Keeping safety risks low and grounded

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Due to our unique position in rail, we develop safety policies and practices with stakeholders that help rail companies reduce their safety risk. Recent safety work has also started to address how work is actually done in practice, further reducing safety risk.

The railway is a high hazard environment that can lead to multiple loss of life incidents both for railway users and its workforce. Despite this, UK rail is one of the safest railways in the world. This reward is partly the result of work by two different types of stakeholders: rail companies and their efforts to operate safely, and the regulator on the rare and unfortunate occasion when accidents have happened.

Although the tasks for these two types of stakeholders are different, they both need an up-to-date understanding of rail industry health and safety performance, and good practices. According to the Health and Safety at Work Act (HASWA 1974) the employer ‘should ensure so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees’, which requires an awareness of what other organisations in an industry are doing. Complementing this, the regulator needs to understand what rail industry good practice looks like so it can ‘assess how well risk management has been applied in comparison of circumstances elsewhere for that kind of hazard or in that particular industry’ (HASWA, 1974).

Underpinning the efforts of rail companies and the regulator is what we do. We strive to enable industry collaboration to develop and maintain up to date good practices and policies toward the management of key industry risks. For safety professionals this is a highly valuable source of peer-developed knowledge.

Using the data, analysis, research, and findings produced with industry peers, we provide clear and honest advice, and make good practice materials clearly available. Collaborating with industry in this way helps maintain and develop safety achievements even though the industry is ever-changing.

The importance of occupational safety

An example of how we work can be seen in our approach to occupational safety. Employee safety is of vital importance to rail, but can be difficult to maintain on a distributed network with many different companies and operational tasks. A key contributing group that helps here is the Infrastructure Safety Leadership Group (ISLG), which considers infrastructure worker risk. It consistently brings together the representatives of over 25 infrastructure companies to discuss emerging risk issues.

A challenge that industry is increasingly recognising is that there can be a difference between ‘Work as Prescribed/Imagined’ and ‘Work as Done’. ‘Work as Prescribed/Imagined’ is what senior managers, process writers, and the regulator think happens. It represents the written rules that guide the work but perhaps not as consistently, or perhaps as conveniently, as some managers away from the operational environment might like to believe. ‘Work as Done’ represents what actually happens in the operational environment. Even the best organisations and teams, using strong processes, will find that these differ somewhat. A difference in these may not always reflect poor performance by those involved. This is important because safety policies and practices based on ‘Work as Prescribed/Imagined’ may not be effective if they don’t also address ‘Work as Done’.

With the involvement of ISLG, we are looking into this issue to make practical recommendations that help managers and frontline staff reduce safety risks. For instance, a recent report explored the underlying causes of objects left on the line after engineering works. With ISLG’s oversight and our independent position within industry a human factors approach was used to tease apart ‘Work as Prescribed/Imagined’ and ‘Work as Done’. By interviewing safety-critical trackworkers and their managers, and observing them in their work environment, our experts were able to identify underlying causes. This was only the first step. After a cross-industry ‘solutions workshop’, new and practical recommendations were made to reduce the occurrence of objects left on the line further. Even better, our report makes suggestions about how these changes can be embedded into existing work practices.

The usefulness of this approach means we are exploring the same issues elsewhere in the industry. By working collaboratively with industry while applying our expertise and maintaining our independence, we are showing the way forward for improving safety in ways that industry can action.

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