A tragic incident has sadly put the issue of safety in the industry firmly back in the spotlight.
British Transport Police announced that it was working with the Rail Accident Investigation Branch to establish how a 30-year-old rail worker died on the tracks near Surbiton station in south-west London on 9 February. It was later confirmed by South Western Railway that a Network Rail worker had died after being struck by a train.
The TSSA trade union immediately branded the death as “unacceptable” with general secretary Manuel Cortes raising “serious questions for rail industry bosses” and suggesting there was a “slipping attitude to health and safety”.
Is the safety culture in the industry really slipping?
Provisional data from the Health and Safety Executive shows that there were three fatal injuries to civil engineering workers in 2019/20 – broadly in line with two the prior year and three the year before that. Indeed, the rate of non-fatal reportable injury in the sector dropped slightly from 200 per 100,000 workers in 2017/18 to 186 per 100,000 in 2019/20.
However, these figures only cover incidents up to very early April last year, when the Covid-19 pandemic was in its infancy.
Have attitudes changed since then? What we can say is that the pandemic has brought a whole host of pressures on to senior management teams to be covid safe that could have taken the focus away from operational and construction safety of workers.
We’ve spoken to several key people at big infrastructure businesses who have confided to me that they have private concerns about safety within their organisations at this time. This is unusual and suggests to me that there is indeed a problem across the industry. It really does feel as though safety performance may have dropped in recent times.
Of course, I am not commenting directly on the tragedy near Surbiton this month – we will await the investigation findings in due course. But on a broader scale, it does appear that the industry needs to redouble its efforts on safety.
There are a number of reasons why operational safety may have been compromised over the past 12 months.
1. Focus on Covid-security measures
The government has published a raft of guidelines for businesses to keep construction sites open during the pandemic. These include suggestions such as minimising face-to-face working; staggering arrival and departure times; and reducing the number of people present at site inductions. There is logic to all these measures but taken together they represent a formidable change to the way most sites operate and will have dominated management and safety resources for prolonged periods.
2. Unintended effect of Covid-security measures
As well as taking up valuable time and energy – albeit for a perfectly valid reason, in slowing the spread of the virus – introducing Covid compliance measures has reduced the number of staff on site, which could actually in some cases make working practices less safe for workers. The government does advise that risk assessments are undertaken to select which actions to take, but reading through the long list of guidelines, there is undoubtedly potential for people to be put in positions that make them less likely to transmit Covid-19 but more likely to have a workplace accident.
3. Leadership site visits
At the top of its guidance on construction work, the government points out that during the current lockdown you can only attend sites “where it is unreasonable to do your job from home”. This is clearly true for an electrical engineer but is it true for an Operations Director or MD undertaking a safety leadership tour? It can be interpreted either way and probably varies with circumstance. Senior managers in some companies have still been attending sites over the past year, while others have been told to stay away to minimise the risk of transmission to site staff. It is easy to see how reducing safety leadership visits may have a detrimental effect on the safety culture within an organisation.
4. Fall in resources
Most businesses in the industry have been financially hit by Covid-19. Most if not all of them will have seen key projects delayed and a drop in revenue. Companies have responded by cutting back on their central overheads in light of this and that could mean a drop in health and safety personnel through redundancies or furloughing. There has also been more staff off sick at any one time across the economy, and people also having to isolate or care for family members. We know mental health has been hit as well. Overall, while the safety challenges have increased, the number of people in a position to tackle them has dropped.
So, we can see the pressures that are leading to concerns about health and safety from high up within organisations in our sector.
These challenges are unlikely to disappear overnight and the consequences of failing to tackle them effectively could be huge for an organisation and of course more importantly for the many individuals working within them.
Writing ahead of the Prime Minister’s announcement on Monday 22 February to set out a gradual easing of the latest national lockdown, it does not appear that Covid guidelines will be dropped any time soon.
The key will be getting the right skills into senior management positions to ensure that operational safety is given the attention it deserves and needs for the next 12 months or so – and beyond.
We’ve noticed that change management, staff engagement and effective operational leadership are particularly sought-after competencies at present for business leadership roles with our clients. Organisations want to know that people they put into leadership roles can steer their ship through this choppy period.
In time to come, when the virus is beaten and the economy recovers, entrepreneurs and contact-laden deal-winners might be sought more highly. But right now – with so much pressure on areas such as safety, well-being and morale – people who can engage with their teams and get their message across whether over video screen or on site are extremely valuable.