Keep it simple: rail safety in the digital age

The UK rail industry has a deeply ingrained culture of safety, evidenced in its position as the safest railway in Europe. However, industry experts have expressed concern that in the pursuit of a digital railway, the health and safety of its workforce could be compromised.

Arguably, this concern could be attested to the industry’s longstanding reputation of being culturally reluctant to change, particularly as change is often associated with risk. However, the rail industry also has a long and proud tradition of learning from its extensive experiences. As a result, there is growing acceptance that paper-based systems are becoming inefficient, specifically when it comes to how the industry approaches, manages and mitigates safety and risk. Across the wider transport industry, the somewhat natural alternative to paper-based processes is the smartphone; which bodes the question: does the smartphone have a place in the future of rail safety?

Digital safety in a digital world

While the industry once banned the use of smartphones on worksites, through fear of causing risk or injury to potentially distracted operatives, a clear majority of companies in the industry are now acknowledging the wide-reaching benefits of smartphone technology, and the quality of work that can be achieved through its adoption.

At this year’s Rail Safety Summit, a popular topic of discussion focused on increasing levels of communication and collaboration across the industry to facilitate improvements in the safety of those working on or near the line. While smartphones weren’t directly discussed, the solution, given the long-term aims of the rail industry becomes clear; particularly when considering the disparate nature of the rail industry’s workforce.

Indeed, the primary function of the smartphone is communication. This, in turn, is the fundamental cornerstone of collaboration. As the industry strives for a more collaborative approach to health and safety, digitising its processes using smartphones offers a clearer view of the workforce and what is needed to ensure health and safety procedures are being followed and implemented correctly on site. Similarly, from the perspective of the workforce, having core processes available within an app based platform makes it far easier to engage with, and adhere to, industry standards and good practice from anywhere in the network.

The rail industry’s need for smartphone driven digitisation

The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) have reported that, despite measures taken by the industry to ensure the health and safety of operatives, there are still significant gaps in consistency in its management. During the ‘safety, culture and personal responsibility’ section of the event, Ian Prosser, chief inspector of railways and director of railway safety, discussed that while there has been a strong safety performance in recent years, there are still areas that require vast improvement.

Equally, the Rail Office Investigation Branch (RAIB) indicates that the reality of risk assessment planning is not ideal, with reactive risk assessment approaches being implemented more often than predictive. While there is a valid argument that indicates both are needed, safe system of work planning and health and safety processes need to be addressed first.

Furthermore, RAIB’s reports show that there is a mismatch between the reality of safe system of work planning and the industry standard. Planners are sometimes never on site, and thus unaware of site conditions in places. As a result, what is laid out in the safe system of work plan does not always align with the realities of working onsite. In some cases, it is reported that the COSS often plans the safe system of work, which negates what is outlined in Network Rail’s standards. Therefore, there is a vocal need for greater collaboration between planners, site safety leaders (safe work leaders), and the COSS. This is addressed in Issue 9 of Network Rail’s 019 Standard, compliance of which is now in its first active week throughout the network.

The improvement in these areas lies in digitising the paper-intensive processes involved in the planning of works delivery. Doing so, will enable the fundamental transformation in how the industry plans work on the railways in the moving forward. Indeed, the rail industry has taken great strides in recent years to truly embrace innovation, with more companies now realising the true power of technology and the role it will continue to play in the future. The first step towards the digital railway is smartphone adoption. While there is certainly no complacency involved in utilising smartphone and app technology to streamline and digitise processes, there are still gaps in understanding just how it can transform how operatives carry out their work.

How can smartphone adoption benefit the safety of the workforce?

Network Rail’s recent 019 Standard update outlines the necessary steps companies need to take to be compliant, and the obvious solution to what is called for is a powerful app-based platform that can be distributed directly to the personal devices of the industry’s workforce. Being able to digitally plan work to be carried out in a single, end to end workflow, is not only quicker and more cost effective than utilising paper-based processes that can take days to complete, it also offers teams the ability to communicate and collaborate more effectively, regardless of where they are in the network. Having an app-based platform that utilises collaboration tools not only addresses the issues Ian Prosser raised in his presentation, but it also streamlines and increases the efficiency of how work is planned on the railways.

Digitising workflows and paper-based processes also transforms how data is shared in the industry. Enabling operatives to submit vital documentation, such as close calls, schematics and industry-permits digitally, not only establishes a culture of data sharing in rail, but also enables the workforce to become more predictive in mitigating risk. This fundamentally transforms the improvement of the safety landscape, as well as the industry’s further digital engagement in the future.

Beyond planning, operative health and safety can also be digitised to improve the quality of the rail industry’s workforce. According to the ORR, Hand Arm Vibration issues are under reported in rail. The most recent annual health and safety report shoes that this is a key area that requires further occupational health involvement and improvement across the industry. Over exposure to power tool vibrations is, as a result, a common health and safety hazard which suggests a mismatch between the reality and principles of good practice reporting in rail. Digitising the management of this would enable operatives to become more aware of the hazards of over exposure to power tools and receive guidance and prompts on how long to use these tools for before causing harm to themselves or others.

Equally, fatigue management is an increasing issue that the industry is starting to deal with more rigorously. Network Rail’s Home Safe Plan outlines fatigue management as a priority, however, as reported by the ORR there is evidence of operatives suffering from reduced mental awareness, impaired concentration, and judgement as a result of sleeping in their cars due to long hours and having to travel long distances to get to and from worksites.

In a similar process to Hand Arm Vibration management tools, a digital fatigue management tool that could monitor levels of operative fatigue and enable the implementation of appropriate policies, in line with good practice, to counter-act the growing problems faced by operatives, on a platform that can collate and distribute data to identify trends and areas of improvement for the wider rail industry to consider and implement, not only vanquishes the concept of fatigue in rail, but increases the concept of more predictive health and safety management across the industry.

The future of rail safety

While there is always work to be done to ensure the continual improvement of workforce health and safety, the industry is increasingly actively pursuing technology to support this. The industry is quickly realising the inefficiencies of paper-based processes, and the benefits of digital health and safety management far outweigh any cons. Smartphone and tablet adoption empowers the workforce to consider health and safety in a new way and enables them to take their own safety, as well as the safety of their teams, into their own hands. This not only answers the industry’s aims for increased and improved collaboration, it also facilitates the improvement of a valued health and safety culture as the industry continues to pursue a digital railway.