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Rail contractors told to 'review' use of zero hours contracts

11 Jul 19 The official report into the death of a railway track worker hit by a speeding train has recommended a review of the use of contingent labour on zero hours contracts on the railways.

Stoats Nest Junction, near Purley
Stoats Nest Junction, near Purley

Workers on zero hour contracts have to take whatever work they can get, whenever they can get it. They are inevitably induced into long shifts, leading to unhealthy work patterns and fatigue, with heightened risk of bad decisions and mistakes in a high risk environment, the report says.

“The possible effects of such patterns of employment on fatigue and fitness for work are significant,” the report says.

The recommendation of a review of the use of zero hour contracts is contained within the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) report into a fatal accident that took place on 6th November 2018 at Stoats Nest Junction in Purley.

Publication of the RAIB's findings* today comes on the same day that we report on Network Rail setting aside £70m to a new safety task force [see separate report here] and just a week after two track workers were killed by a train in South Wales.

The Stoats Nest Junction incident

At around 00:28 hrs on the morning of 6th November 2018, a passenger train from London Victoria to Three Bridges, travelling at about 69 mph, struck and fatally injured a track worker in the vicinity of Stoats Nest Junction, near Purley.

The RAIB reports that the accident occurred after the track worker had placed equipment on the track as part of the arrangements for the protection of an engineering possession. Having placed the protection equipment, the track worker then walked along the track until he reached the end of the protected area, and continued walking with his back to rail traffic on an open line.

The report says: “He may have been going to look at some lineside equipment, and believed that no trains would approach on the line he was walking along. He was probably fatigued, and may have been distracted by personal issues linked to the fact that a second person, the possession support assistant who was supposed to be with the track worker, was not present as he had not attended for work that night.”

It continues: “Underlying factors associated with the accident were the nature of the work which exposed the track worker to risk while he was putting out protection for the possession; that the labour supplier’s management processes had not sufficiently identified and addressed the risk of fatigue among zero hours contracted staff; and that the labour supplier’s management processes had neither identified nor prevented staff absenting themselves from work without being detected.

RAIB recommendations

While the RAIB has no power to do anything, it carries mighty influence with industry regulator, the Office of Rail & Road. In this report the RAIB has made two recommendations and identified three' learning points'.

It says: "One recommendation is addressed to Network Rail, to improve the way its labour suppliers manage the risks associated with the use of workers on zero hours contracts, in particular the management of their lifestyle and fatigue. The second recommendation is addressed to Vital Human Resources Ltd, the labour supplier, to commission an independent review of the actions it has taken following the accident at Stoats Nest Junction to assess their effectiveness in detecting and preventing the type of behaviour seen in the accident, and reduce the risks from fatigue. The RAIB has previously made recommendations about reducing the exposure of staff to risk while carrying out possession protection duties, and these are still being considered by the railway industry.

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“A learning point highlights the need for safety-critical staff to be aware that distraction caused by family issues or other employment may affect their fitness for duty. Other learning points highlight the importance of track workers being alert to the risks on the railway, even when they believe that they are working under protection, and the limitations of the railway industry’s ‘Sentinel’ system if it is used for establishing the presence of staff on site.”

Chief inspector of rail accidents Simon French said:

“When workers are employed on a casual basis on zero hours contracts, there can be great pressure for them to try and juggle multiple jobs to make ends meet. The possible effects of such patterns of employment on fatigue and fitness for work are significant. We are therefore recommending that the railway industry reviews the way it manages the use of staff on zero hours contracts, to minimise the risk associated with this pattern of work.

“The continuing requirement for people to go onto the track to place and remove red lamps and explosive detonators, as part of the arrangements for protecting engineering work on the railway, is something that RAIB has queried before. Following a fatality at Reading in 2007, and again after a near-miss in north London in 2017, we recommended that the railway industry should find ways of eliminating the need for people to be exposed to the risk of being struck by trains in these circumstances.

“Modern technology means that there are many ways in which the position of trains can be established, and warnings given to drivers and to track workers, if a train movement goes beyond a safe limit. I believe that the industry should continue to explore ways of eliminating the need for Victorian methods of protection on the twenty-first century railway. It is deeply saddening that another person has died while putting down protection for his fellow railway workers- there must be a better way.

“The need to better manage the continuing risk to those who work on the tracks has again been highlighted by the tragic death of two track workers who were struck and killed by a train at Margam, near Port Talbot, on 3 July. RAIB has started a detailed investigation into the causes of this dreadful event. This will clearly identify the lessons to be learnt and any necessary recommendations for the improvement of safety.”

Rail union RMT responded to the RAIB report by calling for an absolute ban on contracting out‎, an end to the cuts culture, and the replacement of the ORR with a “genuinely independent” safety regulator

RMT general secretary Mick Cash said:  “Once again the Rail Accident Investigation branch has criticised safety standards for the protection of track workers. This latest shocking report should force real change across the industry and it should force it right now.

"Warning after warning from this trade union on fatigue, zero hours and casualisation has not being properly addressed by Network Rail or the safety regulator the ORR. As a result, lives are at a risk and that is a scandal. For all the talk of a modern, digital railway those in charge can't even guarantee basic levels of safety for track records.

"If those responsible for protecting the safety of rail workers are not doing their job then we need a genuinely independent safety inspectorate with real teeth not linked to budget controls and the cosy world of the industry players which is the reality of the failed ORR model.”

*The Stoats Nest Junction rail accident report can be downloaded from The Rail Accident Investigation Branch's website, or by clicking here

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