Regular readers will know that SafetyAWorkBlog believes that there is little justification for road/rail crossings, particularly in metropolitan areas, and that grade separation should be the aim of any crossing upgrades. Too often governments dismiss grade separation without serious consideration because it is usually the most expensive control option. Regardless of expense, elimination of hazards must be considered in public safety policy and OHS. It is only after the elimination of a hazard is seriously considered that lower order control measures are seen to be valid.
At the moment in Victoria, there is community outrage because the truck driver involved in the deaths of 11 train passengers at a level crossing at Kerang has been cleared of any legal responsibility for the deaths. Several relatives of victims are pursuing civil action against the driver, Mr Christiaan Scholl.
The wisdom of civil action against the driver is debatable as any potential financial “win” will come from the insurance pockets of the Transport Accident Commission and not Mr Scholl. Compensation may be gained but any hope that the action could be seen as a “penalty” is false.
The Kerang rail crossing illustrates some basic OHS issues:
The Kerang level crossing had design deficiencies that had repeatedly identified by a number of government authorities, local companies and the public. The court case heard that the crossing was known to be dangerous.
In OHS, known hazards are controlled in a number of ways. Clearly the rail and road traffic was not separated and engineering controls were not introduced at the time of the incident. The owners of the crossing (and this is debated also) determined that signage was appropriate (or even perhaps “as far as is reasonably practicable”?).
Clearly signage was not adequate but there is also the issue of driver (worker) responsibility. It was mentioned in court and repeatedly in the media that the level crossing was known to be dangerous. Why then, would drivers continue to treat the crossing as if it was not? The legal speed limits remained at 100kph, at the time of the incident. The road laws clearly state that road traffic must give way to rail traffic and yet drivers have admitted to complacency.
This is perhaps the source of a lot of the community outrage in relation to the Kerang incident. The findings in favour of the driver place all the responsibility for the incident on the inadequate design of the crossing.
As employers have responsibility to ensure a safe and health work environment, so government has a social and legal obligation to make public areas safe. Victorian governments for decades have neglected the hazards presented by inadequately designed or controlled level crossings. Governments must take responsibility for inaction just as much as taking credit for action and infrastructure improvements.
Infrastructure spending had started to increase prior to the incident but the need was sharply illustrated through the unnecessary deaths of 11 rail passengers. Many Australian governments are spending millions of dollars on rail/road crossing upgrades as a result of the Kerang incident.
Road Safety and OHS
Many OHS professionals illustrate OHS by drawing on road safety. The correlation is very poor but the attempt is understandable – most people drive, they drive within strict laws that were learnt in training (induction), and the road laws are enforced by an external body (police = WorkSafe. However, this relationship has no corresponding role for employers, who have a workplace responsibility. The road user has a direct relationship with the regulator. In OHS the role of the employer is crucial.
Perhaps the Kerang incident and other level crossing incidents could be used in brainstorming to illustrate personal accountability, employer accountability and government responsibility. It would be a worthwhile exercise to discuss whether road safety and workplace safety could share as many educative elements as some of the advocates suggest.
As with most posts on SafetyAtWorkBlog, these thoughts are a work-in-progress and debate and commentary are welcome.
Note: SafetyAtWorkBlog is not privy to any of the court evidence and must rely on media reports. More information will be presented when available.