Statistically, ground transport can be a demanding business to work in, whether that is on the railway, underground network, trams or the highway. It is unforgiving and pressurised.

Tack joined Thales Ground Transportation Systems, as a permanent member of staff in January 2012 and has made such a positive impact on the safety culture that, in June 2014, she was presented with the prestigious Guardian Angel award at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) Occupational Health and Safety Awards. The award celebrates individuals who have made a ‘demonstrable difference’ in safety and accident prevention in the workplace.

The statistics speak for themselves. In 2011, hazard reports in the business were less than 100. In 2013, more than 900 were reported, each one subject to investigation to ensure that a similar reoccurrence was avoided or worse – a more serious incident occurring with a similar root cause. Throughout this, the company has achieved an accident frequency rate (AFR) of zero with more than four million hours worked.

Rules do not guarantee safety

In the UK, Thales Ground Transportation Systems offers solutions encompassing signalling (train control, axle counters, interlockings, train protection and warning systems, services), supervision and control, integrated communications, security and information management. Its team of 1,300 employees is delivering modernisation programmes with customers such as Transport for London, Network Rail, Transport for Greater Manchester and the Highways Agency.

Tack and her 20-strong team have faced a range of challenges in so radically changing the safety culture of the business – embedding it as a priority at every level, from the boardroom to the track. ‘Transport is a highly-regulated industry,’ she said, ‘but it is also a high-risk industry. Without due care, it can quickly become an environment where accidents can occur and accident rates can start to rise – something that every business should strive to avoid.

‘But I suppose my experience has taught me that you can have all the rules and regulations in the world, but that does not guarantee safety. Accidents will happen. People will not – consciously or subconsciously – always follow rules, or more likely, they will just let their guard down due to a variety of reasons, both professional and personal.

‘My responsibilities include ensuring we have a clear strategic path and direction with regards to a health, safety and environmental culture that pervades right across the business – from the executive board to the newest apprentice coming through our training academy and just starting out on our programmes. It’s everyone’s responsibility – but we provide the clear communication, direction and support that every employee might need with regard to safety.’

She continued: ‘Starting out in 2012, it was a massive challenge. Sometimes the transport industry is so heavily regulated you can fall into the trap of thinking your people are protected by those rules and regulations. Experience tells me you absolutely cannot rely on that. So we began a journey through a completely new governance process to establish ‘where are we really?’ ensuring a complete amnesty of our current situation, but giving us the foundation from which to build.

‘Level one was working with the executive leadership team to ensure the correct governance, compliance, safety culture and leadership was in place to go forward and that the members of the executive team genuinely led by example.

‘The next stage was implementing a proper safety leadership culture at the project director and project manager level through clear communication; education, clear expectation, accountability and again, leading by example. The right behaviour is absolutely key. The third level was about ensuring we were reaching our people on the ground, on the track – educating and measuring to inform future activity, not just patting ourselves on the back when we got it right.

‘It’s also important to recognise that often the people on the ground undertaking the actual work are invaluable in changing culture and promoting safe working – particularly when they understand the reasons behind it all.

‘Throughout all of this was a strategy of empowerment, making everyone quite rightly feel that they had a part to play in the ongoing improvements we were trying to make.

‘I’m incredibly lucky to have a great team around me that is committed to the culture change that was needed. Our transition has been one driven by believing in compliance and that taking personal responsibility and accountability is the right thing and not a‘safety police’ enforcement.’

Empowered to work in a safer way

Continued Tack: ‘We have worked hard to understand why people behave in a certain way with regards to safety and make the mistakes they do sometimes make. I believe that if you can get a better understanding of that, it’s possible to start addressing behaviours that can lead to incidents occurring, and improve them. We have tried to give people real direction, but more importantly, make them feel part of the journey, that they are empowered as part of a team to work in a safer way.

‘We have to be continuously focused on safety. Our customer base spans a range of networks; trams, highways, underground and overground – and the environments come with a variety of diverse risks; limited night-shift hours, live electricity, working at height, within close proximity of moving trains and working alongside other contractors trying to carry out their tasks at the same time and on the same infrastructure as we are – its challenging.

‘Part of our job is to assess what is real risk and what is ‘noise’ and that’s not always easy to do. The work environments, as I have said, can be challenging – for example, we can have an average of 100 engineers working down in the London Underground, repairing or upgrading signalling systems on lines that by day normally have 630 volts of DC electricity running through them. We have a limited window to work when the Tube is closed to passengers from about 1:00am to 5:00am, with the pressure to be ready to hand back the lines in time to avoid any delays to the line.

‘Sometimes, an environment such as the London underground network or large railway station can almost exist in a kind of microcosm, with its own atmosphere and routine. While on duty, our engineers simply can’t afford to see any working environment as routine.

‘Our people can be working at height, installing new signalling systems or when repairing networks, be faced with working around legacy asbestos or lead paint.

‘Against all of these kinds of issues, there is the constant balance of managing safe delivery and the implications of penalties if we do not hand back a working or repaired line to the customer when we have said we will. It goes beyond the potential financial implications – the customer is also faced with a reputational issue if the train, tram or tube is delayed or cancelled. It can be a pressurised environment to say the least.’

Fascinated with the concept of safety

Tack’s safety background runs across the transport and construction industries, including Balfour Beatty and London Underground before her current role with Thales.

‘My career in this field started in 1999 on the underground and I quickly became fascinated by the concept of safety. Not the rules and regulations – but the culture and behavioural issues that existed in the actual working environment. Why do accidents happen and what do we learn? I am lucky as I have spent lots of time actually out on site during my career, so I understand how challenging an environment it can be to deliver, day or night, in all conditions and tight timescales.’

Tack’s passion for safety was reinforced after experiencing a fatality in the workplace six years ago. ‘For me, that drastically changed my perception of things. We have to get people to understand that it’s incredibly rare that anybody really breaks or bends any rule by choice. But it is that one lapse of concentration, that one slip of judgement that can have terrible ramifications – the decision not to follow to the letter the process or comply with a rule for that one little job, just forgetting the environment you are in.

‘Our transport environment is fast moving and completely unforgiving. A rail track is an incredibly dangerous place to be in with the wrong mindset. We try to bring that to the forefront of our people’s minds – that if they get it wrong or are complacent, they might not be going home that day. It sounds melodramatic, but it is about hazards and taking the appropriate action to report them and to ensure we are learning the lessons from them.

‘But it’s also about not frightening people to the point where they are too scared to report accidents. You have to promote to them the benefits of a good safety culture – where you assess lessons learned in a fair and open manner. That became a clear winner for us. Our people bought in.

‘You set very clear objectives, but you don’t judge – it’s all about understanding the root causes of an incident then deciding the necessary action to try and ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

A mix of clear communication and psychology

‘I suppose I use a mixture of clear communication and psychology,’ explained Tack. ‘We need to reach out and educate people, but in order to do that effectively, you must understand the way your employees think and behave.

‘Traditionally, safety has a bit of a reputation for being tedious, so we have tried to make it a bit more relevant to our employees. The ‘It’s never going to happen to me’ thinking was addressed by showing clear examples that would make people stop and think – how that everyday activity could slip into danger through the smallest wrong decision or mistake.’

Reflecting on her success, Tack said: ‘It was nice to be recognised with the Guardian Angel Award, though I do see it very much as recognition of a team effort. Bizarrely, I’m actually using it now as a benchmark to communicate against the dangers of complacency.

‘Yes, we’ve made massive strides, but if we start thinking ‘we’ve made it’, we’re running the risk of taking our focus off our safety culture and relaxing into thinking it’s ‘job done’. Safety in the transport environment is never ‘job done’, it’s never 9 to 5 and it never will be, not for anyone – and certainly not for Thales.’

Sarah Tack is head of Safety at Thales UK’s ground transportation business

Tel: 020 3300 6395