Level crossings and safety management

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:

Worker responsibility

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.

Working environment

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.

Kevin Jones

Note: SafetyAtWorkBlog is not privy to any of the court evidence and must rely on media reports.  More information will be presented when available.

2 thoughts on “Level crossings and safety management”

  1. Col

    Firstly let me say I appreciate your effort in commenting. The reference to sign research is particularly useful.

    Grade separation has always been a political decision which is why in Victoria, there are so few. I can\’t dispute the VicRoads costs but the estimates, and I have heard different ones in recent Parliamentary Committee meetings on the issue, need to acknowledge that the construction costs should have been spread over decades, if the political will and foresight had been applied, as it has been in other Australian States.

    I accept your point on the adequacy of most metropolitan crossing signage and barriers and will use my local crossing as an example of political shortsightedness (another case of not seeing the signs). The level crossing has boom gates that only block one half of the road thereby allowing plenty of space for a driver to choose to drive around the barriers and proceed, which I have seen many drivers do. From OHS principles, the barriers should have extended across the entire road because effectively most Victorian level crossing have \”half a guard\” and we know from machine guarding that any barrier that can be easily bypassed is next to useless.

    Bring back manually-operated barrier gates, they looked lovely, provided employment and covered the road in both directions.

  2. There are a lot of applicable OH&S principles in this indeed.

    I think road safety has some, specific correlation with OH&S principles. And I\’ve seen research on road safety that could quite possibly teach us some important stuff about workplace safety.

    The most common road safety issue I use is to assure punters that they do risk assessments very quickly while driving. All the core elements of informing, training, experience and engineering issues are a factor when making lots of safety decisions while driving. That\’s not to say there is a tight fit with workplace safety, but I think it does help demystify day-to-day risk assessments.

    Clearly, this isn\’t applicable to complex safety issues, but a good fit with the more contemporary idea that exhaustive deliberation on a safety issue that has a bleedingly obvious solution is a silly waste of time – and puts people unnecessarily at risk when the fix can be quick.

    On the benefits of road safety research for OH&S, I saw an excellent bit of research on how people react to road safety signs. I\’d found that when I was doing an e-newsletter for a safety equipment distributor. The paper I found was on the Australian Transport Safety Bureau web site and is called \”Signs of trouble to come? A behavioural assessment of the effectiveness of road signs\”by Adams et al. Here is the URL to find the paper: http://tinyurl.com/m2ps7u

    The research seemed to suggest that a sign has more impact if people know why a safety sign is in place, but I thought the really interesting bit was the paper mentioning how other research had suggested that the viewer of a road sign makes a judgement about the probability of them being hurt if they don\’t take account of the sign. Even more interestingly was the suggestion that the probability of being injured seems to be more important than what will happen if they don\’t obey a sign.

    For mine that\’s an example of how road safety research and issues could well have big implications for work safety. Look how often we will see explanations of what will happen if something dangerous is done. And look how rare it is to find stuff on how likely it is an injury will happen. And I should add I\’m not talking about when we dig deep into OH&S research to find probability of injury: I\’m talking about the typically available material, the stuff the punter is readily able to get hold of. It seems reasonable to suggest there\’s lessons here for OH&S advice – up to including that we may be getting it wrong by not giving the punter easily digested information on how likely it is they will be injured.

    I\’d also suggest that this stuff on how individuals respond to road signs is something that is equally important for finding the triggers to make an employer understand the need to control risks, as it is for the individual to understand the need to participate in safe work practices.

    On the issue of \”grading separation\” at rail crossings, I\’d suggest that once there is law, flashing lights, and boom gates you\’d reasonably expect that sufficient has been done to keep the road user safe. I\’d also suggest that we could all come up with lots of options for excellent safety \”bang for the buck\” with the billions that providing grading separation for all rail crossings would cost. From the VicRoads site I get the idea that a \”typical\” railway overpass bridge costs about $30,000,000. That\’s about the price of 15 railway crossings with lights and boom gates (if me arithmetic is right!).

    When I see flashing lights, bells ringing and a dirty big lump of wood get dropped in front of me, I think I get the message loud and clear. Sure an overpass bridge eliminates the railway crossing hazard, and saves me that precious couple of minutes through not having to stop at a boom gate. But those advantages will invariably mean that there will be a rail crossing somewhere out in the bush is waiting for the money to be found to put in some useful engineering controls. Sure cost ain\’t everything when it comes to working out what is reasonably practicable. But can we sensibly say that flashing lights, bells and a boom gate isn\’t a practicable way to control the risk?

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