David Statham - It’s time to think differently about safety

David Statham is Managing Director of Southeastern railway.

For those of us who work on the railways, safety is ingrained in our culture – and the good news is that our industry has been successful, over a long period of time, in making the network safer.

Figures from the Rail Safety and Standards Board suggest that between 2009 and 2020, the number of harmful incidents causing injuries to rail employees dropped by 22%. But complacency mustn’t creep in – because there are signs that this improvement is reaching a plateau.

If we want to continue on a positive trend, it’s time to have a fresh look at our entire approach – which has rested, for many years, in the railway Rule Book and in very strictly drawn instructions on how to complete each task.

Conventional wisdom is that through hard work to prevent minor accidents at a low level, you will also stop the bigger, rarer, incidents at the more serious end of the scale. But is that really true? Not everybody agrees.

Sidney Dekker, an author and professor at Griffith University in Australia, is an influential thinker on safety. His view is that it’s time to challenge that traditional model – in part because those rare, serious incidents tend to have very different, unique causes.

Traditionally, says Dekker, railway workers have been seen as the problem which needs to be ‘fixed’ by constantly giving them more rules to comply to. He argues, though, that our colleagues are the solution – they are problem-solvers who know best how to navigate complex environments. Instead of telling them what to do, we be asking them what they need.

In classic safety thinking, success is about a negative – the elimination of accidents. Dekker flips this, though, into building something positive. It’s about creating a safety margin, or a gap, between a plan of work and the hazards that can cause harm.

Safety picture.pngWork tends to be planned in a straight line – as if it’s entirely predictable, and foreseeable. But the reality is always more complex than a procedure written in an office. Unexpected difficulties crop up; people are diverted onto other projects; equipment can arrive late or fail to work effectively; tasks sometimes take longer than anticipated.

Each of these factors knocks that line off track and, as planning is compromised, the ‘margin’ between the text book plan and hazards gets narrower.

How do we prevent that? The traditional approach is a checklist – a supervisor, a manager and an area manager tick off every step taken to ensure that safety rules are followed. But perhaps we need to replace hindsight with foresight.

A concept we’ve been trying at Southeastern is the ‘pre-accident investigation’. Instead of waiting for an accident to happen and then investigating to learn lessons, we’re taking high consequence risks and investigating scenarios exactly as if they had taken place.

Through a mixture of discussion and site visits, bringing on-the-ground colleagues into the process, we’re working forwards, rather than backwards, to establish what we must do to avoid a hazard turning into an accident.

For example – a risk we’ve all been focused on has been COVID-19, and the possibility of outbreaks at work. The rule book gives us safety measures – facemasks, social distancing, hygiene. But the reality on the ground is complex.

The rules state that colleagues carrying out certain tasks should wear both masks and safety glasses. Some have found, to their frustration, that wearing a mask prompts their glasses to steam up, rendering a complex task impossible – and our pre-accident investigation assumed colleagues ended up removing masks.

Similarly, we looked at a scenario where contractors are could be more likely to come in when they’re showing COVID symptoms, as they may not be entitled to as many benefits as those who are directly employed.

There’s no fear of ‘blame’ when we examine these factors before an accident. We can understand why people are diverging from that original straight line and narrowing the gap between ‘plan’ and ‘hazard’. And we can work on solutions to help them – such as variations in the protocol for safety glasses, or assistance for those who need to stay at home and isolate.

None of this replaces the need to carry out checks, or to instill a sense of watchfulness in every team member. We can, though, do better – in part by learning from the achievements of other industries, including offshore oil and gas, which have years of experience in managing rare, but serious, risk.

In 2019, Go-Ahead held its first safety leadership conference, attended by 60 senior leaders from our businesses across the UK, Germany and Singapore. Those get-togethers provide a chance to hear from outside speakers, and to think more laterally about safety.

By thinking collaboratively, challenging longstanding ‘norms’ and working together, we can make our industry safer and keep all of our people out of harm’s way.