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October 13, 2010

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Transport and logistics – Moving on up

Tina Weadick spends the day with managers and front-line staff of major global transport provider First Group, which has set itself a health and safety target that is ambitious yet achievable within the inclusive and progressive safety culture in place throughout the company.

“Faster than fairies, faster than witches; bridges and houses, hedges and ditches” – the opening lines of Robert Louis Stevenson’s paean to train travel, From a railway carriage, pulsed through my mind on a recent journey on a high-speed train from London to Reading. Except my view wasn’t from the carriage, it was from the driver’s cab, making “all of the sights of the hill and the plain” even more exciting!

The 12pm First Great Western service from Paddington to Bristol Parkway – loco number 43021, for the trainspotters among you – was in the charge of driver-instructor Ken Millard, one of 3000 train drivers employed by global transport operator First Group, which carries some 2.5 billion passengers on buses and trains around the UK and North America every year.

On this side of the pond, the company employs around 130,000 staff and, in addition to its rail services, such as First Great Western, First Capital Connect and FirstScotrail, it is also the UK’s largest bus operator, running more than one in five of all local bus services. In the US and Canada, the company’s First Student arm operates the well-known yellow school buses, while the equally famous Greyhound buses make First Group the only national provider of scheduled transport services in North America.

With such a large workforce, and the huge responsibility of making sure millions of people get where they need to go, every minute of every day, it is not surprising that safety is a crucial consideration for the company. So much so, that it has no compunction in stating that its aim is to reach zero incidents and injuries at all of its locations worldwide.

While there is disagreement in the health and safety profession over setting such absolute goals, First Group’s health and safety director, Naveed Qamar, is defiant: “We believe that a goal of zero is absolutely achievable and not unrealistic at all. A number of our locations are already at zero, so we know it can be done. As a public-transport operator there will be incidents that are beyond our control but, putting those to one side, everything else is preventable and we want to aim for that, rather than give mixed messages that certain things aren’t preventable.”

According to Qamar, it’s all about behaviour and beliefs. He says: “Once people believe all injuries are preventable they will work towards that. The challenge is to get the message out there.” First Group does this primarily through its Injury Prevention Programme (IPP), launched in 2006, the core ethos of which is: if you can’t do it safely, then don’t do it.

Under the programme, all staff are issued with IPP handbooks (pictured above) – pocket-sized, laminated documents, which explain the company’s safety principles, and contain tear-off ‘safety contact’ sheets, on which staff can record incidents for later discussion with their supervisor. All incidents are logged on the company’s injury prevention database and action is taken, when necessary.

Actions are tracked to completion; they are assigned to an individual who has to close them out, and an alert is sent to whoever raised the action to say whether or not it has been dealt with. Failures to act or respond go up the management line until there is a response. Says Qamar: “They can even go as far as the chief executive – there is nowhere for people to hide!”

Visible leadership

Speaking of the top man, Sir Moir Lockhead takes a personal and hands-on interest in safety at the company. As Qamar explains: “Sir Moir carries out regular ‘injury prevention’ tours, where he’ll go to a depot and walk around talking to staff about safety, asking them how they feel about it, making his own observations, and then talking to supervisors to determine what is being done.”

Sir Moir chairs the monthly executive safety committee, at which injury prevention contacts, near-miss and hazard reports, planned safety inspections, and closed and pending actions are all discussed. The committee comprises First Group’s three senior safety directors (rail, buses, the US side), all of whom report to Qamar, as well as the MDs of all train and bus divisions. The MDs for different areas, e.g. London, attend once a year, as do the chief executives of the RSSB, Network Rail, the RAIB, and the HSE.

Explains Qamar: “We spend around two hours going through safety performance. The divisional heads each present their own report, while I present an overall report. Each division also has its own safety committee, and the same process happens at each of these.”

The IPP has been well accepted but the challenge now for the company is to integrate it even further into the business. Andrew Smith, lead safety manager – UK Bus, based at First Group’s Willesden bus depot in north-west London, explains: “Encouraging safety conversations keeps the subject at the top of everyone’s agenda. The engagement is kept up because IPP is not seen as a disciplinary tool. We compliment people on safe behaviour and other things, such as wearing the correct PPE. We are keen to engage with all staff in a positive way, as well as flagging up concerns.”

Eamon Dunleavy, engineering manager at the depot but now at Uxbridge, says the principles of the IPP are well-ingrained: “All engineers do their personal safety checks (PSC) almost automatically now – sussing out the job area, obstacles, the number of people around, etc. Almost all inspection sheets that they have to fill in, such as vehicle-defect cards, ask them to tick if they’ve done a PSC. If they don’t tick this they will be contacted and it will be on their file.

“Those who report any problems get a copy of the signed-off forms so they know something has been done about it.”
Driving improvements

A key focus within overall safety performance for the Group is driver performance. According to Qamar: “Train drivers are very highly skilled and get a good deal of training and refresher training to keep their skills up. Under our competence management programme, they are tested and tested until they are ready.”

My driver on the 12pm to Bristol, Ken Millard, backs this up: “As your experience increases, so does your route knowledge. Drivers do exams, watch DVDs, and travel in the cab with more experienced drivers to learn the route. They then get a certificate to say they know and can work a certain line. The initial training period is 12 months, but development is ongoing thereafter.”

SPADs – signals passed at danger – are a concern for all rail operators, and First Group works hard to eradicate them, focusing on them in the same way it would on a major incident. Naveed Qamar again: “We look into why they happened and what needs to be done to put it right. It’s all about driver reaction to signals – how much attention they pay. They should know all the hotspots on the route, and where they really have to pay attention and not get distracted. There are black boxes on every train, which can be analysed.

“If a signal is passed on red, the driver is taken off duty while it is investigated. SPADs are ranked from 0 to 25 in terms of level of risk. Depending on the level, the investigation will focus on driver actions.”

According to Ken Millard, the system is better now: “The signals are all LED – which means visibility and reliability are much improved. The Train Protection and Warning System (TPWS) and Automatic Train Protection (ATP) will let the driver know if they go through a red light.”

He explains this as we leave Paddington, passing under the infamous signal 109, scene of the horrific Ladbroke Grove crash in 1999, in which 31 people died, and which led to the widespread installation of ATP systems on trains in the UK.

On the buses, driver performance is equally important but, as Naveed Qamar points out, it involves a different skill set. He explains: “There are two key skills: mechanical – driving the monster! – and people skills. There are bus drivers, and people who drive buses. The former love driving buses and put up with the moans; others can’t handle people, or what goes on on the road.”

Collisions are a major health and safety issue, and First Group addresses this by upskilling drivers to handle various situations on the road better. They go through simulator training to help identify any weaknesses in their driving skills, and all are trained in the ‘Smith System’ – a defensive driving technique imported from the US. According to Qamar, this teaches five key principles: “Aim high; look ahead to get the big picture of everything that is going on; leave yourself an ‘out’ – space between you and the vehicle in front; keep your eyes moving; and make sure they see you.

“Essentially, the drivers are having to do a continuous risk assessment as they go, and this has resulted in a decrease in the number of collisions.”

First Group is also doing its bit for the environment via an on-board data recorder on all buses, which monitors whether or not drivers are ‘driving green’. The device monitors acceleration, braking, G-forces, etc. and provides feedback for the driver as he’s going along, warning him if there has been a dangerous event, so that he is in control.

He can review his journey at the end of his shift by logging on to a system to find out his score, and there are rewards locally for drivers who improve.

“We can also monitor high-risk drivers this way, and we can work with them to identify where they are going wrong,” adds Qamar. “All depots and drivers are monitored and ranked, and this is reviewed every week to identify any problems. Green driving also means using less fuel, fewer emissions, and a smoother ride for passengers – and it means we are all safer on the roads.”

Under attack

The biggest threat to driver safety – particularly those on the buses – is, unfortunately, violence and abuse from members of the public. Despite the installation of assault screens on buses, Naveed Qamar reveals that there have been some “horrific” attacks on his drivers. That being said, the rate of assaults has decreased by 80 per cent in the last five years, which he attributes to the conflict avoidance training First Group has been implementing for some years now.

He says: “The training gives drivers the skills to deal with confrontation. An irate passenger who doesn’t want to pay? Let them be – it’s not worth getting into trouble over £2. But some drivers do take it personally, and it is a hard balance to strike but, ultimately, the decision is theirs.

“There is CCTV in most buses – which is a major deterrent – so we can provide evidence for the Police. But it also acts as a check on the drivers so that they don’t provoke a situation. We will sponsor employees to take private prosecutions if the Police won’t pursue a case. Our employees need to be respected, and it is important that they know the company supports them.”

First Group has worked closely with the unions on protecting drivers from violence, and has a joint policy statement with Unite on assaults on staff. Adds Qamar: “We encourage our drivers to report everything as a crime – spitting, abusive language, physical assault – because we want the Police to recognise the problem. The unions recognise this as a good thing. It’s not just about numbers, it’s about taking action.”

Drivers in the capital can link straight to Transport for London (TFL) control in the event of an assault, which further enhances their protection.


“Safety is our number-one priority” is a claim issued by many a company for whom it couldn’t be further from the truth but for First Group, it is rock solid. The transport provider is passionate about keeping its thousands of staff and billions of passengers well out of harm’s way through a programme of safety procedures and initiatives that is visibly and vociferously led from the top but primarily driven by the workers in the cabs and carriages, depots and stations.

The improvements achieved by the company speak for themselves: since April 2003, across First Group as a whole, lost-time injuries have gone down by 56 per cent; passenger injuries are down by 48 per cent; and RIDDOR-reportable injuries dropped by 76 per cent. Last year, 80 per cent of UK locations had no LTIs; 70 per cent of Group locations had no LTIs; and 47 per cent of Group locations had no staff injuries.

Concludes Naveed Qamar: “We are achieving good results – incidents and injuries are going down – but there is still a lot of work to do, and this is down to leadership and management, and how people’s beliefs are addressed on safety.” 

Tina Weadick is editor of SHP

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