How technology can make our railways safer places to work. By Matthew Elson
It will come as no surprise that rail is a high-risk industry. Moving trains and high voltage means hazards are never far away. While environmental factors, regulation and maintenance practices vary between countries, many dangers apply to workers worldwide.
Managing health and safety on our railways can be challenging. Operations are 24/7, span large networks and include mobile and remote workers across multiple employing organisations. Track workers are especially vulnerable with particular risks including heavy plant and equipment, electrical hazards and exposure to dangerous goods such as chemicals, petrol and nuclear waste, on top of the more common slips, trips and falls.
While there are numerous examples of good practice, such as training and promoting safe-working procedures on the tracks, further steps can still be taken to prevent incidents and protect workers. Fortunately, technology is here to help.
Current health and safety performance
According to the Office of Rail and Road, there were, sadly, two fatalities in 2017-18. During the same period, 6661 workplace injuries were reported on the UK’s main line railways of which 164 were major injuries. Three thousand, four hundred and thirty five injuries were reported on the London Underground, up 1.7 per cent from the previous year. In addition, according to Network Rail, around 4.5 per cent of suicides in the UK take place on the rail network.
Each injury or fatality is not only a tragedy for the individual, but is also extremely traumatic for family, friends, co-workers and managers. It’s not just the physical injuries that cause harm: distress has a significant psychological impact on railway staff and passengers involved.
As well as the huge individual and personal impact, the financial consequences are considerable. The Health and Safety Executive reported that the total costs of workplace self-reported injuries and ill health across all sectors in the UK during 2016/17 was £15 billion, driven by factors including loss of production, higher insurance premiums and lower morale.
There are also the legal implications. The revised UK sentencing guidelines have considerably increased the risk of potential fines. That includes cases where no injury was sustained, if the incident could have resulted in major and/or multiple injuries.
Improving health and safety – three key principles
Good health and safety management follows the same principles in the rail industry as in any other:
- Design safe systems of work by understanding, analysing and articulating risks and relevant control measures.
- Encourage accurate and regular reporting to learn from hazards, unsafe acts and incidents where there may be weaknesses in controls.
- Reinforce best practices through good leadership and strong employee engagement.
Applied correctly, these three principles reinforce one another. An engaged workforce is more likely to report unwanted events, resulting in an improved ability to assess the effectiveness of the health and safety management system. In turn, a safety management system that is relevant and practical deepens engagement.
This all sounds great on paper, but what does it mean in practice?
It is fair to say that, ‘elf ‘n safety’ doesn’t have a great reputation, mainly driven by misperceptions of ‘red tape’ and complex procedures. Far too often, ownership is still viewed as the responsibility of the health and safety team, rather than as simply, the ‘way things are done’ and embedded in day-to-day operations.
Fortunately, it does not have to be that way. Health and safety can be simple, practical and engaging, especially when supported by technology.
Let’s look at how each of the three principles can be applied to the health and safety challenges faced by the rail industry, and where technology can help.
Safe systems of work. The industry is mostly good at understanding and analysing hazards – safe systems of work often come with extensive documentation. However, procedures are not always informed by frontline realities, and making this documentation accessible and understandable to a dispersed workforce in a manner that is relevant and timely to their context can prove challenging.
Improved collaboration. Effective risk analysis is a collaborative process, bringing insight and practicality from frontline workers and managers familiar with operations. Online software tools provide simple, standard formats enabling everyone to share and build on one another’s inputs, creating unfussy, intuitive documents.
Accessing relevant information. Stored online for easy access, relevant information is in workers’ and supervisors’ hands via smartphones and tablets, wherever and whenever they need it.
Traditional approaches to recording incidents, hazards and near misses, often relying on pen and paper or spreadsheets, are still being used. This makes the act of finding, completing and submitting relevant forms onerous, resulting in under-reporting, incomplete information, data re-entry to transcribe to a database and delays in receiving information. Subsequent incident investigation can suffer from the same flaws, making it difficult to track resulting actions. The ability to interrogate data to spot trends and learn lessons is limited.
Removing barriers to reporting. Software facilitates best practice by removing, as far as possible, the barriers to reporting. Specifically, forms available on a mobile app for initial data capture can be kept very short. An alert to the supervisor for immediate follow-up while the situation is still fresh ensures all details are logged. Better still, the form can be designed to tailor subsequent questions to initial responses, keeping the form short and relevant. Finally, workers can receive feedback, encouraging greater reporting.
Generating insights. Online tools such as ‘5 Whys’ or ‘Ishikawa’ draw insights from incident investigation, while management reporting or business intelligence tools can be applied to the richer and more consistent data to spot trends and learn lessons.
A common pitfall in taking a ‘risk led’ approach to safety is the desire to document and eliminate every risk. This is neither effective nor required; indeed, it undermines the health and safety system by burdening it with dense and impractical documentation. This is a particular issue in the rail industry: how are we to manage that long tail of risks that have not been formally documented?
Engaging employees. The answer is by engaging employees in safety thinking in their day-to-day activities. Simple, intuitive tools designed to promote collaboration and feedback, and to make safety practical and relevant, help create a positive perception of health and safety. Meanwhile, specific software-enabled ‘behavioural safety’ programmes make it easy to record safety observations, encouraging strong leadership.
Let’s be clear, software is not a magic wand that can fix all of the health and safety-related issues within the rail industry, but by working with the grain of operations, it can provide at least part of the solution.
Matthew Elson is CEO of SHE Software. Matthew has extensive executive experience leading both large and small businesses, including as CEO of ESR Technology (t/o £10m) and Managing Director of Atkins Management Consulting (t/o £70m).
SHE Software’s Assure is a highly configurable health and safety management software solution. It’s trusted by more than 850 organisations and used by more than half a million users around the world. Working across diverse sectors and industries including manufacturing, construction, energy and utilities, SHE is changing the way companies manage health and safety.