Aug 2009 - Bottling it up!

01 June 2013

British Rail used to come in for all kinds of criticism, some of it merited, some not. But whatever the occasional failings of the nationalised BR, there’s no doubt that the current privatisated, franchised system is a first-class model for ‘How Not to Run a Railway’. Its failures and follies now seem to have seeped past the stations and footplates and depots to infiltrate the entire industry.

You want proof? Last month the union went along to an Occupational Health seminar provided by the Railway Safety and Standards Board (RSSB). It boasted the encouraging title ‘Sharing Best Practice’ - undeniably a laudable aim in our modern transparent industry.

Pretty early on the agenda a senior RSSB manager hopped to his feet, an official spokesperson for this body which slaves to ‘work to achieve continuous improvement in the health and safety of the railway industry’. He was due to update us on a fundamentally important RSSB whose function was ‘collecting and analysing railway-related health data’. The spokesperson cleared his throat and made an announcement.

‘We’ve stopped doing it,’ he said.

I’d better repeat that. He said that the railway industry’s health and safety overseers are not going to collect or analyse health data.

You will not be surprised to hear that the union made bold enough to enquire the reason for this radical move. It appears that any RSSB research needs to be supported by a ‘stakeholder’. Which means, in effect, that the employers – the FOCs and TOCs - need to give their blessing. And they didn’t. So they nobbled the research.

Why would they do this? Why would they not want to have a clear picture of current trends in occupational health?

Any ideas? Could I suggest shame, embarrassment – or even guilt?

Let’s have a look at what this means in practice.

Suppose a driver develops a shoulder injury. This will be treated as an individual case under the ‘Managing for Attendance’ procedure. But the problem may have been caused by an occupational health issue. Say, for example, that a company introduces new stock with a combined power/brake controller which is too stiff for some drivers and they end up with an RSI-type injury. Because each driver is treated as an individual, it is impossible to show a relationship between MFA non-attendance and the new stock.

The ‘bottom line’ for the employer is that it’s cheaper and easier to deal with individual cases than delving into the root cause of the problem.

If this was an isolated case, I would only be worried instead of astonished. But it’s not. |A few days later we asked the Office of Rail Regulation for figures for Drugs and Alcohol failure rates. They didn’t know; hadn’t troubled themselves with it.

Working in this industry, I often think that anyone could be forgiven for taking to the bottle!

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