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I want to be alone

It won’t be long before everything has a competence regime. Egg whisks are potential death-traps; cupboard doors can maim. And what about sex? Can you confidently mitigate the risks from all that manual handling? Do you know which buttons to push without the aid of a keypoint card?
Do you know which buttons to push without the aid of a keypoint card?

Training is generally a good thing but it is possible to overdo it. And the cost implications for businesses - not to mention the strain it places on manpower availability - can prove severe if the demands are extravagant. A typical workplace assessment - for one man - can set you back £400.

When the industry was awash with cash, Network Rail built a vast and elaborate competence structure to demonstrate its commitment to the safety of our on-track workforce. All very commendable. Times though have changed. The government’s imposition of challenging financial constraints has forced the company to reappraise those requirements. What was supposedly a vital means of ensuring personal welfare has - for NR’s own people at least - been jettisoned as a cost-saving measure. In safety terms, ‘Assessment in the Line’ has established a two-tier industry where contractors are forced to shoulder a disproportionate burden: days of training, exams, assessments and paperwork whilst an hour of online tick-boxes will suffice for Network Rail. How liberating it must be when you can write your own rules!

And what about the content of the courses? My IWA qualification was up for renewal recently so off I toddled to Doncaster for two days in the classroom. On the first morning, I plain-sailed through the workbooks - tests to determine the extent of my underlying knowledge - but was still required to sit there for another day-and-a-half, learning only that I mustn’t put anything metallic within 30cm (1 foot) of an axle counter head. Someone could have emailed me with that particular directive.

But, in some cases, it was a different story for my fellow candidates. I was at an advantage having formerly been a COSS. As IWAs however, most of them had never taken a T2, appointed a handsignaller or had dealings with a PC. And why would they? The only reason they had the qualification was to allow them to carry out site visits, simple inspections and the like. In that context, only one safe system was of relevance - red zone working, looking up every five seconds to check for trains.

This is where the industry’s approach to training borders on the ridiculous. It demands that a mass of extraneous gobbledygook is jemmied into our brains - enabling management to claim “well, we told them” - displacing the few helpful pointers that could genuinely keep people breathing. An Individual Working Alone needs little knowledge beyond basic PTS. The ability to take a T12 is certainly useful; signing in with an ES or PC makes sense too; there are planning skills needed. But fenced green zone working? Red zones with ATWS? T2H with site and distant handsignallers? Really?

Yet it says much about the integrity of the training regime that everyone on the course passed. With encouragement and guidance from the trainer, each of us demonstrated the ability to temporarily digest and then regurgitate discreet nuggets of information. And that means we are now certified to go out onto the railway and arrange a T2D; we can appoint a level crossing attendant; we can accept a Form C.

The fact that level crossings weren’t mentioned once during those two days is clearly immaterial. We have the knowledge, and proof in the form of a Sentinel card. But is it worth the plastic it’s printed on? Does the ability to remember distances and half-a-dozen bullet points really confirm the wherewithal to stay alive in the four-foot? According to Network Rail’s training gurus, it does apparently.

Story added 1st May 2010

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