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April 28, 2008

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Health and safety on the London Underground

London’s Tube was the world’s first underground rail system and an astonishing feat of engineering. The task of maintaining and upgrading that network, while ensuring the health and safety of those that do so, is no less remarkable, as Ian Prosser, vice-president of health, safety and environment at Metronet,* explains.

Metronet Rail cares for eight of the 12 lines on the London Underground network, including 347 trains, 442 miles of track, 1337 sets of points and crossings, 150 stations, 187 escalators, 48 lifts, and more than 100 miles of cuttings and embankments.

The company is currently upgrading the world’s first automatic passenger railway — the Victoria line — with a new fleet of purpose-built trains and signalling system, and is renewing track and stations, including the flagship station of Oxford Circus.

Working on the Underground is particularly challenging: most of it must be carried out at night, when the service is briefly suspended, giving a window of just three-and-a-half hours at the most.

And that environment can be hot, dusty and cramped — especially for the gangs drilling out 30-year-old track in the deep tunnels of the Bakerloo and Victoria lines.

The safety statistics for Metronet show a remarkable improvement. In five years, the incidence of personal injury has fallen by four-fifths from 1.25 to 0.25 on the RIDDOR lost-time injury frequency rate. This success can be attributed to a focus on the following five key elements:

Safety leadership

Metronet has worked hard at getting line management to ‘own’ safety. Safety committees were established throughout the organisation, and are linked together. Managers have been trained to undertake safety tours, talking to people about good safety practices.

Incident investigation and reporting

Some 300 members of staff have been trained to investigate incidents, whether they resulted in injury or not. The plan is to continue to train 100 more each year. The result has been a marked improvement in reporting, particularly near-hits — something that most organisations experience as awareness of safety reporting practices grows. The increase has also been helped by electronic reporting. For Metronet, the value lies in being able to establish root causes from each incident; if something isn’t reported, we can’t work on reducing or eliminating the risk.

Manual handling

There’s more to do here, but plans are in hand to train another 1000-2000 people through Osteopaths for Industry in the next year. We’ve introduced mechanical aids to reduce the need for heavy lifting, but we’re concerned about people coming to work with injuries sustained previously, either at work or outside work, so we need to do more in pre-work health screening.

Personal protective equipment

We try to ensure we have good PPE that is fit for purpose, has been selected with the assistance of the trades union health and safety reps, and provided where needed consistently.

Greater engagement

Our health and safety trades union representative coordinators and the workforce involvement steering group try to get employees more involved in improving safety. We’re completing workplace risk assessment reviews, but we want to make sure that the results of these initiatives are meaningful and don’t just produce reams of paper that no one has time to read.

Rising to the challenge

Track condition has been an uphill struggle. On the sub-surface network of the District, Metropolitan, Circle and Hammersmith & City lines, two years of examination and detailed assessment established that we had inherited 20,000 sub-standard conditions. This is now down to under 1000. In the same timescale we started to employ new ultrasonic techniques, which, over a period of a couple of years, resulted in us discovering hundreds of serious defects in the rails. These had to be removed, putting a terrific strain on resources. However, this has now resulted in the continued reduction in broken rails.

We need to up our game on the environment, through training in environmental issues and getting people signed up to the goals of recycling 100 per cent of our construction waste — it’s now 85 per cent — and more of our general waste, and waste from stations.

* Metronet is part of a public-private partnership (PPP), which uses private-sector money to fund public projects. The company is currently in PPP administration, having underestimated the investment required to maintain the lines under its control. The existing management team retains day-to-day responsibilities for the company, including the continued safe operation of the Tube infrastructure.


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