Network Rail has been told to improve the way its labour suppliers manage the risks associated with zero hours contracts, in particular the management of fatigue.
In a stark warning, the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) said that the railway industry’s use of staff on zero hours contracts 'for night work creates conditions in which it is difficult to manage fatigue effectively'.
The RAIB also raised concerns about workers having to be on the track for various activities in the first place calling them 'Victorian methods of protection on the twenty-first century railway'.
The warning follows the death of a track worker hit by a train in the vicinity of Stoats Nest Junction, near Purley.
The 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.
They were struck and fatally injured by passenger train.
The RAIB's report on the incident, which happened in November last year, found a number of 'underlying factors' associated with the tragic death.
- 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.
The RAIB also recommended that the labour supplier connected to the incident, Vital Human Resources Ltd, should '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 also warned of limitations of the railway industry’s ‘Sentinel’ system if it is used for establishing the presence of staff on site.
'There must be a better way'
Simon French, chief inspector of Rail Accidents 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.'
RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: '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.'
Network Rail has already pledged £70m to a new taskforce to tackle track worker safety risks, after another two workers were killed recently in South Wales.
The RAIB has started a detailed investigation into the causes of that incident.
Network Rail has been approached for comment.