Croydon tram crash
A tram tragedy: why we need a knowledgeable media
On the day Donald Trump won the presidential election in the United States, an early morning tram left the tracks in Croydon, south of London and crashed. The incident tragically resulted in the loss of seven lives and caused injuries to more than 50 people.
A tram heading for Sandilands station
Alongside the wall-to-wall post-election coverage, the tram incident was relegated to the ‘in other news’ slot. On the day following, there was more media coverage and one particular phrase on a BBC breakfast bulletin got my attention. The report gave the story so far and said there was a possibility that the driver had blacked out, the story continued with the reporter quoting a source as saying that it was: ‘too early to speculate on a single cause for the accident’.
This reinforced the perception that journalists want to – and are often pushed to – broadcast the cause of any incident as soon as possible in order to quench the thirst of the 24-hour news cycle. Although, to be fair, interviews with accident investigators during week commencing 14 November, have reported comments about the probability of a lengthy investigation and multiple causes.
However, I do think there is definitely room for cooperation between health, safety and incident investigation professionals and the media to improve reporters’ understanding of an incident, including causation and prevention.
An offline session (i.e. one that is not connected to an ongoing incident) would allow an exchange and give an opportunity for health and safety people to coach the journalists, reporters and editors who cover these incidents about some key principles in health and safety. It would also result in health and safety people understanding where the media are coming from.
I originally trained and worked as a reporter covering – among other tragedies – the Manchester Air disaster ; the Zeebrugge ferry sinking; the INLA Ballykelly bombing; and the Bradford City fire.
From there I went into public relations consultancy, helping companies avoid or minimise the impact of industrial and commercial crises – a sort of poacher, turned gamekeeper. Then I spent a decade in corporate communications before a nine-year stint as head of crisis management, security and health and safety in a Fortune 500 company with operations in 100 countries.
The result of my experience has allowed me to look at incidents from many points of the compass and to appreciate some of the stresses and strains involved in preventing, reporting and speculating on, investigating and learning from fatal and severe injury incidents.
But as a starting point, what do the media want?
The media often slaps ‘elf and safety with accusations that it’s populated by a killjoy bunch of humourless, hard-hatted jobsworths whose only aim in life is to stop school trips, snowball fights and conker contests.
As we know, health and safety concerns are often used by those in schools and businesses as a universal panacea to cover up other inadequacies and general laziness in thinking, planning and managing activities at school, work or related to transport. Thanks to the HSE’s Myth-Buster campaigns, this has lessened, but still features in some media.
But the reality for the media is that it seeks victims, culprits and answers and this is central to the way they work – often because of the limited time or space allowed for a news report on an incident.
As an example, media coverage of the Croydon tram incident started with reports from the emergency services, eye witnesses and then residents who said they predicted something like this would happen.
It moved on to the announcement of the investigation to criticism of shift rostering and the company statement in response, stating that rosters were agreed with unions, etc.
As the driver was arrested on suspicion of manslaughter and has been released on bail until May, it wouldn’t be wise, or legal to dig further into this case. Media coverage also wanes at this point, to reappear at the next court date.
But reporting of this incident does offer background and input into how the media could improve the quality and depth of coverage of incidents.
So what would be in my ‘101 Health and Safety Coaching for the Media’ aimed at reporters and others involved in covering these incidents?
- Incident causation
- Incident investigation and root causes
- Health and Safety law, with a focus on directors’ and managers’ responsibilities.
Understanding the Swiss Cheese model, or the Reason’s Incident Causation Model is a ‘must’.
As the readership of SHP is predominantly safety professionals – I won’t go into the detail, other than to outline that the multiple failures in each level of management and supervision are the ‘supply chain to the incident’ and that the last act is the final failure that completed the series of failures.
The media, however, wants simplicity and speed – ‘pilot error, driver error, equipment failure’ are ideal starting points for them – and often, finishing points.
Passers-by and incident witnesses will always remain good media sources in the first hour or so, for quotes on ‘what (they think) happened’. Understanding the contributory factors – the failure of all the slices of cheese – leading to an incident will be of benefit to the reporter, because it will indicate who he or she should seek to interview next and soon.
In addition, the reporter, equipped with the principles of incident causation will consequently be able to ask more incisive and relevant questions of company spokespeople, regulators and the emergency services.
Understanding incident causation will also segue into how an incident is investigated and the methodology of an investigation, together with an appreciation that ‘pilot error or driver error’ is at the final stage of a series of actions or omissions that contributed to the incident.
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