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Colas Rail strengthens controls after 'unacceptable' ballast dust safety breach

Colas Rail looks set to be made subject to an improvement notice after 25 workers carried out track works in a huge cloud of hazardous ballast dust.

The firm failed to impose appropriate health and safety measures, according to John Cullen of the Office of Rail & Road, giving evidence at a Birmingham employment tribunal at which Colas Rail was attempting to appeal against the improvement notice. The company is likely to now be compelled to carry out measures to protect workers from silica dust, which can cause health problems.

Colas Rail is among Network Rail’s top 20 suppliers, having won more than £90m worth of work on the national rail network in 2014-15. It had launched its appeal after claiming the incident at Watford railway station was a “one-off” situation.

But following a three-day hearing, tribunal judge John Keith rejected the appeal and decided that the improvement notice should be enforced.

Cullen told the tribunal he visited the site as part of his job and found the 25 workers unloading ballast containing silica dust and working on the tracks. He said he found the workers in a cloud of silica dust without protection masks and other safety measures.

He explained: “There was no protection and I could not identify any Colas overall rail supervision on the site. This was a breach of the regulations. I later issued [a] notice of improvement against the firm.”

The tribunal was told a video had been made available about the health hazards of silica dust and James Ageros, representing Cullen, described the incident as a “serious event and completely unacceptable”.

He said: “These 25 workers were from different contractors and were inhaling the dust. Colas should have had a highly regulated system of protecting them.”

Cullen had wondered if there had been similar breaches on other rail sites, but Colas insisted there had not.

James Maxwell-Scott, representing Colas, said the firm admitted that a manager had made a mistake on the day but that full safety measures were soon been implemented. He questioned whether there was a need for an improvement notice.

Colas Rail says it will not attempt to further contest the improvement notice, which will appear on the ORR website later this month. 

Colas Rail’s head of safety, Paul Taylor, told RTM that when the company took the corporate decision to appeal the notice, it also “continued to further strengthen” its controls.

Taylor said that at the tribunal, the judge asked John Cullen “whether our management system was suitable for controlling the risk of ballast dust, to which he answered a very clear ‘yes’.

“The management system itself had everything in place it should – the issue was it not being applied on site.”

He suggested that human nature means people will rarely choose to voluntarily wear masks for hours, and so education on the risks is key. He explained: “As well as strengthening our management system further, we’ve put a lot of effort into communication and education of the staff on-site as to the risks and the controls that are in place.”

He added: “Both Colas Rail and the rail industry have got a lot of clarity out of the tribunal, in terms of what’s expected of the industry in managing ballast dust.

“We’ve got benefit out of [the appeal], even if it wasn’t a turnover of the notice.”

Last week, Taylor debriefed the industry working group on ballast dust, chaired by Network Rail, to help it provide better advice on the controls that need to be in place for ballast dust.

“We got benefit out of the tribunal as Colas Rail, and we’ve shared that with the industry, and the industry is now getting benefit from the clarity that’s come from the findings of the tribunal.”

(Top image shows track works at Watford – note, this is a library image and does not show the specific event in question)


100Andthirty   30/09/2015 at 13:00

I believe it was folly for Colas to appeal. Improvement Notices are not issued on a whim, but only after due consideration and as a last resort. This will have an impact on their credibility.

Will.I.Am   30/09/2015 at 13:27

It is a good thing the ORR is enforcing this against Colas. I wish the inspectors of ORR are out more often on LUL contracts where these companies have little or no regards for the healthbof worker. Balasts are offloaded without protection from the dusts, while ironman machines are carried by two, instead of four workers. The companies place so much empasis on the profit coming to them at the expenses of workers and more disgusting is their racist tendencies.

Long Branch Mike   30/09/2015 at 16:56

Well done by the ORR. Absolutely shocking negligence by Colas.

Victor   01/10/2015 at 07:28

I have been on lots of Colas sites and have to say they treat the inhalation of silica dust seriously. They now clear the sites of all none essential staff and insist on dust masks. Even providing then at the sacs office for those contractors that turn up without them.

Curly   01/10/2015 at 18:07

What about Network Rail? They have been ignoring the problem for years. It's their infrastructure and their work, what efforts have they made ?

John   01/10/2015 at 21:11

I think that the Orr should be doing more to control ballast dust before it arrives on the renewal sites dust masks are the last line of defence but seems to be the cheapest option

Ken Kendall   02/10/2015 at 13:09

We have a proven absorption technology that captures the dust and has LU approval. Yet still the industry continues to work in the dark ages necessitating the need for continual dusk mask wearing whilst working with the same contractors who merely flood the areas being treated as they have always done leaving the air environment completely full of dust pollutants. The need for change has to come from the top to lead the way forward.

Kev Smith   02/10/2015 at 15:36

would it be better for a water sprayer to be working on ballast jobs like this to damp down the ballast as its being worked on

Keith   21/10/2015 at 13:09

Network Rail have put a lot of effort into promoting proper management of this dust & evidence of this can be seen through the Ballast dust working group & info on Safety Central. However most renewal work does go out to the big contractors and as Principal Contractors the legal duty lies with them - As the courts have shown. The IOSH No time to lose campaign also highlights the dangers of Silica dust & well worth a visit -

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