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January 26, 2007

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Right balance needed to improve image

“The right balance must be struck on safety” if the health and safety profession is to improve its image. Speaking at the second Rail Industry Conference, organised by IOSH’s Railway Specialist Group, Nigel Harris (pictured below), managing editor of Rail Magazine, said that the profession will only stop being knocked once “the law is getting the balance right”, and that at present “all the evidence indicates this crucial balance is not being struck”.

‘Safety mafia’

Nigel warned: “The constant procession of ‘safety mafia’ stories will continue, be sure of that, until the right balance is found. When it is, me and all my colleagues will be off somewhere else covering another story.

“We’ve all seen the stories, packets of nuts saying ‘Warning, may contain nuts’. I bought an iron the other week and was warned in the instructions ‘do not iron while wearing clothes’. This has all created a deeply rooted public perception and it didn’t come from nowhere. Some of these actions, and the ridiculous prosecutions, bring the whole of your profession into disrepute.

“I’m not saying we should slacken standards, but there is a change coming, and the safety industry would do well to pause and think about where it goes. You are best placed to decide that, no one else is better equipped.”

Lord Berkeley (pictured right), chairman of the Rail Freight Group, added the idea that rail is a “hazardous industry” is now unfair and is leading to risk averse decision-making: “Rail deaths excluding suicides and other self inflicted incidents are now in single figures, but road deaths are over 3500 per annum. We are still being seen as hazardous because HSE is not responsible for road accidents, but still has its tentacles on rail through the Office of Rail Regulation.”

He said that this is leading to decisions such as no intermediate signal in the Severn Tunnel because passengers are afraid of stopping under water, even though trains do this all the time in London. Drivers are also being prevented from using mobile phones to communicate.

Lord Berkeley appealed for Network Rail to look at Canadian National’s example: “Maintenance here costs five or six times what it does in Canada where they are renewing turnouts in four hours. At Wooton Bassett it took nine days. That’s not a problem if you’re a passenger, you get a bus. But freight doesn’t go on a bus!”

Striking the balance

However, Ben Keen, the chairman of IOSH’s Railway Specialist Group (SG), said that he feels the only way the right balance can be struck is if decision makers are prepared to stand up and say “I did what I thought was appropriate at the time, but, with the benefit of hindsight, it was wrong”.

“I don’t think any of the bonkers conkers decisions have come where a safety professional has been involved, but if you have any doubts about what safety professionals are here for, think of Aberfan. The risk from that slagheap had been known for three years, but it was nobody’s problem until it engulfed a school and 20 houses, killing 144 people.”

And Linda Williams, chief inspector of Her Majesty’s Railway Inspectorate, thinks that working with industry is key to getting the right balance on safety: “The easiest way for standards to be created is if they are created by those who apply them and not by the regulator. I can’t get better people together than the industry can.

“In the rail industry, if there’s a better, cheaper, more efficient way of doing things, then we are open to innovation and new ideas.”


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