Welfare and safety need equal billing
DR CLAIR DICKINSON, Office of Rail and Road Occupational Health Programme Manager, looks at how improving health and wellbeing by better job design leads to a better railway for staff, passengers and the industry
Ahealthy workforce is essential for employers. Protecting staff from injury and preventing illness need to be central to the planning of any industry that aspires to run efficiently and provide a good service to its customers.
Why? Well, of course every employer has a duty of care to their employees, but, as well as that, the effect of poor health on the bottom line is alarming.
The rail industry employs around 150,000 people in the UK. Ill health costs the rail industry around £ 790 million a year, and sickness absence is running at more than one million days per year. The absence rate in rail is 3.9% compared with 1.8% in the private sector, and for every £13 that is lost because of sickness, only £1 is spent on trying to keep workers healthy.
Health risks faced by workers have historically received less attention than the safety risks. This is despite the fact that five times as many working days are lost through work-related ill-health than the 4.5 million days lost each year due to non-fatal injury. The annual cost of new cases of all Great Britain’s work-related ill-health in 2014/15 was £ 9.3 billion.
The last thing the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) wants to do is lessen the attention paid to safety at work. What we want is to bring that same level of attention to health, and in the past few years, we are pleased to see that the industry is increasingly displaying a genuine intention to protect its staff and prevent ill-health by better job design and it is using data, evidence and ingenuity to achieve this aim.
Better job design means making jobs fit the capabilities and skills of individual employees as well as making changes to the job so that both the short and long-term risk of harm is reduced. In 2014, ORR published Better Health
is Happening, which highlighted areas of particular concern in the rail sector: HandArm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS), respiratory disease, musculoskeletal disorders, and issues caused by stress and mental health – and challenged the industry to use ‘the 4Es’ to manage health risks: Excellence in health risk management Engagement Efficiency and value for money Enabling – including training and competence
Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome
HAVS causes loss of sensation in the fingers and damage to the blood vessels in workers who use hand-held power tools. In 2016-17, there were 85 new or worsening cases of HAVS reported to ORR in the rail industry. Although this is still far too many, it represents real improvement achieved through stronger health surveillance regimes and will provide future impetus for seeking ever-better job design to eliminate exposure to vibration and use of hand-held power tools.
ORR is working closely with Network Rail’s principal contractors and labour supply companies to improve and extend health surveillance through the supply chain, and has agreed a ‘who should do what’ protocol to ensure that everyone knows their role in HAVS prevention.
On the path to improvement there have been disappointments – ORR served one on Network Rail for a failure to manage HAVS risks - but prevention through better job design is starting to take hold across the industry as rail companies seek to limit exposure by changing how jobs are done.
Exposure to silica can cause lung disease and lessening that risk has been a key focus for ORR inspectors, who are now leading a national initiative to identify and prevent exposure in rail property maintenance and refurbishment projects.
ORR has worked with Network Rail on the
design of new ballast-cleaning equipment with improved dust controls and retro-fitting existing kit with protected operator cabs to limit workers’ exposure to dust.
The mainline Ballast Dust Working Group is collaborating to share additional monitoring data on exposures to silica dust, which will, in turn, lead to risk areas being identified and mitigated, especially during conventional renewals projects.
Mental health and stress
Tackling mental health concerns remains a significant challenge for our industry, although there are encouraging signs of progress.
As more rail companies monitor and report data on mental health absence, effective strategies are being developed to tackle the underlying causes and support those affected. Train operators are increasingly proactive in supporting their staff exposed to traumatic events and assaults, and are sharing good practice.
Network Rail has recently included a mental health resilience project within its priority Home Safe Plan; developed new standards on stress risk assessment and traumatic incident management; and introduced a network of mental health champions.
Currently available data on shock/trauma incidents shows a broad downward trend across the industry in recent years, and an ongoing RSSB project to further improve health data collection should enable a better understanding of the incidence and causes of mental health, particularly work-related stress. Support from rail companies will be essential to a successful outcome on better health data.
Fitness for work
General fitness for work is also crucial and ORR is set to publish a document on what standards should be in place for medical assessments for safety-critical roles within the industry. In addition, an audit regime is being devised to ensure that ORR recognised doctors – who medically assess train drivers to ensure they are fit to work – are fully trained on medical requirements for assessing drivers.
As things stand, the attention paid to occupational health in the rail industry is not sufficient and, as a result, workers are suffering needlessly, the industry is losing money it can ill-afford and passengers have a less efficient service than they should expect.
But, we are travelling in the right direction. The level of attention paid to safety concerns is starting to be mirrored by that paid to health matters, and we are beginning to see the fruits of that new focus.
ORR will continue to highlight the benefits of better job design and as it becomes more and more embedded in daily working practice, we expect to see even greater benefits for staff, passengers and the industry.
The industry is increasingly displaying a genuine intention to protect its staff and prevent ill-health by better job design.
Rail occupational health facts
Exposure to silica has been linked to lung disease. With this in mind, the ORR is leading a national initiative to identify and prevent exposure to the rail workforce. The Ballast Dust Working Group has been established to share monitoring data on...
Hand-Arm-Vibration Syndrome 2011-17