Blowing the whistle

Source: Rail Technology Magazine October/November 2012

David Morris, chairman of CIRAS, considers the changing face of safety in the rail industry and the role of a whistleblowing body in relation to this.

Safety is often cited as the ‘number one’ priority in the rail industry; but sometimes issues arise which staff can feel uncomfortable or unconfident in raising directly with their employers.

CIRAS (the rail industry’s Confidential Incident Reporting and Analysis System) is the selfreporting system that provides railway staff with the opportunity to flag up concerns with safety of practice in a confidential environment.

RTM spoke to David Morris, CIRAS chairman, about the industry’s changing attitudes towards rail staff safety, encouraging a safety culture, and listening to workers.

Considering the awareness and greater acceptance of the importance of a whistleblowing hotline such as CIRAS, Morris said: “We’re enormously proud about the fact we have always maintained the confidentiality of the people who have contacted us. We’ve never failed to protect that confidentiality.”

He added: “I hope people know that we are a safe route for them to report concerns but I wouldn’t want that to be seen as a suggestion that they should not use their own employer systems.”

“In an ideal word the CIRAS system would have no calls at all”, Morris pointed out, “because everyone in the industry would be entirely happy to raise their safety worries with their own line managers without fear of any adverse consequences. We’re not there yet, but the industry hopes to move in that direction.”

Response from the industry is required for every report that is published by CIRAS, and this ensures issues and concerns are addressed with a structured action plan in place for how the company or organisation involved will improve their policies.

Pushed too hard

In terms of recent regular concerns, Morris highlighted fatigue as an issue that seemed to be coming up more frequently, although he pointed out that extrapolating from their evidence could only ever be well-informed speculation.

He said: “Fatigue seems to be very much a front-runner: particularly [people] worried about excessive total hours including travel time. There’s a lot of worries about contractors: staff working very long hours from the times they sign on to the times they sign off. That has certainly figured quite largely recently.”

There was increasing awareness in the industry of the issue, he said, as reducing fatigue could generate efficiency and cut costs – yet this was sometimes behind the risk in the first place.

Morris commented: “I do wonder sometimes if some employers aren’t being a little heedless of some of the pressure they’re putting on their staff to work long hours.

“It’s not that there are not good techniques available for us to how to manage fatigue; there’s a lot of knowledge in the industry about how to do it. It’s just that some employers don’t seem to be applying that guidance.”

Over-tired workers are more likely to be involved in accidents – the human and financial consequences of which vastly outweigh the benefits for individual workers or their employers of working tired.

There is a fine line to be struck between securing efficiencies and pushing staff too hard, especially in work which requires intense concentration, or that poses a high risk to safety.

Room for improvement

Considering the most important approaches to improving safety on the railways, Morris said that in terms of preventing harm to passengers, continued focus on level crossing risk was an area where “the catastrophic risk needs to be kept very well-controlled”.

The other key area of concern was to protect the safety of track workers, Morris said. “We are getting better but there’s considerable room for improvement.”

Although new technology can help to make an impact on this, with a real “potential to help improve things”, Morris suggested that the basis for significant safety gains was around planning and management of workers.

“I think an awful lot of it has to do with that boring old business of planning – just doing the job properly, planning it thoroughly, recognising the risks that there are as you plan the job and controlling them when you’re planning it. Then hopefully briefing the staff to do that as you plan, and – with considerable management skill – you can avoid harm.”

Stand corrected

In terms of cascading information down through to the workers on the tracks, Morris posited that the industry is developing a “much greater recognition” of the importance of person-to-person relationships.

He added: “The fact that you’re a supervisor doesn’t mean you’re always right and the fact that you’re a manager certainly doesn’t mean you’re always right…listening to your staff is a very good way of being corrected.”

Whilst this is sensible in theory, in practice people can find it difficult to contradict their boss. However, Morris believed the safety culture is shifting, with individual workers taking instructions on board, rather than just being seen as “rules from the top”.

“Rules are fine, rules are a very important thing but you really need people working on the railways who understand what the risks are and know when the rules no longer work… you need people who can think.”

A changing world

CIRAS is currently planning a new strategy for the next three to five years, looking into how it can develop its service to the industry further.

Proposals being considered include the extent to which CIRAS can help rail companies involved in other public transport activities, such as bus. This could see CIRAS offering its helpline to companies such as FirstGroup, which works across different transport modes.

Morris concluded: “The world is changing out there. The way the railways integrate with other transport modes is changing, so there might be a case for CIRAS to adjust. But it’s early days yet and we’re just beginning to devote some thought to how we go for the next five years.”

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