South Africa's Railway Safety Regulator (RSR) organised a two-day conference at Midrand's Gallagher Convention Centre from 29 February to 1 March. Targeting mainly rail operators, businesses issued with permits, decision makers within the management structure and operators in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, the aim was to create greater awareness about human factor management as an element in managing railway operations. The RSR wanted to emphasise that it goes far beyond simply 'singing the safety song', its activities being concentrated on putting the concept into practice.
RSR chief executive officer Nkululeko Poya explained that 'as much as technology and capital in terms of machinery can be sourced from anywhere in the world, it is most difficult to find skilled human input. An entity that loses skilled workers due to unsafe practice in the workplace has a business killer on its hands. Management needs to ensure that good care is taken of employees'.
RSR's plans for creating awareness did not end in Midrand. The organisation offered to visit operational areas and provide workshops to ensure continuing awareness of what RSR requires of operating line managers.
Every operator and permit holder is required by RSR to submit an annual report as part of the annual safety improvement plans that comply with the prescribed safety standards. RSR inspectors conduct compliance audits and identify potential risk areas, thereby promoting the prevention of accidents. Operators regarded as being 'high-risk' are checked between 10-20 times a year, while those with a lower risk profile are checked at least once a year.
As part of its mandate to promote harmonisation of the railway safety regime in South Africa with the Southern African Development Community (SADC), RSR's CEO recently undertook visits within the region, including Namibia, Swaziland and Angola. Safety permits were issued to Swaziland Railway (SR), Caminhos de ferro do Moçambique (CFM - the state railway & harbours) and Botswana Railways (BR)
With the extent of safety consciousness varying between countries, the RSR has been assisting those in the SADC community to put their standards in order and in setting up and enforcing annual safety improvement plans.
During the conference, experts in specified fields made presentations offering 30-40minutes presentations in three broad categories:
• The human system interface (design issues),
• Physical environmental factors, and
• Organisational and psychological factors.
The human-system interface refers to the matching of tools, machines, systems, tasks and environments to the physical and psychological capabilities and limitations of people, and seeks to safeguard safety, health, and well-being - at the same time optimising efficiency and performance. The potential effects of poor design include impaired cognitive functioning, impaired vision, changes in reaction time, burn-out, stress, fatigue, drowsiness, neurological disorders (bone, joint, muscular, vascular), which could lead ultimately to unsafe work practices. It is recommended that operators use design specialists where necessary to ensure the adequate and efficient design of tools, equipment, workstations and machinery.
Human factors consultant Jessica Hutchings gave an informative presentation on user-centred design, highlighting the importance of considering the user when designing ergonomics. Both organisation and user perform better when users are involved in the design of equipment. Time, cost and the effort of making changes will all be minimised.
Physical environmental factors
Physical environmental factors include noise, vibration, lighting, thermal environment and hazardous substances. Excessive or inadequate exposure to these environmental factors could result in immediate or delayed health effects, fatigue, impaired vision, and cognitive functioning which could eventually result in unsafe work practices.
Operators are required to conduct hygiene surveys to determine the impact of these physical environmental factors on safe railway operations. These include noise surveys to ensure that safety critical communication is not compromised and that the hearing of the employees is not impaired. Lighting surveys are needed to determine the level of lighting required to perform tasks safely. Good lighting whether natural or artificial has an important role to play in promoting health and safety at work as good lighting assists both in the identification of hazards and reduces the likelihood of visual fatigue and discomfort, thus contributing to safe railway operations.
A presentation on physical factors was made by Sibongiseni Myeni, a certified occupational hygienist. He stressed environmental factors that can get in the way of maintaining the safety standards legislated by Sans 3000-4, the Occupational Health and Safety Act (Act 85 of 1993) and Sans 10103, among others. Sibongiseni highlighted how noise interferes with hearing and the detection of warning signals and the importance of eliminating noise so that it does not interfere with decision-making and thought processes. Poor lighting impacts on the safety of the railway system and it is vital that relevant experts be employed to instal and maintain proper lighting.
The thermal environment, Myeni pointed out, affects railway safety in that thermal stress and thermal comfort impact on an individual's coping mechanisms when temperatures are extreme and fall outside's that person's comfort zone. These can cause reduced work rate, changes in reaction time, hypothermia, dehydration, exhaustion and fatigue. Policies, processes and procedures need to be put in place to educate management and employees in matters relating to managing the environment and follow the prescribed national standards. The training should include relevant national legislation and policies, roles and responsibilities, safe working practices and the process of monitoring thermal environment controls. The existence of a management system for hazardous substances is essential. Substances have to be managed so that they do not impact on safe railway operations and in such a way that operators or employees exposed to them do not experience adverse effects or health.
Organisational and psychological factors
Organisational and psychological factors include: recruitment and selection, training, medical surveillance, fitness for duty, chronic medical conditions, medication, pregnancy, employee well-being, substance abuse, fatigue management and stress management.
Multi-faceted burdens could result from chronic and acute medical conditions, substance abuse, fatigue caused by insufficient rest periods, and excessive work and personal stress that could lead to temporary or permanent inability to work, thus impacting on safe railway operations. Railway operators need to develop appropriate policies and procedures to address each requirement listed in this standard, to ensure safe railway operations. The fitness-for-duty requirement is all-inclusive in that it touches every other requirement in the standard. Employees undertaking safety related work need to be fit for duty meaning physically and mentally healthy, well rested, alert, managed stress levels, free from substances that could impair their faculties, free from any disabling medical conditions and adequately trained and competent.
Dr Nomonde Buyisiwe Mabuya, an occupational medicine practitioner, elaborated on the impact of chronic diseases and medication on safety-related work. A condition is termed chronic when it is present for at least six months. A safety-critical worker assessment includes a comprehensive physical and psychological appraisal to detect conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, epilepsy, sleep or psychiatric disorders. The assessment can be in form of screening, clinical examination or a questionnaire.
To ensure thoroughness in this area, the rail environment should be properly understood, appraisal needs to be made in line with Standard 3000-4, and methodical liaison with general practitioners or specialists must be maintained, always with the worker's consent.
Chronic diseases that are identified must be evaluated by a specialist (eg by a cardiologist in the case of post-cardiac surgery), who will advise when an employee is fit to return to safety-critical work in the short term. In instances such as post-surgery, a patient may be classified as temporarily unfit for duty. In cases of hypertension, an employee with blood pressure in a seated position exceeding 160/110 should be booked off work until treatment results in a reading of 140/90.
If an employee is found to be suffering from epilepsy, and has recurring seizures, Dr Mabuya advised immediate suspension from safety-critical work. An initial or isolated case of seizure, he pointed out, is not the same as epilepsy. In this case, the decision may be 'fit for duty subject to review', taking into account the opinion of a specialist in epilepsy and the nature of the subject's work.
The sensitive issues of HIV and Aids were also covered in presentations, as these may affect ability to perform safety-critical work due to impairment of mental or other body function. In recent years, it should be noted, anti-retroviral therapy has had a significant impact on the prognosis and well-being of many patients.
Challenges in trying to regulate the impact of chronic diseases in the workplace include lack of disclosure by individuals, as well as insufficient guidance for doctors who may have inadequate appreciation of what a particular job entails. Shortcomings in the coordination of medical management systems by operators is another problem area as can be the failure of general practitioners or specialists to take potential risks to public safety into account. While the sudden collapse of (for instance) a driver from a heart attack is normally unpredictable, there is an important onus on the medical profession to act appropriately if there is a history of a heart condition.
The South African government's very considerable investment plans for the rail industry during the next 10-20 years in itself poses a substantial risk. Through application of its Project Life Cycle, the RSR should be involved in the design of all systems that require human interface. The organization's future plans envisage standards and the application of techniques equivalent to those accepted as commonplace in the developed world. Devices such as automatic braking when a train passes a danger signal are examples of measures one should aim to introduce. Above all, the RSR wants to see commuters feel safe and comfortable at all times.
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