How grateful are we to our frontline colleagues, to those who have kept trains, plant, freight and passengers moving?…

How aware are we though, as a community, of the intricacies of their roles, their working conditions, and the less-obvious safety challenges they face? There are huge gaps in my understanding of their day-to-day, but this is arguably as it should be. Even without safe-distancing measures, I would not have the prerequisite competencies to even be allowed to stand alongside them in their workplace.

Our colleagues in safety-critical roles face inherent risks every day in the workplace. But as trained professionals, and with the rulings and guidelines from a myriad of official bodies, we know that all manner of risk assessments, mitigations and safe systems of work are being carefully designed, tested and implemented, to keep our colleagues as safe as possible at work. However unfortunately as an industry we still encounter injury, or worse, amongst our front-line colleagues, and we must address this.

The number of near-miss events over the last five years has not seen any significant reduction, as illustrated in the graph shown above.

Of these incidents, over half occur either lineside or in yards, depots and sidings. It is our infrastructure workers who are in the riskiest roles, representing a specific and substantial proportion of the railway workforce.

These are potentially the most physically distanced roles and personally, I find it very difficult to accept that we cannot do more to support them. I am not suggesting for a moment that any one of us is complacent on the matter, and therefore the question I want to pose is, how can we each create incremental change to deliver exponential improvements in safety across the board, but especially where improvements are most clearly needed?

Technology as a safety tool

Last year Network Rail launched its Workforce Safety Taskforce to target track worker safety, and RSSB has subsequently reported a number of key insights within the AHSR on the same topic. The taskforce has as a focus, the introduction of new technology ‘to keep people safe and ensure that everyone has the right knowledge and skills’.

Working in a tech company in rail, I am naturally delighted to see that technology is recognised as being an essential part of improving safety, both as a means of ensuring the right people are in the right place through competency management systems for example, and as a means of delivering the right information to these people in a timely manner.

As well as reading the AHSR, I have been revisiting the textbooks because for me the taskforce’s aims resonate almost entirely with Peter Senge’s ‘fifth discipline’. This describes the concept of harnessing and using systems thinking to enhance, develop and constantly improve organisational knowledge, and to use that knowledge to become a ‘learning organisation’. When I studied the concept however, it was much more about using this fifth discipline to hone a company’s ability to develop and maintain a competitive edge.

Consider the concept of the learning organisation however through the safety lens, and how this constant learning, re-evaluating and challenging of practices could help drive incremental and exponential change through innovative technology; in turn keeping more of our colleagues safer.

According to academics (Sharma et al): ‘Innovation and continuous improvement are based on a company’s ability to be creative and to learn.’ He suggests that organisations should create the ability to use, ‘The knowledge already inherent within them as well as the new intellectual capital created daily and should use technology to ensure efficient knowledge transfer.’

CIRAS, the confidential reporting subsidiary of RSSB, conducts an annual safety culture survey. Cited within the AHSR, it suggests that culturally the railway has several barriers to psychological safety that need addressing. By addressing these challenges, we can surely improve the safety risks that are referred to above.

Ensuring passenger safety still remains top of the agenda, as it should. This provides the industry with the opportunity to truly embrace technology to innovate and make our railway safer. Overtly we can and do use smart technology to provide greater clarity, ensuring that safety briefings, standards update, and reporting processes and protocols can be simultaneously available in a control room and lineside via smart devices.

As Network Rail’s taskforce recognises a need to innovate and adopt new technologies to keep our colleagues safe, informed and within competency, so too can technology play a part in addressing the challenges that CIRAS has uncovered.

Perhaps the real role of technology is to support innovative learning organisations that simultaneously nurture psychological safety. This would surely encourage and enable the reporting of safety issues which in turn, will allow for better systems thinking and organisational learning?

If more than half of our reported incidents happen trackside or in yards, depots and sidings but if less than 40 per cent of people feel health and safety issues are taken seriously by managers, we must find a way to address this.

Yes, we do still have the safest railway in Europe. However, would we have such good results were our key worker colleagues as safe psychologically, as we believe they are physically?

Lucy would like to thank Andy Stringer of
Siemens for his support in developing this article and RSSB’s Matt Clements

Lucy Prior MBE is Business Engagement Director at 3Squared in Sheffield. 3Squared’s RailSmart suite delivers technology solutions to known and emerging rail industry challenges to help customers to increase productivity and reduce risk and cost.

Outside of her day job, Lucy also holds roles on the RSG Export Workstream, the NRIL executive and is vice-chair on the RIA SME group. Most importantly she is a full-time working parent to two young children who hear an awful lot about just how cool the rail sector is.