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Damned if you do, fired if you don't

In the hiatus which preceded the implementation of Rimini, a senior Network Rail manager told me that “there’s a culture of non-compliance in this industry”. He was trying to explain why a procedural sledgehammer was needed to crack a nut, albeit one with a very tough shell. However you view its value, most right-minded people support Rimini’s three guiding principles - plan, resource, deliver. Sadly, the reasoning behind its development remains pertinent to this day.

As with its earlier efforts, I found CIRAS’s latest ‘themed report’ an entertaining read, if a little lightweight. It endeavours to lift the lid on the causes of rule violation through analysis of 51 reports received between July 2004 and June 2006. Given the small sample size and subjective nature of the source material, the report’s wider relevance is questionable though it does add to the compelling library of anecdotal evidence.

CIRAS subdivided ‘non-compliance’ into three categories: deliberate violations, other violations where the intent could not be confirmed, and instances where accepted best practice had been ignored. In just over half of those 51 reports, a conscious breach of the rules was identified. Remarkably, 80% of these resulted from a specific instruction by a manager or supervisor.

Those who sit in their ivory towers, deluding themselves that ‘the worksafe procedure’ is the solution to this ill, should listen to the words of one reporter: “We’ve refused to do the job on the grounds of safety and been threatened with disciplinary action.” Ouch!
We’ve refused to do the job on the grounds of safety and been threatened with disciplinary action.

Equally uncomfortable are the underlying causes of violations. It will come as no surprise that performance pressure - an unspoken insistence that the work is completed, come what may - triggered more than one-third of infringements. This reached 47% in reports from Network Rail employees. A supervisor was described as “stomping around, shouting at individuals to get things done” because the job was running ten hours late.

One in six breaches was driven by managers demonstrating “a poor attitude to safety”, often by turning a blind eye. Staff shortages and deficient planning were also cited as factors. But of great concern are events put down to ‘inadequate training’ - road-rail machines being driven by unqualified operators or people working on-track without valid Sentinel cards. These accounted for one report in seven.

Within the subcontractor sector, all violations were found to be deliberate and one-third stemmed from training or certification issues. A dearth of available machine controllers prompted the appointment of unskilled ‘machine assistants’ at one worksite. A driver pointed out that “if the assistant doesn’t recognise cables in the ground then he might not stop the driver. The cables could be live and I get electrocuted.”

Isolated incidents, if that’s what they are, should be considered in the context of cock-up, not institutional failing. Of course, given the attendant dangers, the fear has to be that such abuse is actually rife - I certainly hear of events which resonate with those uncovered by CIRAS. Indeed a marked increase in reports relating to non-compliance has been recorded, from 4% in 2004/5 to 14% a year later.

We must recognise that rules can be broken through ignorance as well as wilful act. Some are nonsensical, irrelevant or get in the way of safe, legitimate activity. Oh yes they do. Consequently, real-world railwaymen will go on procedural diversions from time-to-time. We might not like it but, unless we’re prepared to sort the rules out, we have to live with it.

What’s downright contemptible is to hang the threat of dismissal above the heads of conscientious individuals who choose to comply. It’s too easy to state our support for these people - we must prove it by our actions.

Beyond this, the industry exposes cultural flaws through its sustained focus on written instructions, instead of nurturing a climate in which they’ll be applied. This air gap between theory and practice, which reflects the growing divide between our hierarchy and workforce, needs to be bridged before chaos prevails.

Story added 1st April 2007
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