The railway has a moral, commercial and legal responsibility to do things safely, but what is it that motivates individuals and organisations to improve? Is it the opportunity to make positive changes or the fear of financial and reputational ruin?

Which method is most effective; the carrot or the stick? This was a recurring theme at the annual IOSH (Institution of Occupational Safety and Health) Rail Conference, which was held in November at the Nottingham Belfry Hotel. The introduction of new stricter sentencing guidelines in February last year was one very clear example of the latter.

Companies that breach health and safety law can now expect much higher fines. What’s more, the new guidelines can be applied retrospectively, as has already been demonstrated with prosecutions brought against Network Rail and Babcock Rail over the course of the last 12 months.

Speaking on the subject was Kevin Elliott, head of the health and safety team at legal firm Eversheds. Kevin specialises in transport health and safety law; notably he was involved in the legal fallout from Potters Bar.

Kevin Elliott.

Addressing delegates, he said it was maybe incorrect to describe the fines as being more severe; in cases where there has been a fatality, it could be that the fines have now only just been brought in line with the severity of the offence. However, speaking after the event, Kevin said he questioned whether larger fines would actually help improve safety standards.

‘Whilst there’s no room for complacency, we operate the safest workplaces and railways in the world… I honestly don’t think that the right answer to ensuring that they’re safer is larger fines or prison sentences.’

NOT IN THE INTEREST OF JUSTICE

Kevin said that he felt companies like Network Rail and Babcock Rail, which received fines of £4 million and £400,000 respectively, had a right to feel aggrieved that their cases had been processed under the new guidelines, as both incidents had occurred several years before the new guidance came in. Such delays are not in the interest of the victims or the companies being prosecuted, he said, adding, ‘It’s not in the interest of justice.’

The delays highlight a need for further investment in bodies like the ORR and the HSE, said Kevin. ‘I would say anecdotally, that from what I hear from inspectors, that they have a lack of resource and I’m sure they are frustrated that these cases take so long.’

Kevin said he would be more supportive of the higher fines if the revenue raised was used to fund more inspectors or to support schemes that promote a positive safety culture.

The jeopardy for individuals is also greater under the new guidelines. ‘You don’t have to do much wrong to be in peril of going to prison,’ said Kevin, with the threshold of culpability now lower than in the past. Courts will also look at possible harm and not just the actual outcome of an incident.

POSITIVE LEADERS

Those who work in the field would rather promote a positive safety message. John Gillespie, HM Assistant chief inspector of railways at the ORR, opened the conference by talking about positive leadership.

He said, ‘Positive leaders need to have an understanding of motivation, and what actually motivates individuals towards a positive goal.

‘For me, there are three main motivators towards good health and safety performance – legal, financial and moral motivators. These will play differently on different people, in different roles in an organisation.’

Like Kevin, John talked about the threat posed by complacency. Latest figures show the UK is leading Europe in the safe operation of its railway, with no fatal accidents on a train in nine years. But as has been demonstrated by Spain, which currently has gone from being one of the best performing railways to one of the worst following the deaths of 79 people in the derailment at Santiago de Compostela in 2013, these achievements stand on fragile ground.

He added, ‘Complacency for me is acceptance of the status quo; acceptance that we are safe enough; acceptance that we do not need to improve. We are good enough.

‘For me, that is what complacency feels like and it can become part of an organisation’s culture. We can still improve – even a small improvement is a good improvement.’

HEALTH AND SAFETY STRATEGY

So in what areas can the UK look to improve? The RSSB’s rail health and safety strategy, which was published in April last year, highlights a few. In particular, the industry still needs to improve how it monitors and reports road risk, fatigue and other wellbeing issues.

In the strategy, it estimates that absenteeism related to staff health, costs the rail industry around £320 million a year. Although there aren’t the same legal controls around wellbeing, this presents a strong argument for proactive management of workforce health and wellbeing.

The conference included speakers from RSSB, Network Rail and Virgin Trains East Coast. There was also a joint presentation by IOSH, the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS) and the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) on occupational cancers connected with the No Time to Lose campaign.

Photos courtesy of IOSH