifically maintenance related, this demonstrates the problem facing the entire sector. In addition to incidents that could harm the public, fatigued staff could make other costly mistakes, reducing productivity and morale. They could be more likely to take time off work, and other employers could suffer as a result.

Resolving the issue brings financial, legal and moral benefits to an employer and falls under their responsibility. 27Under the Health & Safety at Work Act and Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations all employers have general duties to control risks of fatigue. If staff carry out ‘safety critical’ work, they have additional fatigue management duties under Regulation 25 of the ROGS Regulations.

The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) outline examples of fatigue that could significantly impact overall effectiveness as:

  • A driver moving away forgetting that permission has not been given
  • A track worker carrying out maintenance or renewal work fails to complete necessary checks or procedures before finishing a job
  • A signaller sets an incorrect route or gives an incorrect message

It can be difficult for rail engineers individually to take a step back and consider whether fatigue is something that is impacting them. With this in mind, and despite the new targets outlined in the Network Rail strategy, managers must continue to keep it as a top priority and strive to reduce it all times.

Good practice fatigue as advised by ORR includes:

  • Reviewing current work patterns and designing new working patterns if required
  • Assessing any proposed changes to work patterns, including overtime, rest-day working, shift swaps
  • Investigating incidents and fatigue concerns
  • Developing key performance indicators (KPIs) for fatigue, to help identify likely fatigue hotspots and prioritise fatigue risk control efforts
  • During a period being heralded as a new beginning for the industry, the efficiency of staff will be imperative to overall success.

Though Network Rail has outlined some of the key steps being taken to ensure worker wellbeing, it is vital that managers don’t forget about other related issues that might put workforces at risk. Failure to manage fatigue and workforces properly can have disastrous consequences.Stuart McOnie is Managing Director at Semmco, an engineering company that designs and manufactures rail access maintenance equipment for maintenance of trains within a depot environment. With offices in the UK, USA and Dubai, Semmco works closely with customers to provide project consultancy, offering complete access for rail maintenance solutions, focused on quality, reliability and user safety. Semmco operates globally, supplying major airlines and rail operatives, the military and other industries with access requirements for maintenance of machinery.