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You've been e.coli-ed

What a great month July was. We enjoyed the final of the World Cup and the Tour de France whilst basking under a searing sun. But for trackworkers in the North East, the month will be remembered for a more mundane event: Network Rail finally shared with them the findings of a report which had been completed as far back as March.

At the beginning of August, the RMT issued a news briefing attacking GNER and demanding they take action to stop the sticky emission of toilet waste from newly-refurbished Mallard stock, which has been showering lineside staff for two years. But what of Network Rail?

Let’s go back to the beginning. In December 2004, GNER commissioned research after mutterings of foul smelling discharges from some of its trains. Reports from the frontline continued throughout 2005 but the corporate finger was pointed at the dining car or brakes. Finally, last November, a trackside meeting of interested parties took place near Ferryhill in County Durham. Those present agreed that something was amiss - probably effluent escaping from the retention tanks of Class 91s as they raced through Tony Blair’s constituency.

Network Rail monitored the situation but, even when surveys suggested that half of all GNER trains were discharging effluent, it took until March 2006 for them to seek a full report. When NR received its damming conclusions later that month, the results were hidden from the workforce, even though safety representatives had made legitimate requests for the information so they could protect those they represent.

When I wrote my article in April this year, Network Rail managers already knew trackside workers were being contaminated by effluent containing E.coli, but kept it to themselves. Despite its duty of care, NR chose not to inform its staff of a recommendation that disposable overalls, gloves and face masks should be worn when working on the ECML. So a problem - the cause of which was suspected for almost two years and known positively for over four months - was brushed under the carpet. And yet, during the hottest July on record, every other Class 91 train was showering effluent onto unsuspecting workers.

It is to be hoped that heads are hanging with shame at Network Rail.

How many cases of stomach cramps and diarrhea were simply put down to a bad pint or cooked meats and pork pies? How many staff were off duty with these symptoms, dealt with under the ‘management for attendance’ criteria and had a black mark put against their name? No rush to action but maybe a rush to judgement.

Interested parties clearly want the problem kept local but surely, if it can happen in the North East, it can happen anywhere on the ECML. And it probably is. Let’s hope that other agencies, including the HSE, have commissioned reports at other locations - particularly stations where high speed trains thunder through without stopping.

Picture this. Mr Smith decides to take his wife and two small children for a day out at the seaside. They go to their local station on the ECML run by company A and buy tickets to travel with company B. As they stand on the platform waiting for their train, the kids cool down by eating an ice cream. An express owned by company C rattles through the station on company D’s infrastructure. They notice an unpleasant smell and drizzle on their faces. They’ve just been contaminated. The children finish their ice creams, mum has a last fag and Mr Smith licks his lips, anticipating a pint with his lunch.

Under our silly privatisation system, who has a duty of care to the Smiths? What control measures are in place to protect them?
...who has a duty of care to the Smiths? What control measures are in place to protect them?

Trains with overflowing effluent tanks are a hazard to everyone and should not be allowed on the network.

On-track staff are now disillusioned with Network Rail’s safety department. How can they have faith in people who allowed them to be contaminated for all that time and didn’t even have the decency to inform them of the potential health risks? Network Rail did nothing.

The lads also feel let down by HSE who had seen NR’s report and had been advised by their medical advisor that staff coming into contact with the discharge could be exposed to “a significant hazard to health”. HSE did nothing.

We’ve all had doses of Delhi-belly. We usually put it down to food or drink. Now it appears that it’s just as likely to be something we had sprayed on us at work, or we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Control of the discharge is needed, not disposable overalls for those who have already been contaminated.

Here we have an example of the huge health and safety industry doing its own thing, but nothing for the very people they have a responsibility to protect. Yet again they’ve been found badly lacking.

Story added 1st September 2006

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