WITH increasing demand for improved network performance resulting in more track enhancement work and maintenance activities, there is growing pressure on infrastructure managers to deliver a safe working environment for track workers. As a result British infrastructure manager Network Rail (NR) has developed an approach that aims to reduce track worker related safety incidents significantly without compromising this essential work.

Incident analysis and feedback from workers show that track worker safety across the industry has deteriorated in recent years, partly due to out-of-date practices for control of work (CoW). NR subsequently identified three key changes which could dramatically reduce track worker incidents: a move to risk-based CoW practices, defining clear accountabilities, and putting policy into practice with an electronic permit-to-work system and cultural change programme.

NR track safetySafety incidents have been rising among track workers across Europe for the past decade and are increasingly making the news. According to Britain's Office of Rail Regulation (ORR), track worker safety deteriorated 8% in 2013, and given wider public scrutiny of these incidents, as well as train delays and spending, it is critical to reverse this trend to keep track workers safe and to improve operations.

In Britain this is compounded by government plans to increase railway investment to more than £16bn in the latest five-year funding period up to 2019. With more work taking place, the need to manage risk is significant. Furthermore, the lessons learned in Britain by NR are widely applicable to other railway infrastructure companies, as well as companies in other industries, including utilities, transport and construction, which are all aiming to improve worker safety.

As a starting point, NR undertook a benchmarking study with high hazard industries including oil and gas and nuclear. These industries are more mature in CoW than railways and report injury frequency rates up to 30 times better than NR. The study showed that NR's well-intentioned practices had the unintended consequences of creating artificial distinctions between rail and task safety, focusing on generic rather than specific risks, and making it difficult to get a holistic view of risk. The study also showed that there is ambiguity about accountability for safety, leading to dangerous situations.

NR took the results of the benchmarking study and developed a set of principles which it then shared with track workers, unions, and regulators to understand how these principles would work in practice. NR is now in the process of testing and rolling out these new practices to more than 100,000 track workers nationwide.

While this process is not yet complete, early feedback and incident data from trial sites already show improvements in safety. The biggest challenge for the company now is to persuade track workers to change their working behaviour in order to realise the full benefits of the programme, a challenge common to any change and transformation programme.

Lens of risk

One fundamental problem for track workers is NR's previous failure to approach CoW through the lens of risk. The company created an artificial distinction between railway risk and task risk, and elevated the importance of railway risk, which is defined as suffering injury as a result of the normal operation of the railway.

NR was also unable to sufficiently distinguish between different levels of risk, applying the same level of risk assessment and controls for jobs ranging from track inspection to ballast renewal. This was compounded by focusing on a whole list of risks rather than the pertinent ones, with the situation tending to devalue risk assessments and generating lots of paperwork, making it difficult for workers to distinguish what is critical to their safety.

Furthermore, NR lacked an integrated view of risk. Planning and risk assessments were carried out in isolation of other work, so managers were not adequately considering simultaneous operational risks. This led to hazardous interactions between different worksites, while the company also had limited understanding of the cumulative risk from a specific job or at a particular depot.

This approach was changed by carrying out risk assessment as the first stage of the process. Before issuing a permit to work, NR now assesses the risks of the task-at-hand and the environment in which the work is taking place, including the risk introduced by other work underway in the vicinity. NR has standardised the risk assessment process for various tasks which are stored in a library to make it quick and easy to identify mandated controls thus enabling track workers to focus on applying these to the context of specific jobs.

NR subsequently updated its risk assessment process to concentrate on identifying specific risks and removing generic risks such as slips, trips, and falls. It stripped out irrelevant information from the paperwork used on site and focused on giving people the information they need in a way that is meaningful for them, with a visual representation of the track becoming the basis for the assessment.

Everyone now uses the same procedure and electronic CoW system. A single view of the cumulative risk is available along with a complete understanding of the simultaneous operations and interfaces between different work groups. The CoW system allows simultaneous planning of jobs that require similar line blockages, and identifies jobs which could impede another team's work or safety for rescheduling.

In addition, NR empowered those working on the frontline to make their own decisions by training them in risk-based thinking, with the people who will actually carry out the work now actively involved in planning jobs and assessing risk.

Inevitably many different job roles are involved in managing the safety of trackside staff and at any one time several people may assume that they are in charge of safety. One specific challenge has been to identify a process that avoids the confusion of accountability and communication, which is often found when one person is responsible for undertaking work safely, while another individual is responsible for preventing injury from passing rail traffic and electrical traction supply.

In addition to ambiguous leadership accountabilities, the previous process separated planning from execution, meaning the person doing the work is not involved in the initial risk assessment and planning process, leaving some track workers with plans that are no longer fit for purpose.

NR subsequently reviewed and re-defined each of the roles involved in managing the CoW and embedded this in a new process and electronic permitting system, which documents accountabilities from the boardroom down to the frontline.

The company collapsed the artificial distinction between people leading the task and those leading environmental safety to create one, single, accountable person on site. NR also redefined the roles of planners and those leading the delivery of work on site. Now planners and performing authorities must collaborate more and supervisors must be involved in risk assessment and detailed planning from earlier in the process. Finally, the company introduced an independent authorisation process from someone not directly involved in the execution of the work.

The permit-to-work functions as a clear record of accountability and a contract for the scope of work. It requires both parties to understand and agree to it, and is particularly useful for managing changes at the worksite. By basing their decisions on the changing site or task conditions, managers can identify whether to re-plan work or reassess the risk.

To support the new procedure and roles, NR introduced an e-permitting system. This system embeds key rules and practices in the process, and helps to define the authorisations required before moving to the next stage. The electronic system has helped to manage the changes. It also makes cumulative risk levels explicit for planning decisions, and populates permits automatically with the outcome of risk assessments.

While much of NR's work focused on changing the structural or harder elements of the operating model (role structure, procedure, system), these only set the parameters. The key to improving track worker safety performance is changing behaviours.

Working together to design new practices such as designing fit-for-purpose tools was one key lever to help drive the required behaviours. However, the intervention was part of a wider programme of cultural change in the organisation. This programme built key competencies for leading safety and challenging conversations. It also helped employees to develop the propensity and confidence to actively safeguard themselves by thinking about hazards and making risk-based decisions.

This remains a continuing challenge as NR rolls out the three principles across the organisation. Already the company is reporting the positive impact of the new system on track worker safety and motivation, with the key to success working with employees to adopt these changes in the company's culture and organisation.