Search this site
Delude Retreat Indemnify Prevaricate Squander

The forgotten art of risk assessment

Since venturing forth into the perilous world of middle age, part of my crisis management strategy has involved a monthly away-day with a retired (and equally grumpy) friend from the S&T. One recent adventure took us to Yorkshire’s glorious east coast, to explore the abandoned railway which once carried folk north from Scarborough.

Breakfast TV’s weather forecaster - who really should have been getting ready for school - predicted a grand day with a chance of thundery showers from late afternoon. And he was spot on. Sunshine lit up the towering arches of Larpool viaduct - just upstream from Whitby - and it was still cracking the flags as we pulled into the car park at Sandsend, starting point for a hike up the trackbed.

By this time, it was half-past-three. A debate ensued as to what we should wear. Raincoats? Surely not - there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. How about taking pack-a-macs? More trouble than they’re worth. So we went instead for the courageous shirt sleeves option. And all was well until we reached the entrance of Sandsend tunnel, at which point the heavens opened in biblical fashion.

Like two drowned rats, we sheltered beneath its portal, bemoaning our failure to assess the risk effectively and vowing to get it right next time. To make life easy, we have adopted the railway policymaker’s approach by mandating specified protective equipment for all future outings - namely sou’westers, flexothane full-body coveralls, industrial waders and a gazebo on casters. I’m sure you’ll agree this is an entirely proportionate response.

There’s little doubt what the RMT would make of it. At its engineering grades conference in York, delegates noted a growing trend within infrastructure companies for certain items of PPE to be made compulsory, despite a complete absence of risk. I’m told that some contractors have now added gloves and goggles to the list on which Network Rail placed hardhats two years ago.

One delegate stated that the imposition of inappropriate PPE was being used to avoid proper risk assessment. Some staff were simply acting as billboards on which to display logos. Another felt that it was a backside-covering exercise, motivated not by safety but the threat posed by the legal vultures which circle after an accident.

Whatever the excuse, it’s superficial safety at its very worst. Back in 2004, when NR announced that all heads must be fitted with helmets, a so-called safety professional suggested to me that I view it as part of my ‘uniform’. I made it clear that if I wanted to wear a uniform I’d get a job at McDonalds. PPE should be raised above such trivia - it’s there to protect us from risk. But if there is no risk, there’s no reason to wear it.

As another RMT member rightly stated, “it’s ludicrous to expect staff to wear hardhats when there are clearly no dangers overhead, particularly when it’s hot.” Here here to that. It’s the sort of edict which could only come from someone it won’t affect. Given the menace of loose ceiling tiles and floor-to-roof shelving, perhaps our office-bound colleagues ought to wear skid lids too. Better safe than sorry!
Given the menace of loose ceiling tiles and floor-to-roof shelving, perhaps our office-bound colleagues ought to wear skid lids too. Better safe than sorry!

Anyhow, the union has vowed to put up a fight and is arming itself with a dossier of such nonsense.

It’s also on the warpath about COSSs. Currently a COSS can set up their safe system, then take part in the work. Conference unanimously opposed this practice, claiming it can cause undue stress and result in safety losing out to production. A dedicated role was called for.

Whilst I have some sympathy with the union on this issue, surely here is another advert for effective risk assessment, not an all-encompassing rule. Red zone working at a complex junction might well demand full-time monitoring. Is that really the case with a T2 on a single-track branch? The COSS’s role is to protect their group from trains. What exactly is he going to watch if there aren’t any?

One-size-fits-all policies might reduce the managerial workload but too many of them are problematic or just plain ridiculous. NR’s hardhat directive drove another wedge between management and workforce, many of whom choose not to comply. I can’t condone that but I do understand it.

Real safety is a product of experience, common sense and a deep appreciation of the dangers to which the workforce will be exposed. There are no shortcuts around the mountain, nor should there be.

Let’s do it right and rediscover the forgotten art of risk assessment.

Story added 1st October 2007
Page Top

Front Page | Safety Valve | Jungle Ron | Newshound | Red Tape | On The Line
Four by Three | Forgotten Relics of an Enterprising Age | God's Own County | Image Library

© Four by Three 2014