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March 21, 2014

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Non-technical skills are vital in the railway industry. They increase the potential for individuals to take the right action and reduce the chance that mistakes are made. They support technical knowledge and influence the way in which individuals do their job. Combined with technical knowledge, the right attitude and experience, they facilitate competent performance.
The concept of non-technical skills is not a new one. A number of high hazard industries have incorporated them into competence management programmes for their safety critical staff.
Examples of non-technical skills programmes in other industries
Crew resource management (CRM) in aviation emerged in the 1990s but had its origins in earlier training programmes that started emerging from the 1980s in response to observations that many aviation accidents were occurring for a broad range of “human factors” issues. Today CRM training is mandated under all major aviation regulatory regimes. 
 The bridge resource management programme was prompted by a number of investigations into maritime accidents which revealed inadequacies in the competence of some operations to manage both resources and emergency situations effectively. 
Other non-technical skills training programmes include: maintenance resource management in aircraft maintenance; cabin crew resource management in aviation; anaesthesia crisis resource management in healthcare, which has been adapted to a range of medical fields; crew resource management for offshore control room operators and offshore installation managers; and space flight resource management training for space flight crews, mission control flight controllers and space shuttle maintenance personnel.
Canadian Pacific Railways, the Texas Transportation Institute and the Federal Railroad Administration have all developed CRM programmes as have CountryLink Rail and Queensland Rail in Australia.
Extract from ‘Guide to Non Technical skills 2012 v2’ Emma Lowe
The skills themselves vary from one programme to another depending on the nature of the industry and on the technical skills that are being applied. However, the underlying principle is that they are the interpersonal skills that help us apply our technical skills and ensure we do our jobs effectively: how we communicate, how we work as a team, how we make decisions. It is these skills that reduce the likelihood of errors. 
Non-technical skills in the railway industry
A series of accidents in the past 10 years has underlined a need to consider non-technical skills training for railway staff.
In 2005, at Trafford Park, a group of experienced track workers went out on track to inspect equipment. The group was preoccupied with the technical task and a phone call and did not notice an approaching train. One worker was struck and killed by the train, with the others narrowly escaping death. Their ability to maintain situational awareness and not get distracted by the task in hand was a factor in this incident.
Two years later, at Ruscombe, the controller of site safety (COSS) was looking after a welder working on an open line. The group was warned of an approaching train but the welder continued to work, believing that the train would not be routed their way. The COSS did not challenge this assumption and they all stayed in position. The welder was stuck and killed by the train, with the COSS and lookout narrowly escaping death. In this instance, the team dynamics and the reluctance of the young COSS to challenge a more experienced and senior welder was a contributory factor.
In 2011, at Stoats Nest, while work was taking place with trains stopped, the COSS was instructed by a more senior colleague to leave site to move some equipment. He left the group. As planned, trains began running again through part of the site, without the COSS being there to change the protection arrangements. A member of the group was stuck and injured by a train. Again, team dynamics and the ability of individuals in key safety positions to challenge the actions of others was a factor.
In all of these cases, as with other similar incidents, the person undertaking the role of COSS knew what to do — there was no doubt that they had the technical knowledge to undertake the role — but other factors or distractions stopped them from doing the right thing.
The challenge for track workers
Railway track worker training has traditionally focused on the technical skill required to do a task. There is a strong focus on following the rulebook, and a significant number of staff are contracted through labour supply agencies. 
Training typically involves classroom-based technical sessions with refresher rules training every two years. The market dynamics provided little opportunity to develop the more subtle, but vital, non-technical skills in those who were already working.  This presented a challenging profile for the application of a non-technical skills programme.
Programme development
After recommendations made from the incidents outlined above, a working group was set up to look at improving the role of the COSS. A key element of this programme was identifying the non-technical skills needed to undertake the role and developing a programme to integrate those non-technical skills into recruitment, initial training, assessment and development processes. Using information from an analysis of the tasks that a COSS performs, and information from job experts and job incumbents, the key non-technical skills were identified:
  • controlled under pressure;
  • conscientious;
  • communications;
  • attention management;
  • willingness and ability to learn;
  • relationships with people;
  • multi-task capacity; and
  • planning and decision-making.
These helped to form the core non-technical skills framework now used across front-line roles in Network Rail (below).
For each non-technical skill, positive and negative behavioural markers are identified. These are observable behaviours that could be used to identify if someone is displaying the non-technical skill when undertaking a task or if the individual needs support and development (below).
With 22,000 COSSes across the industry to assess and develop in non-technical skills there was a challenge in finding the most effective methodology, particularly when the existing arrangements for re-assessment relied on line managers and a technical knowledge test. 
Either these arrangements needed to be changed or line managers needed to be significantly up-skilled on how to assess and develop non-technical skills.
In December 2012, Network Rail embarked on a programme which involved changing the assessment arrangements: all COSSes are currently undergoing a ‘development day’ to develop their non-technical skills.
The training is being delivered in-house by people who specialise in behavioural training and coaching. We have focused on the top five skills identified during the mapping process, specifically — communications; relationships with others; conscientiousness; planning and decision making; and willingness and ability to learn.
In order to engage with the target audience, the day had to be interactive with an obvious link as to how the skills could be applied when back at the workplace. The start of the course involves looking at previous incidents and how easy it can be to make mistakes, but also considers the Swiss Cheese Model1 as an accident causation model, which highlights how there are a number of factors to do with the individual, the task, the environment and the organisation that can lead us to make mistakes. This helps to put into context the non-technical skills programme, which is about making the individual more resilient to error. 
Albert Mehrabian’s elements of communication theory2 and what it means to be assertive were also incorporated into the development day, backed up by practical skill sessions where these communications skills are used to challenge someone who may be asking them to cut corners or do something they don’t think is safe. 
Accident evidence had told us that some COSSes were underperforming, so we decided the course needed an assessment element to identify individuals who may need further development before they were allowed to resume COSS activities. The assessment also provides quantitative information to benchmark and drive future development.
Assessing non-technical skills needs a different approach to the more traditional knowledge tests. A scenario-based assessment approach was used which looks for individuals’ preferred ways of working. Individuals are presented with a scenario and options for how to respond to that scenario. The candidate is asked to rank the options in order of preference. There is always a preferred and safer solution with the other two options being riskier and what we would regard as unacceptable.
The output from the development day and assessment is a personalised development plan that the individual takes back to the workplace to discuss and implement with their line manager.  
Selling the concept
Engagement from line management is vital to the success of the non-technical skills programme. They need to understand the rationale for, and benefits from, such an initiative in order to present it positively to the workforce; get staff released to attend the development day; and to support individuals when they came back from the development day with an action plan.
As a result there was an industry-wide communications and consultation programme prior to going live with the development day — including Network Rail’s supply chain. 
It was key to gain the support of our trade unions by demonstrating that anyone falling below the benchmark for operational competence would be supported to develop and not blocked from future opportunities.
While there were the inevitable questions about delivery, costs, and the practicalities of rolling out the training, everybody saw the need to improve the non-technical skills of the workforce in this way. Part of that initial communications programme involved piloting the development day so the target audience felt that their representatives had been involved in its development and running a special event for senior managers and our regulators, the Office of Rail Regulation.
Feedback and on-going support
Launching the development day formally in January 2013 was not the end of the project. We have also published an online toolkit to help managers to continue development of the non-technical skills in the workplace.  This will evolve as more material is developed. 
In June 2013 a non-technical skills self-evaluation questionnaire was made available. This allows individuals to receive feedback on where their non-technical skills ‘preferences’ might lie. 
We are also developing a selection process to ensure that those appointed to these key safety roles have the right aptitudes in the first instance. Six months after the launch of the development day we undertook an evaluation and validation exercise and have consequently enhanced the course and the assessment.
Next steps
It is too early, 12 months in, to see the real impact the programme has had, but the aim is to see a reduction in incidents that have an underlying cause associated with non-technical skills, and ultimately a reduction in the number of accidents and incidents involving those undertaking the role of COSS. 
Aside from the role of COSS, we are also looking at improving the non-technical skills associated with other trackside safety critical roles such as lookout and in operations: signallers, controllers and electrical controllers. Each role needs a slightly different approach depending on their existing competence assurance arrangements and the practicalities of releasing staff to invest in their development. So, in operations for example, the focus is on developing line managers so they can develop the non-technical skills of the staff they manage. 
We also need to embed non-technical skills as part of on-going competence assurance, so it’s not just part of initial training, or delivered as a one off, but becomes an integral part of assessing someone’s capability from recruitment throughout their time in a front-line role.
It’s been an interesting and challenging project, but we have been really pleased at the positive reception that it has received from all parts of the industry. 
This programme has the potential to make a real improvement to safety for railway workers and we look forward to developing it further. n
1. Reason, James (1990-04-12). “The Contribution of Latent Human Failures to the Breakdown of Complex Systems”. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences 327 (1241): 475—484
2. Mehrabian, Albert (1971). Silent Messages (1st ed.)
Louise Baldwin is trackside safety specialist and Emma Lowe is principal occupational psychologist at Network Rail 

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