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Climate of fear surrounds accident reporting

The construction industry is a killer with a “climate of fear” running throughout the supply chain largely to blame. That is the stark conclusion to be drawn from the Office of Rail Regulation’s (ORR’s) latest annual assessment of Network Rail’s performance.

That the independent safety regulator for Britain’s railways could find what it describes as “weaknesses” in the safety culture at Britain’s biggest construction client has to be a concern.

That it found an “underlying climate of fear” holding back the reporting of workplace accidents in the supply chain should be a scandal.

That [the ORR] found an “underlying climate of fear” holding back the reporting of workplace accidents in the supply chain should be a scandal.

Last year the construction industry killed 42 workers; the rail industry supply chain accounted for one of these. Some could argue that one person in an industry that employs tens of thousands is a blip - but surely one is one too many. The rail regulator thinks so.

“Britain has one of the safest railways in Europe but Network Rail must keep up with health and safety improvements to maintain this strong position. Standards must not slip,” says ORR chief executive Bill Emery.

“But the ORR has concerns,” he says. “Weaknesses in Network Rail’s safety culture have been recognised including the exposure of fl awed injury reporting.”

Safety culture weaknesses

Last year the ORR served 14 enforcement notices on Network Rail and a further 19 on its contractors ordering them to address safety risks.

The regulator says it is concerned about the robustness of Network Rail’s own assurance processes because these frequently fail to identify health and safety risks found by ORR inspectors.

The regulator says it is concerned about the robustness of Network Rail’s own assurance processes.

Network Rail has already moved to address this, launching a cultural change programme aimed encouraging staff to report minor accidents without fear of reprisals from managers.

It has also adopted the ORR’s Rail Management Maturity Model to measure its ability to control health and safety risks.

The impact can be seen in the fact that reported worker injury incidents have risen, suggesting that people are less inhibited reporting accidents.

But of great concern is the still evident reticence of workers in the supply chain to report accidents.

“Reversing the underlying climate of fear and the incentives created in some contracting arrangements will take some time to be fully eff ective,” says the ORR’s report.

Supply chain guidelines

The supply chain is attempting to take action. Earlier this month the Construction Industry Council (CIC) unveiled new guidelines for members aimed at helping them explain to clients the importance of demonstrating leadership in health and safety on their projects.

The guidelines are in a booklet, Client Leadership on Health & Safety, being distributed across the UK and internationally via the members of the CIC’s Consultants Health & Safety Forum to the Middle East, North America, Europe and Asia Pacific.

“These guidelines will prompt an open and honest dialogue with our clients,” says consultant Atkins group director for safety Richard Hulland. Atkins led the work to produce the guidelines.

Health & Safety Executive (HSE) chief inspector of construction Philip White emphasises the need for clients to take the lead.

“A proactive client with the right attitude, behavior and interest in health and safety can have a positive impact on a project in reducing the number of serious accidents, increasing near miss reporting and increasing awareness of unsafe behaviour on site,” he stresses.

Health & Safety Executive (HSE) chief inspector of construction Philip White also emphasises the need for clients to take the lead.

“Client leadership on health and safety emphasises the importance of the client formulating a shared vision and values that set high standards for the project. Active involvement and leadership by the client are essential for the delivery of a high performing project and constructive engagement early on of professionals and contractors is vital,” he says.

But it also needs trust in the enforcers. Engineers who spoke to NCE this week were adamant that accidents will continue to go unreported while the HSE offers advice and guidance to firms but then attempts to prosecute them.

That remains the greatest barrier to honest accident reporting, they say.

Whether Emery and others can tackle this remains to be seen, while a full report into Network Rail’s approach to safety is due to be published next month. The ramifications for the rail industry and the construction industry at large could be significant.

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