Although rail maintenance facilities have a high concentration of people, the safety of depot workers does not have the same focus as there is for track workers.
“Yards, depots and sidings account for 20% of all workforce harm – with 29% of fatalities in the last five years occurring in Yards, Depots and Sidings (YDS).”Source: RSSB Annual Health and Safety Report 2019/20
With a third of workforce fatalities occuring in depots in the period covered by the latest RSSB report, there is a need for a depot worker safety task force as there is for track workers. This would help provide a focus on the safety of the railway in its entirety, ensuring everyone returns home safely to their families each day, across the entire network.
The risks to depot staff
The risks that face rail maintenance staff during their day-to-day work are undeniable; high speed vehicles, high voltage electricity and powerful machinery combine to make modern depots potentially deadly places to work. This is further compounded by the growing number of vehicles on the network, leading mounting pressure on operators and a desire to achieve ‘pitstop style’ servicing.
With existing facilities having finite space, and with greater through-put being required, an increasing amount of work is being carried out in non-traditional areas such as stabling roads. It is becoming common place for cleaning, fuelling, sanding, the emptying and cleaning of controlled-emission toilets (CET) and even minor maintenance activities to be carried out on stabling roads. These tracks typically do not have depot protection systems, so staff protection is dependant on rules compliance which does not protect against human error.
Time for change
Achieving high operational throughput while keeping the risk to staff as low as is reasonably possible requires the right safety culture and effective follow up of health and safety incidents.
Whilst “there has been no sustained change in the number of recorded near-miss events involving rail workers over the last five years”, the RSSB Annual Health and Safety Report 2019/20 states that “although train operators input depot accidents to SMIS (Safety Management Intelligence System – the rail industry’s on-line health and safety reporting system), other organisations that carry out train care and maintenance do not. This means the industry does not currently have a complete picture of depot risk. This needs to change. In order for the risks to staff at maintenance depots to be fully addressed, they must first be accurately reported. Considering that the real harm numbers for depots are likely to be much higher than recorded, it is clear that changes need to be made.
In depots, train moves are made in the proximity to the workforce. These are at low speed and generally unsignalled. The modelled risk of being struck or crushed by a train is lower in depots than on the running line. However, such tragic events have occurred in the past, demonstrating that it can happen and there is no room for complacency.
The major risk profile for yards, depots and sidings is dominated by slips, trips and falls, along with accidents caused by contact with objects. This relates directly to the types of work carried out and, although minor injuries have dropped to their lowest level in five years, the RSSB found there has been an increase in major injuries reported. They included instances of staff injured when using tools and equipment, as well as slips and falls on uneven ground.
Integrated depot safety
A fundamental principle of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations is that safety should be designed into any new facility. Minimising harm to staff requires safety to be designed into depots at the earliest opportunity and that this should acknowledge the changing maintenance environment, such as work being conducted on stabling roads.
Hence, it is essential that new-build facilities and modernisation projects consider the risks to staff at the design stage and look to integrate available technologies, such as Zonegreen’s market-leading Depot Personnel Protection System (DPPS).
The planned implementation of technologies such as DPPS brings the concept of ‘safety by design’ to depots. Network Rail defines safety by design as “to control health and safety risks in infrastructure, rolling stock, equipment and processes by early consideration of potential risks and dealing with those risks at the design stage.” However, it is found that all too often, new works or modifications fail to take simple steps to avoid potential hazards.
The RSSB identified the top-three underlying causes of near misses as ‘decision error’, a ‘slip or lapse’ and ‘verbal communications’. Therefore, the key to reducing staff harm is to minimise the margin for human error.
Whereas traditional depot safety relies on paper permits and manual systems that could be misinterpreted or applied incorrectly, DPPS uses intuitive technology to automate safety and remove the human element. It physically eliminates the risks posed by SPADs, overhead lines and high-powered equipment, making it easy to set up safe areas in which to work, where it is impossible for staff to be harmed by decision errors or lapses in communication.
RFID tags identify when an individual is working on a maintenance road, whilst powered derailers protect them from unexpected train movements or heavy machinery. The system also incorporates klaxons and beacons to provide audible and visual warnings of moving vehicles.
The RSSB health and safety report 2019/20 concluded: “Britain’s railways rely on a mix of Victorian engineering and new technology – with everything else in between. Each poses its own challenges. The old infrastructure was built to last. It has done so for over a hundred years, but for how much longer unaided?”
Thankfully, help is at hand. Each DPPS system is designed specifically to meet the individual needs of the depot and its function. It is flexible and future-proofed, enabling it to adapt to the changing maintenance landscape, and can be interlocked with signalling systems and existing third-party equipment such as wheel lathes.
When combined with Depot Manager software, the status of the DPPS can be viewed from a control room, helping to enable the safe and efficient passage of vehicles around facilities, protecting staff and infrastructure.