Sam Sherwood-Hale spoke to Dr Stephen Fletcher, Director and Occupational Psychologist at the Occupational Psychology Centre (OPC) and OPC Assessment about safety culture in the industry, safety critical roles and psychometric testing
You have over thirty years of experience as a psychologist, what inspired the decision to move to occupational and business psychology?
Well, I’ve always been interested in what makes people tick and I had a particular interest in business and commerce. Following a good education at a respectable school in Portsmouth, I went on to do my first psychology degree at Manchester Polytechnic followed by a PhD at University College London (UCL). Being an academic didn’t really appeal to me, I much prefer being a practitioner and working directly with challenges and people. Therefore, it seemed a natural choice to work as an Occupational Psychologist
How did the OPC start life?
Back in the days of British Rail, Jo Lawrence, my Co-Director at the OPC and OPC Assessment, and I were working for the British Railways Board. We delivered specialist HR work to support the operation of the railways at that time. When the infrastructure was privatised and individual franchisees started to run the passenger rail services, mid 1990s we had the opportunity to set up as a private company and so The Occupational Psychology Centre was formed. We carried over the specialist recruitment, Human Factors and safety critical work that we’d started with the Board and continued to support the individual rail companies as they came into being. From then on the business flourished and we now support UK and international rail companies as well as work with other transport sectors and industries that operate with safetycritical employees.
OPC Assessment came into being later, in 2000. We were regularly asked by clients to do Non-Technical Skills (NTS) role profiling i.e., to identify the NTS required for safe and effective performance. Some clients would then ask us to design bespoke assessment tools to assess these NTS at recruitment. Over time, we found different clients were asking for similar bespoke tools, so rather than develop them uniquely for each, we set up a new business that researched, designed and provided off-the-shelf assessment tools for use by the rail industry. OPC Assessment is now a leading provider of psychometric tests and exercises in rail. These tools are designed to identify the capabilities of current employees or the potential in job applicants. We also provide trained assessors and a Bureau Service to oversee assessment testing as part of any sized recruitment process for those organisations that don’t have inhouse expertise.
What does an occupational psychologist actually do?
I get asked that question all the time! When I first joined the railways, people used to think my job was to counsel customers when the trains didn’t run on time and they were angry or frustrated! They thought I would say to customers ‘I know your train has been delayed for two hours, I’m really sorry about that – but how are you feeling right now?!!’
I don’t think even my dad knew what I really did. The technical definition is that an occupational psychologist applies psychological knowledge, theories and practice to the world of work. The nontechnical answer is that psychology is all about people – how they behave, what their attitudes are and how they feel. As an occupational and business psychologist I’m passionate about helping safety-critical, and more specifically, rail organisations to understand those attitudes, behaviours and emotions; to harness them, and then to help them maximise their employees’ performance – to be the very best and safest they can be. As part of my role, I support a team of great psychologist at the OPC. I also love to develop new psychometric tools – whether those are for OPC Assessment or whether they are bespoke for a client.
What are the different services offered by OPC Consultancy and OPC Assessment?
The two business’ run very symbiotically, side by side. At OPC Consultancy we work closely, alongside our UK and International clients to identify challenges; to help them find and implement appropriate and costeffective people strategies and solutions. We offer specialist psychology and HR solutions for gaps in (safety) performance, support with talent acquisition and assist with employee development. We have a special interest in human factors and safety critical role performance, and in why people make mistakes and have safety incidents.
OPC Assessment is the sister company of the Occupational Psychology Centre. We have over 60 different assessment tools organised under different series. For example, we have a Safety series of tools, specifically designed to assess for one or more competencies linked to safe performance.
Our Station series might be used to support the recruitment or development of ticket office, conductor and/or train despatcher roles. We offer a Customer Service series to help assess and recruit the best customer service skilled staff. There’s also a Core Series that can help to recruit more technical or engineering roles that need abilities such as spatial, abstract or diagrammatic reasoning. The majority of the tools are available for use online.
OPC psychologists spend time with organisations and job holders, how do you develop relationships with these companies?
At OPC Assessment, quite often we will work with key recruitment managers in either specific Talent Acquisition or Human Resources (HR) teams. At OPC Consultancy, we also work with the HR teams, but we also work with operational specialists, such as operational directors and managers e.g., driver managers, trainers, driving instructors or the HQSE teams. We have a wide network of clients and a healthy balance between those who we’ve worked alongside of for over twenty years and those who are relatively new clients who may come from other sectors with new ideas and approaches. Often, our clients are passionate about the same key safety issues with a long history in the rail industry. However, as with any growing business we like to look at new opportunities and areas of work wherever possible.
How do companies reach out to you, what does the process look like?
We are always open to hearing from new contacts about any specialist recruitment, safety critical or psychologist expertise they need support with. As a smaller organisation we are a friendly bunch! We try to be nimble on our feet and accommodate client needs’ as quickly as possible, but still match, or exceed where possible, the technology and expertise of others in our sector.
Clients may contact us on any number of different issues. They might need us to manage and oversee large scale assessment pre-screening processes for them. They may approach us about an employee who is having safety performance issues or repeat safety incidents. We may do job profile work and NTS requirements to find the best candidates for a role. Or we may be discussing high profile director level talent acquisition needs. There isn’t really one single process that we offer. We try to find the best ‘bespoke’ solution from a wide portfolio of options. We spend a lot of time listening to clients’ needs to find the right approach with a mix of different levels of support and fees for them to choose from. During Covid we delivered a lot of our services digitally, but more recently, faceto-face work is returning. We do however feel that a digital offering within the mix is really key from a fees, speed, location and efficiency perspective.
For some of our services we have established ‘best practice’ over many years, such as our Post Incident Assessments. Therefore, we like to recommend they happen as proposed, because we know it’s a ‘winning formula’ – helping to provide the best safety performance outcomes for the employee, the manager and the organisation.
What do your clients look for when determining what NTS are required in specific roles?
That really depends on the role! Some safetycritical roles will have very similar NTS, but they may not always be in the same priority order. Following on from the RSSB’s categorisation of NTS, the OPC worked with a group of rail specialists from a number of different train operators e.g., driver managers, drivers, trainers and mentors to help prioritise the most important NTS for some key job functions. These NTS are more easily compared via the table overleaf.
Our panel of experts concluded/ recommended that the top three most important NTS for safer train driving were:
1) Maintaining concentration
2) Anticipating risks, and
3) Attention to detail. However, there is a slight difference in the ranked order of these NTS for a depot driver, possibly due to the nature of the role and the shorter distances driving.
A train conductor’s role carries a similar need for maintaining concentration, which because of the safety critical nature of the job is probably right. However, a station train dispatcher’s role requires a high degree of prioritising, knowing and using information to make decisions safely alongside maintaining concentration and anticipation of risks. You can see how these NTS, although in different orders may work best according to the role purpose and safety-critical nature of the varying jobs.
From these slight nuances when recruiting for these types of roles we might advise clients to use particular assessment tools, or a particular type e.g., ability tests, situational judgement tests or personality questionnaires. So, for example, for a driver role, we might recommend a test that specifically assesses for concentration or risk awareness. For a station dispatcher’s role, it may be important to assess an individuals’ ability to multi-task. A train conductor’s role requires a mix of key skills. Safety of the train, and its passengers will be a priority. However, a train conductor may also need good customer service skills. Therefore, we may suggest using a range of tests that assess for safety, customer service and possibly situational judgement competencies as well.
How do you develop psychometric tests?
OPC Assessments’ psychometric tools are rigorously researched and trialled. The fundamentals of a comprehensive job analysis form the foundations of each test we develop. Key psychometric principles of reliability, fairness, validity and discriminability are applied from the start. Each tool developed by us will go through meticulous testing processes with key validation groups to ensure they assess for the competencies they are designed for.
How do you develop transport specific assessment tools?
We are continually developing and evolving our range of assessment tools. One such tool is the Visual Search Exercise (VSE) https:// www.theopc.co.uk/assessment/test/vse. This was developed in collaboration with a leading UK train company. It came about through a review of Post Incident Assessments (PIA) with train drivers who were having multiple incidents including SPaDs (signals passed at danger). After extensive analysis of data from the safety incidents it was identified that a NTS shortfall around concentration, and an overreliance on past experience, (sometimes referred to as a habituated or a conditioned response) may have been some underlying causes. The VSE was specifically designed to test for these competencies and behaviours.
As a digital test, a driver candidate must maintain concentration and focus on key visual cues, respond to them whilst multitasking and remaining situationally aware. We believed that we’d developed the right test – but did it work? Validation research with UK rail companies was able to show that drivers who had more safety-of-the-line incidents also had lower VSE performance scores.
This helped to provide evidence that the VSE was assessing for the correct competencies. This was a key achievement for OPC Assessment – developing a test that could specifically help to improve train driver safety performance. Since the test was introduced, thousands of applicants around the world have sat the VSE to help assess their suitability for a driver or other safety critical roles.
What are some typical responses you get from clients about using Assessment tools?
Something that is dear to my heart and is perhaps distinctive for psychologists is our desire and drive to be evidence based. Some clients don’t believe that assessment tools are of value; that they are flawed and can’t help to improve safety on the railway. No assessment tool is perfect and error free. However, validation exercises and research of our tests and tools has shown they can work and add value. As mentioned, validation studies help demonstrate the soundness of a test i.e., to ensure that what we are assessing for is actually being measured and demonstrated. We firmly believe that psychometrics used as part of the recruitment and/or development process can add value and help to improve safety of our people in the rail industry. With each new task, we aspire to be evidence based – to accumulate empirical evidence to show what we are doing and using is helping and working, and without hesitation to abandon those that don’t add value.
I love quotes, I find them thought provoking and inspiring. Socrates, (a very wise man!) is quoted as saying: ‘To believe without evidence and demonstration is an act of ignorance and folly’. A great by-word for me as a psychologist!
What are some of the ‘headlines’ you’ve picked up from your safety culture surveys?
I like to use the phrase ‘the shields of safety’ a lot when I am talking about safety to clients. I describe it as a layered shield around an employee – protecting them and helping possible safety incidents ‘bounce’ off them.
The first layer of the shield is the individual employee themselves – their knowledge, experience and in particular their NTS. The second layer is the employees’ job – how it’s been designed, including its makeup, shift patterns, complexity and/or interest. The next layer is the Competency Management System or the framework that they undertake their job in. e.g., how they are trained and certified, measured and managed as well as how they are supported in succeeding. The safety culture of the organisation is the final ‘layer of the shield’ and could be described as ‘The way we do safety around here.’ It can have a powerful impact on how we behave at work.
Generally, human beings are creatures of conformity and we (mostly!) like to fit in. So, the organisation’s safety culture can affect whether an individual thinks and acts more safely e.g., do they plan for risks, are they aware of their personal ‘state’ do they complete adequate checks prior to departure etc. Also key, is whether they are encouraged to value safety as a key priority in all aspects of their day-to-day work. When there is a strong organisational safety culture in place, there is evidence to suggest that overall safety performance is better. From an employee’s perspective, if all the four layers of the shield are in place, then the likelihood is that the potential for safety incidents is greatly lessened.
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