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A balanced diet

Even a hard disk needs to diet. Modern computers have super-sized appetites and, thanks to broadband, often gorge themselves on highly-saturated PDFs - the digital equivalent of a deep-fried Mars bar. So I trim the fat from time-to-time. It was during one recent clearout that I unearthed HSE Sector Information Minute 8/2002/24 - a hot and spicy nine-page nugget which caused many contractors to shed a few pounds.

At the back end of 2002, in the feverish months before Rimini was implemented, our friends at the Railway Inspectorate developed internal guidance on key elements of the new procedure and appropriate courses of action, including enforcement. This document was ‘fully open’ - in other words, the world could access it. And it did. So much fear was caused over the possible consequences of planning work in red zones that the line blockage booking system almost exploded!
So much fear was caused...that the line blockage booking system almost exploded!

Cultural resistance ensured Rimini was always going to have a difficult birth. It was a bold scheme which gave the industry’s backside a firm kicking for its lacklustre planning and non-compliance with basic track safety rules. In part, the intention was to placate HMRI which, along with Railway Safety (RSSB’s predecessor), had developed a one track mind - campaigning for a mass cull of lookouts. Both organisations enjoyed an enviable position on the moral high ground - able to view safety in isolation and using red zone working as a stick with which to beat those managing life in the murkier depths of the industry.

The flaws in this blinkered approach have since been split wide open. Green zone working has increased. So has death and injury. One is not a solution for the other.

But we already knew this. A mightier tome had evaded my trashcan - A D Little’s research into the root causes of red zone working. It found that 53% of incidents (including worksite injuries) were actually associated with green zones. Red zone working accounted for less than one-third. And this exploration preceded the possession-related fatalities at Tebay, Ancaster, Hednesford and Acton. With conventional wisdom called into question, the industry played deaf and ploughed on regardless.

Some accidents wait to happen but generally they’re chance events. Murphy’s Law dictates that any safe system can collapse in a heap, however robust it might appear. Yet lookouts stand guard over thousands of men every day of the week and, proportionately, their failure rate is exceptional - hardly registering - due largely to the inherent simplicity of the role - see a train, blow your horn.

A balanced diet is called for. Red zone working is fundamentally sound and the irrational prejudice against it should be confronted. It’s the right choice for some activities. But colour is not the issue. We should select the best system from the menu, not the first edible option. Set-up logistics, traffic levels, task, duration and location are all important ingredients. Of course we must eat our greens, but it’s not healthy to have them forced down our throats.

Story added 1st April 2006
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