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Suicidal tendancies

Here’s some rocket science for you. Effective management of workforce safety demands a sound appreciation of the workforce, as one is largely dependent on the other. So it’s regrettable that some procedural architects won’t touch the workforce with a bargepole and are thus compelled to rely upon the black art of ‘human factors’ to bridge their knowledge gap. This bottleneck of cost and cogitation could be bypassed if only there was a willingness to leave the office.

There’s nothing complicated about the typical trackworker. His no-nonsense approach is always on parade and impossible to permanently short-circuit. It’s pointless deluding ourselves otherwise. Only by responding to this uncomfortable truth will we minimise the shortcomings which pushed one man to his death a year ago this month and almost claimed another over the summer.

On 23rd July, an S&T team arrived at Chathill, north of Alnmouth, to carry out planned work in a possession. With two hours to kill before the block was taken, they decided to make inroads into the evening’s workload. Protected by an invisible safe system, they set-to in the four-foot. It wasn’t long before the inevitable happened - a northbound express emerged from the twilight, forcing the group to scatter. I’m told that, by a hair’s breadth, the supervisor was dragged clear with a look of pained resignation etched across his face.

Elsewhere, RAIB’s toothcomb has raked through the evidence of a fatality last October and, ten months after the event, the verdict crawled onto its website. Two men were standing in the middle of a double junction at Trafford Park, discussing work programmes and their implications for an ATWS installation. The pair moved clear of the down line when a train appeared but remained foul of the up. Tragically, another train was approaching on this line and gave one of the men a fatal, glancing blow. Again, no attempt had been made to establish a safe system.

What inspires rational people, with everything to live for, to exhibit such suicidal tendencies?

Everyday survival away from the track is based on instinct and risk assessment - and I’m not referring to the backside-protection exercise involving reams of paper. The brain constantly analyses data from our senses and subconsciously acts upon it. For the most part, this keeps us alive and out of danger.

But the railway demands that we disable these internal mechanisms and instead comply with pure-wool commands woven by a knitting machine. Whilst neither approach is infallible, the latter is complex, bureaucratic and time-consuming. Consequently, when an activity is short or minor, the temptation to ‘just get on with it’ is often overwhelming. I suspect that setting up a safe system never occurred to the errant individuals at Trafford Park given the apparently benign nature of their task.
...when an activity is short or minor, the temptation to 'just get on with it' is often overwhelming.

Safety is compromised by its own complications. Is it sensible or realistic for a two minute ‘look-see’ to be subject to the same procedural requirements as a weekend renewal? Like it or not, if the answer is ‘yes’, the climate for non-compliance is maintained with all its potential risks. On the other hand, if a simple job attracted simple safety, who wouldn’t embrace it?

Recommendation 9 from the RAIB inquiry is pitiful, advocating a further expansion of the research into rule violation. We already have a mountain of evidence as to its cause, perched on a dusty shelf, but the content is unpalatable so we’ve closed our eyes to it.

If safety is excessively onerous in comparison to the work, short cuts will be taken - that’s human nature. Pragmatism is called for, not a blind and futile quest for perfection. Whilst flaws in our processes have long been recognised, the courage and determination to radically reform them still lies undiscovered. The price for that failing continues to be paid by our trackworkers.

Story added 1st October 2006
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