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Pantomime games

Politicians engender all kinds of different emotions in me. Lately I found myself royally hacked off by peers apparently offering influence for sale…again. I have nothing but admiration for Boris, a man who has climbed to dizzying heights without any obvious attributes beyond those of Norman Wisdom. Presumably he’s mastered the art of mass hypnosis. And then there’s the contempt I hold for those anonymous grey suits who strive only to capture headlines with their vacuous proclamations. And they wonder why we’re all disenchanted with politics.

But I experienced a sensation last month that I never had before. It made me quite queasy. I felt genuinely sorry - yes, real pity - for an MP. I’ve recovered since, but it was touch-and-go for a while.

The occasion was one of those cringeworthy photo opportunities that the PR people must have thought was a good idea when they brainstormed it, presumably under the influence of hallucinogens. Rail Minister Simon Burns came north for a token visit to the site of Wakefield’s emerging new station at Westgate. He arrived after nine and had gone before ten, but much of the intervening 50 minutes was spent trying to desaturate his blushes.

Hastily erected in the most inconvenient place possible - across the main entrance to the site - was a six-foot length of wall, about waist high. This had no substantive purpose other than disrupting deliveries. Gathered by it on a tarmac road was a gaggle of hacks and photographers, amongst whom I was one, awaiting Burns’ attendance.

By 9:25 he had made it to within 30 yards of us, but was whisked away into the site offices to get into his costume - the obligatory super-clean high-vis outfit, complete with comedy wellingtons. Minutes later, he appeared at the top of the access road with a number of similarly-bedecked management types, flanked by suited media watchdogs. He then stood in front of us, awkwardly holding a brick while we took pictures of him.

There was no substantive need for the HV/PPE combo. Given the activity, the only things of any value here were gloves and he hadn’t been provided with any. A passing brickie pointed out this oversight. Burns didn’t go through the site gates, he just stood between them…on the same tarmac occupied by the snappers, who were obviously dressed in civvies. From his vantage point, he couldn’t even see the building work. But that wasn’t the point. The only purpose to this charade was to get a silly picture of the corporate bigwigs with the Rail Minister. Job done, he was off.

I can’t claim to be bothered about a Tory politician’s embarrassment. Had it been me, I would have told the PR folk what they could do with their wall. Sideways. What really offends me is the devaluing of Personal Protective Equipment and high-vis clothing in the name of trivia. Its real function is to mitigate the risks faced by frontline workers, not act as a prop for some bizarre pantomime.

There’s a lot of it about. Network Rail bosses have a track record of unnecessarily venturing trackside for the benefit of photographers. As such, it is completely contrary to the rules. This is Iain Coucher, failing to comply with his company’s own hardhat policy; new chief David Higgins seems equally determined to detract from the positive things he’s doing by dressing up like a burk. Stick to what you’re paid for David. As Chief Executive, you’re expected to sit in an office wearing a suit. Nothing wrong with that. Leave the HV and PPE to those who legitimately use it.

Network Rail has become more open and collaborative under the Higgins regime, and long may that continue. But recent Board minutes, published on the company’s website, suggest a return to the intimidating approach that characterised the Coucher era and underpinned the RIDDOR reporting scandal.

Following Scott Dobson’s untimely death at Saxilby just before Christmas, Simon Kirby, managing director, Infrastructure Projects, has warned principal contractors that he doesn’t rule out suspending them unless their safety record improves, irrespective of economic and performance impact. There is a problem with this: he is effectively telling contractors to stop their workforce being human. That’s not reasonable in my view.
...he is effectively telling contractors to stop their workforce being human.

The physical margins between safe working and a near miss, and between a near miss and an accident can be measured in just a few feet. Back in 1999-2000, the industry went almost 18 months without a trackworker fatality, but that period ended with two deaths in 24 hours. Both were statistical blips; we’re dealing with a lottery here. One lapse of concentration or error of judgement can instantly transform a robust safe system into an accident waiting to happen. No contractor can prevent that - we’re all capable of failure.

Simon Kirby needs to take a more pragmatic, proportional position, however hard that might be with regulators breathing down his neck. If they feel threatened, contractors will pull the shutters down, only reporting those incidents they feel absolutely compelled to. But driving safety improvement demands an open culture whereby lessons can be learned from every challenging event. If they’re not reported, the problems that cause them will just fester - ready to claim other victims - and that really will impact negatively on the statistics Kirby has set his sights on. Numbers are blunt instruments when it comes to providing insight.

Why not get rid of site wardens - the role Scott was performing - so trackworkers no longer have to suffer safety by crossed fingers? Now that really would make a difference.

Story added 1st July 2013

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