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Sunday 24 March 2019

Revealed: rail staff failing to report 'near misses' for fear of being reprimanded

Malahide viaduct collapsed in 2009 because workmen checking it did not know how to properly assess it. But a new report has raised concerns staff will not report safety worries because of fears of being reprimanded.
Malahide viaduct collapsed in 2009 because workmen checking it did not know how to properly assess it. But a new report has raised concerns staff will not report safety worries because of fears of being reprimanded.

Niall O'Connor

Irish Rail workers are failing to report "near misses" or incidents on the country's railways for fear of being blamed by senior management, a damning safety audit reveals.

The draft report, commissioned by the Railway Safety Commission (RSC), also warns of "poor morale" among workers due to recently imposed pay cuts.

Safety experts flagged a "lack of (trust) or a mistrust between frontline staff and management" and found that senior management appeared to meet with staff only to deliver "bad news".

"As it stands, the message that the frontline receives is that management is not welcoming of their views," the draft report states.

The independent audit, which was carried out last year by a UK-based consultancy firm, calls for significant improvements in the safety culture at Irish Rail.

Seventeen senior staff and board members, including company CEO David Franks and chairman Phil Gaffney, were interviewed as part of the audit.

Investigators found that so-called "near misses" - events with the potential to cause death, injury or damage - were not being reported.

Examples of non-reporting of near misses included incidents of over-speeding and marker boards (which are erected to advise drivers about temporary speed restrictions) being out of position.

While pointing out that Irish Rail is "far from unique" in dealing with a lack of near-miss reporting, the auditors said trust needed to be built between management and staff.

"The current weakness is very much in the area of safety culture, which was widely characterised in audit interviews by a lack of trust between management and frontline staff and management being seen to be involved only at times of bad news," the report states.

"This is discouraging near-miss reporting, so that a full picture of risk is not visible at senior management and board level and feedback on the implementation of standards is limited (allowing poor standards to endure)."

The report was also critical of what it described as "a tendency for simple explanations to be put forward as a justification for inaction, issues of national culture being used to explain why non-compliance exists".

Auditors found that recent cost-reduction measures, which have included pay cuts, have contributed to a sense of poor morale.

Major reservations were expressed by interviewees in relation to the proposed reorganisation of Irish Rail, which is suffering from serious financial difficulties.

The findings lend support to claims by unions last week that the level of frustration among train drivers had reached "fever pitch". As revealed last week, strike action is now on the cards.

Contacted last night, the National Bus and Rail Union (NBRU) called on the company and the minister to immediately address the issues raised.

General secretary Dermot O'Leary said: "Hundreds of millions have been spent on redundancy, staff numbers have been cut by thousands and the workload and responsibility have increased, with no extra remuneration for staff.

"Therefore you don't have to be an expert on rail safety to understand that low morale among frontline staff, the vast majority of whom perform safety-critical functions, can result in negative consequences.

"We have been consistent in highlighting the fact that the rail service in Ireland is seriously underfunded, there is an obvious challenge here for the minister. He needs to assure the travelling public and Irish Rail staff that the safety of the railway is not being compromised as a result of funding cuts."Irish Rail said the findings were contained in a draft report and that discussions with the RCS were ongoing.

Its director of communications, Barry Kenny, said: "The purpose of any draft report is to ensure parties have an opportunity to review and comment upon content and to ensure factual accuracy before the report is finalised.

"We have a professional working relationship with the RSC, which facilitates exchange of information and comment, as we jointly work towards the common goal of the safest possible railway."

Mr Kenny said Irish Rail had one of the strongest rail safety records in Europe.

The RCS said "The audit and the responses thereto raised fundamental issues of policy, culture, governance and management. It did not reveal any immediate danger to passengers, staff or contractors, but rather strategic issues of longer term concern which are being addressed...".

Irish Independent

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