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Another fine mess

If you’re of a certain age, you probably sat in front of the TV on Saturday mornings to cringe at the calamitous escapades of Laurel and Hardy. These two clowns turned their hand to every conceivable trade and many buildings collapsed as a consequence. So you’ll understand my dismay when, on 8th September last year, Stan and Ollie turned up to install a new gas hob in our kitchen.

The hapless buffoonery of our retailer’s agents knew no bounds. Within three hours, gas was seeping from the shiny appliance and the emergency callout engineer had to cap our supply. Indeed so grievous was the breach that the Health and Safety Executive was notified. And so, on 24th May this year, an Inspector called to investigate.

Let’s savour the priceless absurdity of the HSE making inquiries 8½ months after the event, and commiserate those poor Yorkshire folk whose homes exploded in the meantime. If a practical health and safety matter rears its ugly head, it’s reasonable to expect an effective, timely response.

Back in November 2004, an unusual atmospheric phenomenon was witnessed in North East England. According to local trackworkers, a fine drizzle fell on their faces, accompanied by a noxious smell, when GNER’s newly-upgraded Mark IV stock encountered curves at speed.

Was this an express weed killing service? Quite the opposite. Having retreated to a position of safety, our colleagues were being showered with a time-travelling solution, taking them back to those rose-tinted days when lavatory waste was routinely jettisoned onto the lineside. Yes, this emission was more likely to encourage vegetation growth than halt it!

The workforce voiced legitimate concerns. GNER commissioned a study which confirmed the presence of E.coli but no action was taken. According to the RMT, staff were told that the emissions were harmless and from the air conditioning system. A former railway inspector, living alongside the East Coast Main Line north of Darlington, also complained about the ripe aroma. This time, the finger of blame was pointed at the brake linings.

Last November, with no improvement reported by trackside staff, managers from GNER and Network Rail came together at ‘Linger and Die’, an appropriately named venue near Ferryhill. Those in attendance observed a discharge from several passing Class 91 trains and, on one occasion, savoured its mouth-watering delights.

Faster than the speed of light ale, Network Rail sprung into action. In March this year, it issued a risk assessment identifying the short term effect as “a very unpleasant taste in the mouth which can last for up to 90 minutes”. Staff were advised to leave the railway when a train approached or turn their back towards it. This, of course, is contrary to the rules.
Faster than the speed of light ale, Network Rail sprung into action.

Another study was commissioned. Samples were collected from three Class 91s, releasing effluent into the four-foot. The analysis was ready by the end of March and, again, E.coli was identified. Researchers recommended that disposable overalls, gloves and face masks should be worn until the discharges stopped. Despite persistent requests, these findings were not communicated to health and safety reps until 20th July.

Now a second risk assessment has been added to the paper-trail. On top of existing measures, relevant staff will be briefed on possible symptoms and have their health monitored. Consideration is being given to more frequent laundering of PPE.

This verbiage changes nothing - it doesn’t prevent contamination and hardly constitutes ‘an effective, timely response’. From Northallerton to Alnmouth, reports still trickle in. On site monitoring suggests that every other Class 91 is leaving a mist of sewage in its wake, exposing unsuspecting staff to obvious potential risks. An HSE medical advisor asserted that airborne human waste is likely to contain harmful micro-organisms which pose “a significant hazard to health”.

GNER insists the problem will be resolved in October when permanent tank-emptying facilities are due to be commissioned at Newcastle’s Heaton depot. It’s investing over half-a-million pounds in the project. Let’s hope they’re completed on time, used to their full potential and that the retention tanks of all GNER trains are emptied every night. Watch this space.

Either way, this shabby affair has rumbled on far too long, reinforcing the perception that the welfare of on-track staff is well down the list of priorities. Can you imagine the furore if office workers were routinely sprayed with effluent as they sat at their desks? The brown sticky stuff would soon hit the fan. Trackworkers, it would seem, have to grin and bear it - or take cover behind their risk assessment. It’s another fine mess and one which suggests serious failings in our health and safety culture.

Story added 1st August 2006
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