There has been a ‘meaningful improvement’ in the rail industry’s management of worker health over the last four years according to the Office of Rail and Road’s latest occupational health report.

However, ORR’s analysis also highlights that much more needs to be done to prioritise worker health management to bring it on par with overall rail safety management.

The ‘better health is happening’ report shows that there has been a step change in the rail sector’s awareness of how occupational health affects its people and performance since 2010, and marks the end of a four year, ORR led programme focused on worker health.

It tracks the rail industry’s progress from 2010-14 on a number of key actions set out by ORR, including awareness of the costs of ill health, reporting levels and visible leadership. The report highlights many examples of innovation and best practice such as the use of remote operation of machinery and ‘concrete bursting’ techniques to reduce exposure to silica, hand arm vibration and noise in tunnels. Rail programmes on managing trauma, general health and wellbeing, and improvements to legionella risk management have been recognised as making a difference and shared across the sector.

The report also found inconsistencies in data collected across the industry coupled with a lack of public reporting, hindering further improvements. Without this information, there is a lack of awareness of the right priorities leading to slow change in areas such as a proactive approach to reducing sickness absence.

ORR’s director of railway safety, Ian Prosser, said: “We are pleased that the industry has taken worker health to heart and is making great strides to improve, however, the job is not yet done.

“There are a number of important changes we would like to see and we have set those out in our current health programme for 2014-19 including better on-site management of worker health risks, better use of data to drive change and more action on key health risks. ORR will work with the industry and use all its levers and influence to ensure worker health is considered as important as worker safety.”

ORR’s report highlights that the industry faces a significant health challenge as instances of work-related ill health and the level of respiratory diseases in rail are high compared with other industries – sickness absence in rail is 3.9 per cent compared with 1.8 per cent in the private sector. Although across the industry companies have committed to supporting and improving worker health, ORR inspectors have found health management systems to be inconsistent.

Areas where ORR expects industry to focus their efforts for the next four years include:

  • acting on the key health risks such as hand arm vibration, musculoskeletal disorders, mental health and exposure to asbestos, silica and diesel fumes
  • developing manager and supervisor competence in health risk management
  • making better use of our management maturity model (RM3) specifically for health
  • closing the gap between reporting publicly on health compared to safety – currently only 22 per cent of companies report publicly on health and 40 per on safety
  • reporting new and worsening diagnoses of occupational disease, in particular hand arm vibration syndrome by rail contractors.