Don’t rely on alarms

The Australian media has been following the investigation into the crash of a light aircraft that was travelling to Benalla on July 28, 2004.  There was a report on 5 August about a family who will be suing Queensland Rail over the serious bashing of a relative.  Different stories, different states, different modes of transport, but both stories of sadness.

Both stories illustrate an important reminder for the management of safety in workplaces and in public – alarms are there for a reason.

According to media, Barbara Lillicrap, the widow of bashing victim, Scott Lillicrap, said witnesses had pushed the emergency button at the station at least three times, but rail officers believed it to be a prank and ignored it.

A newspaper report says that air traffic controller Stuart Hodge said that an alert was sounded when the plane veered off course before approaching Benalla Airport.  Mr Hodge said false alarms were common and there was a culture among air traffic controllers to ignore them.

These two reports also need to remind safety professionals that alarms are simply audible signs to which people need to respond, or at least acknowledge.  An ignored sign is a useless control measure and if this is likely to occur, then a higher order of control measure needs to be implemented to control the hazard.

(Don’t get me started on signs at level crossings!)

Australian Level Crossings – Part 2

The Victorian Government’s investigation into level crossing safety is continuing. Yesterday the Parliamentary Committee on Road Safety ran a seminar on technological issues related to level crossings. Today (22 July 2008 ) I attended the morning session of a seminar on Fail-Safe technologies. The meat of today’s seminar was to be an open and frank…

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Safety, Maintenance and Business Continuity

America and Europe have a huge advantage over Australia – they know how to respond to a broad range of disasters. Australia has had its share of bushfires and cyclones but because the country is so large and the geology so stable, the large metropolitan centres of Sydney and Melbourne have been spared. This stability has led to less emphasis on the fragility of infrastructure by business operators than there should be.

America and Europe have a huge advantage over Australia – they know how to respond to a broad range of disasters. Australia has had its share of bushfires and cyclones but because the country is so large and the geology so stable, the large metropolitan centres of Sydney and Melbourne have been spared. This stability has led to less emphasis on the fragility of infrastructure by business operators than there should be.

In the Herald-Sun newspaper on 12 April 2008, there was a cover story on the organizational neglect of the State’s electrical infrastructure. This was emphasised recently when it took 6 days for many homes to have power restored after a serious storm, a storm that was of the level that Sydney experiences regularly and that the tropical areas of Australia and designed to withstand.

A government inquiry will be held into the delay but this is unnecessary. Privatised corporations are notoriously neglectful of the need to maintain infrastructure services as there is little profit in holding resources in reserve for large-scale disasters. Numerous inquiries into the disasters on the privatised rail networks in England have shown the corporate values of privatised transport companies, some of whom have investments in Australia.

The poor and unsafe conditions of the infrastructure are not the fault of the companies if we take it that their raison d’etre is to make profit. But we cannot extend the same understanding to governments who forsake the public good for the sake of an improved bottom line.

Poor maintenance leads to unsafe conditions which lead to disasters. As safety professionals we need to stress that adequate levels of maintenance are a core part of any preventative strategy. Not only will it reduce the social impact of any disaster but it maintains a robust corporate economy, reduces employees’ exposure to trauma and establishes a company as an important community asset.

Level Crossings, Driver Behaviour and Politicians

Victoria has experienced several more level crossing incidents in late-March 2008. The significance of one of the recent incidents is that a vehicle driver survived, as happened with the Kerang incident which resulted in multiple fatalities. Curiously, the most recent survival also involved a vehicle colliding with the side of a train already on the railway crossing.

In this case there were no fatalities as the train was freight. But the driver’s comments are interesting. 59-year-old Laurie Heffernan was reported by AAP as admitting using the crossing, 1.5 kilometres from his residence, over 30,000 times and has recommended that freight trains have reflective strips on the sides and that engines should have flashing lights. The incident occurred on a misty morning at 7am.

On radio interviews, Heffernan has also blamed the layout of the road and rail crossing and the proximity of sheds that obscure part of the view of the crossing. This seems a peculiar excuse for someone who must use the crossing on a daily basis.

Yes, Heffernan was travelling slower than the speed limit. Yes, the collision was a glancing blow, but the collision still bounced him “back a bit and it spun me”. He says “If I’d have been travelling faster I probably would’ve gone under it… I would’ve done a lot worse, I mightn’t be talking with you right now.”

His responses, sadly, support the Victorian government’s push for increased driver awareness of level crossings.

The crossing, at Terang, has no flashing lights or boom gates but has recently had rumble strips installed. There was no indication whether Mr Heffernan noticed the rumble strips but he stated they are “useless”.

I have great respect for Victoria’s Transport Minister, Lynne Kosky, having met her before she became a parliamentarian, but her comments after this most recent incident are alarming and ill-advised

Her government established a parliamentary inquiry into level crossings as a result of an increase in incidents and fatalities. That inquiry has received many submissions and has had its timeline expanded to October 2008. The inquiry is not a court case so is not sub-judice but the Minister has knee-capped the inquiry by stating that various safety control measures are not needed or cannot be afforded for rural crossings. Her comments could make some of the legitimate findings of the inquiry look stupid. The inquiry cannot now recommend boom gates on every rail crossing. It is highly unlikely that grade separations could ever be seriously recommended.

How such an intelligent parliamentarian could place such limitations on the inquiry, or her advisers let her say such things, is very surprising. In this circumstance politician-speak of “let’s wait and hear what the rail safety experts in the parliamentary inquiry will say when they report to Parliament in October” would have been appropriate.

Kosky is forever going to have to explain to the families of victims of rail incidents why one particular rail crossing had less control measures than another crossing down the track. If she had applied the political nous that I know she has, she would have increased the validity of the parliamentary inquiry that her own Labor Government established.

As it is she has shown that it is not only America that has politicians who resemble Tonya Harding.

Australian Level Crossings

The State Government has instigated a Parliamentary Inquiry into level crossing incidents. Submissions have been received and the final report is expected at the end of 2008. For the next couple of SafetyAtWork blogs I am going to look at some of the submissions from an OHS perspective and in terms of grade separations, the most effective control measure for level crossings.

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The State Government has instigated a Parliamentary Inquiry into level crossing incidents. Submissions have been received and the final report is expected at the end of 2008. For the next couple of SafetyAtWork blogs I am going to look at some of the submissions from an OHS perspective and in terms of grade separations, the most effective control measure for level crossings.

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