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Reinventing the wheel?

In a previous life, it was my honour - if occasionally a dubious one - to produce workforce safety videos for the industry, distributed under the banner of the now-defunct Track Safety Strategy Group but facilitated by Railtrack Safety & Standards Directorate, then Railway Safety and finally the Rail Safety & Standards Board.

I say “dubious” because it proved increasingly difficult for us to do our job without a bufferstop of stupidity derailing progress. Whilst RSSB was happy to bask in the reflected glory of its close association with a series of well-respected publications, it insisted on demonstrating great operational ignorance by imposing impractical restrictions on how we went about delivering them. On one occasion - without any prior warning or discussion - it stopped the job by suddenly demanding that we never did any work in red zones; this was at a time when 75% of our work involved such protection. Having backed down, it then decided to bestow upon us a Track-02 automatic track warning system which required us to go unnecessarily on or near the line just to learn and maintain the necessary competencies. We did more work under lookout protection than ever before because train detection treadles had to be set up either side of each worksite we filmed at. Overall our exposure to risk went up significantly while efficiency fell. It was all window dressing but that’s what RSSB cares about.

The videos, entitled SafetyNet, were something of a departure from traditional corporate fayre. Instead of serving up implausible high-level sermons which the workforce looked upon with disdain and were instantly disengaging, we adopted a typical news bulletin format, objectively tackling issues of the day in a style with which they were inherently comfortable and familiar. And it paid dividends. Because we reflected their reality, they were prepared to believe what we told them, creating an opportunity to spread other messages.

Trouble was the films proved challenging of the industry’s management who didn’t welcome the exposure. Anyone with a real understanding of workforce safety knows that those in loftier positions exert as much practical influence as those wearing high-vis. And whilst they might spout the obligatory propaganda about their commitment to safety, that doesn’t mean they always back it up through facilitation.

When Rimini suffered teething troubles after its launch and a programme of “semi-permanent” ATWS installations fell apart due to weak project management, the video’s coverage proved intolerable to those with a vested interest and they roundly condemned it. I had no problem with that - it went with the territory. What I was not prepared to put up with was RSSB’s capitulation in the face of such criticism. Instead of mounting a defence of the publication it sponsored - one which had been reviewed and approved by a committee the Board had specially convened - RSSB did what comes naturally: it tugged its forelock and promised to be good in future. This from our supposedly ‘independent’ safety body. My arse!

All that is history of course. But I experienced a sense of déjà vu this week whilst taking a tour of Network Rail’s Safety Central website. Suddenly listed in the Recent Updates menu is the Track Safety Alliance’s Track Safety Matters film. It is to be hoped that the producers of this new quarterly offering do not fall victims to the same level of hopelessness that we did.

The first edition is...let's say 'patchy' and its graphics would benefit from a spellchecker. There's no excuse for that. Running almost 16 minutes, the first five are a turn-off, presenting a parade of suits - albeit mostly bedecked in redundant hardhats and the obligatory super-clean high-vis - all saying the right things - “safety comes first” blah blah blah - but dripping with platitudes and corporate jargon. Don’t we all relish “synergy” and crave a “holistic approach”? This suggests that they don’t understand who the audience is.

The latter part of the programme visits a track plant show. We hear a long list of those attending and superficially see a few new bits of kit. You wonder whether the film was sponsored by the featured suppliers. Either way, this section is more to do with product promotion than workforce safety, although the innovation does have general low-level interest.

But by far the most attention-grabbing sequence is squeezed into the middle: a recording of an increasingly desperate emergency call that followed a member of the Clapham Junction p-way getting his foot trapped in a set of points as a train bore down on him. It’s excruciating to listen to as the poor signaller on one end of the phone is overwhelmed by a stream of incoherent statements from the COSS on the other. With nothing to reliably act upon, he’s left with no option but to issue a General Stop to all trains via the Cab Secure Radio whilst a member of the workgroup frantically waves his red flag.

It’s excruciating to listen to...

Whilst it’s dramatic stuff, you doubt whether anyone will learn very much beyond the questionable competence of the COSS when it came to safety-critical communications. That’s hardly a unique problem and parroting the rules surrounding emergency calls - something the video does at length - is not going to solve it. What many will find strange is that the COSS’s name is broadcast on a couple of occasions. I wonder if he consented to that? Moreover, as far as the reconstruction is concerned, showing a close-up of a site warden providing protection to the group gives the impression that the trapped man was in no danger from any approaching train (click here if you don’t know what an approaching train is) as the line must already have been blocked in order for one to be appointed. That’s quite an oversight.

If Episode 1 is anything to go by, these look set be top-down films: management telling trackworkers how they should behave, with nothing heading back up the chain to highlight real-world challenges. They will fail if the viewer isn’t engaged; trackworkers have heard enough preaching. The TSSG soon recognised that delivering positive changes in workforce safety could only be achieved by engaging with middle management and the Group's videos reflected that. But to be fair, the Thought Police were not in power back then. Today’s culture is very different; independent voices are rarely heard now.

When it’s done right, video is the perfect medium for getting key messages to the frontline. It’s easy to digest and involves nothing more arduous than staying awake. But it’s neither cheap nor simple to produce, so the Track Safety Alliance should be commended for making this investment. It could have taken the simple option of producing another valueless poster. In terms of content and effectiveness, we must though hope for more inspiring editions as the production team finds its feet.

Story added 1st December 2013

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