Ian Prosser: Safety by design

Ian Prosser, the ORR’s chief inspector of railways and director of railway safety, outlines to RTM’s Josh Mines the key challenges facing rail organisations in improving health and safety standards.

Keeping passengers and workers safe on the railway is a task that is becoming increasingly difficult for Network Rail, operators and companies up and down the supply chain. The downside of being in the middle of such an exciting time for the railway – with franchises changing hands and technology being constantly updated – is that maintaining effective, watertight safety standards can be a tricky task.

Despite this, the railway is now currently run in a safer way than it was nine years ago, when Ian Prosser joined the ORR’s board as chief inspector of railways. But in a recent blog, he warned that safety may have plateaued in the sector.

Avoidable incidents still occur, presenting the industry with more opportunities to address problems, learn from mistakes and drive towards the goal of zero fatalities. Earlier this year, for example, a 14-year-old girl was tragically hit by a freight train at a level crossing in Walsall, and the industry is still waiting for the RAIB to publish its report into the Croydon tram derailment – showing that even in the modern age there are plenty of areas for organisations across the board to improve on.

Creating a safety culture

In Prosser’s eyes, the problem areas on the railway can be boiled down to a few distinct points. “The first is culture and occupational health,” he told me. “We see pockets of excellence in parts of the sector, but in overall terms we can see a need to change the culture. I’m keen and believe that if we focus on occupational health and show the workforce that we do care about them as individuals, that will also lead to a stronger culture in the safety sense.”

Effective health and safety management can also yield added benefits to organisations. “We know from hard evidence that a really strong performance on heath management is also extremely good for business; safety and excellence in business go hand in hand,” Prosser argued. “If we can continue to make improvements in the health arena, I think it will have a very positive effect on culture.”

Managing safe and sustainable assets is also something which many organisations should be striving to improve. “A lot of our civil assets are very old and susceptible to rapid deterioration and adverse weather,” he explained. “More work needs to be done on identifying and intervening in failures before they happen.

“This is very difficult, but we saw two nasty incidences that could have been as serious as Croydon in other circumstances. That is a particular area that organisations like Network Rail need to focus on.”

On top of this, the level of change with new rolling stock, major projects and franchise awards also means that rail organisations have more potentially dangerous incidents to keep an eye on. “We have many new fleets, like the Intercity Express Programme, coming onto the network. But that change needs to be managed really well, and there’s examples where that could have been done better,” Prosser stated.

Crucially, another area where organisations are stumbling is in keeping safety at the forefront from the very beginning of projects, or as Prosser calls it, being “safe by design.”

“It’s really important that when we are doing projects we spend the time upfront seeing if we can eliminate risk, not just for passengers but for maintenance, so that we design things that are easy to maintain,” he asserted. “That can save not only time on a project, but also make it more efficient.”

A plateauing of standards

So what is driving safety standards to plateau in the way that Prosser described? The chief inspector’s answer to that impacts all four of the key problem areas, and that’s the maturity and capability of the industry with regards to safety.

Back in June, Prosser led the development of the Risk Management Model (RM3), which gives organisations specific guidance on exactly what excellence in safety looks like and allows the ORR to see where standards are slipping.

“There is certainly room for improvement across the sector, and if people were to focus on the areas that they are weak on such as audit and review – so if they had stronger assurance processes themselves – they would know things were not going quite right before we found them, or before there was an incident,” he said.

Sharing best practice in the sector

Going forward, the future of better safety standards revolves around organisations developing better methods to share best practice. “To get us to the next level, we need to focus on tackling the things that our risk management and maturity tells us and share in the sector – and a lot of them are using it themselves,” he explained. “It has been pleasing that Network Rail is using it now at route level, which will help it continuously improve – not in a competitive way, but rather looking at the strengths and weaknesses on routes so they can learn from each other.”

The question of how good practice can be quickly implemented into everyday work is not easily answered. One excellent method, Prosser suggests, is for bosses to get out and about into the community of their organisation, and talk to both workers and customers about potential issues and their thoughts on how to go about solving them. 

“One good example of someone who is doing this well is Alex Hynes [read our interview with him on p36] up in Scotland,” Prosser told me. “He puts aside every Friday to go out and about; putting one day a week aside to spend out with customers, passengers or workforce, or both in many cases. That’s the sort of thing that can have a really positive impact on the ground.”

As well as this, it is also vitally important that health and safety reports are not left to gather dust in offices, but are front and centre where they are needed most. “Even when I was in the sector as director of safety, I made sure our risk assessments were done by health and safety reps, not by consultants in an office, because what happened then is they sat on the shelf in the depot,” he explained.

“We shouldn’t make it too complicated. I don’t want lots of paper; I want simple, straightforward pieces of work like risk assessments so that everyone can understand what the risks are, and what the controls are to make sure they don’t come about.”

Key CP6 priorities

With CP6 now on the horizon, there’s a lot of work to be done to target specific areas that could be problematic in the future. “Something we’ve been quite vocal about is that, for CP6, we do need to catch-up on some of the deferred renewals,” Prosser warned.

“When you defer renewals you can do it for a certain period of time safely, as long as you do appropriate and sufficient risk assessments and have those controls in place. But you do put more pressure on maintenance organisations, and so there is a key need in CP6 to catch up on this.”

On top of that, Prosser noted the ORR would be moving to route-based regulation to accompany Network Rail in its transformation programme. “What’s going to be particularly important for us as an organisation is to make sure we are joined-up at route level,” he noted.

“We already have created what we call virtual route teams, which involves all parts of our activities as ORR, so that will be an important shift for us in CP6 – and consequently, we may need to make sure that those route teams and the virtual ones are focused on the key issues inside Network Rail. These will be earthworks, civils, catching up on deferred renewals and making sure that maintenance is all in hand.

Driving towards excellence

Clearly, the vision for safety is a long-term one, and there’s a long way to go yet until the ORR is completely satisfied with the industry’s safety standards. “When I first started this job, I posed a vision for this sector which was zero industry-caused fatalities on the road to zero harm achieved by excellence in health and safety management.

“But I would like to see us achieving that vision more often so I have fewer prosecutions or enforcement sanctions to take, and that the large majority of the sector is at excellence,” he explained.

“In the end of CP6 or into the middle of CP7, in six to nine years’ time, we should see the vast majority of this sector operating at that excellence level. And if you follow the industry strategy, I think that’s where they would like to be at the end of CP7 – if you see their targets and the maturity areas they are focused on, many more of those will be up at the high level.”

The challenges to the industry are large, but the eventual goal is for the ORR to be doing less work as the sector adopts safety in all its ‘business as usual’ working practices. “As I say to my duty holders,” Prosser joked, “in 10 years’ time we won’t be out of business, but we should certainly be doing a lot less.”




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