Putting human factors at the heart of rail safety

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Dec/Jan 2013

The RSSB’s Colin Dennis, director of policy research and risk, and Anne Mills, head of human factors, discuss the role of human factors in rail safety, and the success of the IRSC 2012 conference, which Dennis co-chaired.

With the rise of non-technical skills training, increasing understanding of the risks of fatigue and on-track working, as well as technological innovations and consideration of the staff who must drive ‘safety culture’, the rail industry is now looking at safety from a more people-focused perspective.

The International Railway Safety Conference (IRSC 2012) took place in London from October 7 – 12 and attracted visitors from all over the UK as well as more than 100 delegates from elsewhere.

The 22nd annual conference concentrated on leadership, culture, behaviours, and the integration of human factors into management systems.

Colin Dennis, event hosting committee cochair, and Anne Mills, RSSB head of human factors, spoke to RTM about IRSC 2012 and the latest developments in rail safety.

Looking for the similarities

Feedback from IRSC 2012 has been very positive, and Dennis said the main message from the event was the “massive potential for learning across the international scene”, as well as a need to reduce duplication across industry research. More joint working could result in greater effi ciencies, he suggested.

“If you took something like level crossings, everybody’s designing new equipment and designing new systems all in the same way, and doing the same sort of human factor studies and behavioural studies,” Dennis explained.

Mills added that it was important to be aware of the individual cultural context at play, but agreed: “Often there’ll be lots and lots of similarities. I think maybe we sometimes focus too heavily on the cultural differences or the contextual differences, rather than looking for the similarities as well.”

Cultural differences evident at the conference were instances of making decisions under tremendous pressure.

Speakers from the Japanese railways described how their drivers were “terrified” of acting outside the rules during the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, despite that fact it was “way beyond anything that the manuals or rule book could possibly been written to deal with”, Dennis said.

Lessons could be learnt there about how to take a more fl exible approach to the rule book, he said, with “the ability for people to make decisions on the ground based on what they’re seeing rather than what the control room think they’re seeing”.

Softer skills

Mills added that there was some valuable learning from other industries and countries around non-technical skills training, to develop train managers’ decision-making, situational awareness and ways of retaining their attention.

She said: “All these softer skills that underpin their technical skills, but doing it in a more formal fashion – I think that might be something that our colleagues from Japan might consider going forward with.

“Certainly we’re quite proud of that work the industry is doing, because it’s quite groundbreaking.”

The training in question underpins technical skill and appreciates the psychology that infl uences behaviour, allowing staff to understand the potential for errors to occur, Mills continued. Formalising this training within the rail industry could allow staff to recover from mistakes more efficiently.

Some companies are already providing training in non-technical skills, but there are pilot studies in progress exploring the idea of formally embedding such training in competence management systems across the industry.

While this research is still in its early stages, Mills highlighted the range of ongoing courses and said: “It will start to bear fruit and we’ll see more companies doing it.

“It’s all about the general development process, moving from ‘really good’ to ‘excellent’ in terms of your competence.”


The largest human risk factor to safety on the railway, excluding trespass and suicide, is the management of the platform-train interface, Dennis said.

“Most passenger fatalities occur in and around the platform-train interface, with people falling off platforms, being struck by trains and people falling between trains.”

Mills stressed the importance of staff understanding why rules are not followed, either because of genuine error or because of a particular context.

The new approach to safety on the railways, from RSSB’s perspective, is to make safety rules simpler and more easy to follow, to reduce deviation.

Work is ongoing to further develop safety management systems where data can be logged to formally capture human factor issues.

Dennis highlighted track workers as a key area of risk, with a need to reduce the time that people need to be on and around the track, protecting them against trains running on adjacent lines, and making sure clear rules are in place and lines of safety communications and communication links are adequate. 

He said: “I think a big focus for the industry has been around planning possessions, to make sure that people are in the right place at the right time. The industry is making progress in reducing the exposure of people to the risk apparent on the railway.”

Tired out

Mills added that for workforce safety risks, fatigue is clearly a “very hot topic”. Working in a 24/7 industry can make this challenging, Mills said, with fatigue increasing the potential for errors.

“Whilst I wouldn’t say necessarily we’ve got lots and lots of events being caused by fatigue, it’s certainly an area of great concern for our companies.”

In response to a fatigue risk management guide the ORR published to underpin ROGS regulations, train operating companies are now looking at how they can have “a broad portfolio in terms of managing fatigue”, she said.

“It’s not just looking at rosters now, it’s considering how you educate your staff about the issues, and how you try to proactively understand whether or not you have any particular practices which are more fatiguing to your staff.”

In terms of responsibility for this risk, the regulations clearly state that it is shared between the company, which must ensure its working practices aren’t overly fatiguing, and the individual, who must come to work well rested.

Integrated information

New technological advancements that are helping to boost safety include the provision of smartphones and portable devices for track workers. This equipment can avoid mixups over location, provide quality mapping information and allow workers to relay the right procedures at the right time.

“That’s a fairly recent initiative that’s proving to be quite successful. The other advantage of having that kind of equipment is that you can take photographs and upload them fairly quickly for people to be able to look at if there are defects out on the track,” Dennis said.

“That’s the kind of integrated approach to information that helps everybody manage the railway.

“It’s probably one of the more technologically based initiatives that’s going on at the moment with a direct affect on the risk exposure of the guys out on the track.” 

Investment in technology across the whole industry can also be used to tackle fatigue, and human factors are now considered in systems such as ERTMS, through a “user sensitive approach”, Mills added.

International records

Measuring safety performance is now an internationally led project that “focuses on trying to develop leading indicators, rather than just waiting for something to happen and recording the number of accidents or the number of broken rails”.

“From the pilot studies we’ve done so far, it’s looking like a positive way forward for the industry,” Dennis explained.

The new measurements use different thresholds for risk, alongside ORR’s ROGS model and the drive towards a ‘safety culture’.

Mills said: “It’s about having, you could say, the triangulation of data at different points. You shouldn’t just rely on one measure, for example having information from frontline staff about things that could have potentially gone wrong but didn’t.

“That’s all useful information to help you understand whether or not your safety management you’ve put in place is really functioning as they should do.”

Safety resurgence

The talk of ‘safety culture’ is certainly very topical in the industry, with companies keen to move theirs forward. She commended Network Rail’s work in this area as “very impressive” and said that culture had to be changed both from top-down and bottom-up.

The rail industry has clearly been involved in human factors work since the 1960s, but Mills and Dennis agreed the past decade has seen a clearer focus on it as an area of research.

Dennis said: “I don’t think much is done these days without some kind of human factors element being considered.”

Mills welcomed this, as it means acknowledging the “human in the system”. She said: “It’s not just a focus on the technology.

“It’s thinking about the implications on how changes in procedures, introduction of equipment and so forth will impact on our front line staff.”

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