Safety on the railways?

Health and safety campaigners have welcomed the jailing of a rail boss, found guilty of killing four maintenance workers who died when a runaway wagon ploughed into them. Mark Connell, 44, had deliberately dismantled the brakes on two of his wagons in order to save money.

He received a nine year sentence for each of the four counts of manslaughter, to run concurrently. However the jailing of Connell, though welcome, is perhaps not quite the victory it first seems. As the construction giant Carillion plc, who subcontracted Connell to carry out the work, and as such should take some of the blame, was never prosecuted.

Connell’s company, MAC Machinery Services, is typical of the countless number of sub-contractors carrying out work on British Railways. These dubious outfits care little about the safety of their largely self-employed labour force, they hire workers who often have little or no experience of working on the railways and even less heath & safety training. The large construction companies, contracted to carry out track maintenance since rail privatisation, are fully aware of the nature of these cowboy companies but use them because they come cheap and so boost profits. When accidents occur and workers pay with their lives, the directors of rich and powerful companies such as Carillian , Balfour Beatty and First Engineering simply walk away passing the blame for criminal safety.

This culture of passing the buck has become the normal way of working on the railways and is used where companies employ workers directly. Here companies employ what at first sight appears to be vigorous heath and safety polices. Workers are sent on endless safety courses and have to sign off regular safety briefing. These polices are largely cosmetic and mask poor and unsafe working conditions, based on long hours and understaffing in which the pressure is constantly on workers to get work done in a short space of time. When rail workers cut safety corners simply to get the job done management are happy to turn a blind eye. Until that is an accident occurs, then the safety briefing and course attended are wheeled out as prove of the companies commitment to health and safety and blame is passed onto individual workers who are castigated for not following company safety procedures. To the extent that it is now routine for workers to be disciplined or sacked for breaches of health and safety, a practice virtually unheard of under nationalisation when safety procedures were seen as a means of preventing accidents rather a get out clause for managers.

Sadly this “blame it on the workers” culture now extends across most sectors of the British economy. Privatisation, increasing casualisation and ever longer hours has resulted in ever worsening working conditions that lead to poor health and safety standards. Which companies conceal by creating veneer of heath and safety respectability to disguise often appalling work place practices.

A whole industry of experts has been created that employers can call upon to instruct workers on heath and safety practices. Creating a “virtual” world of safety procedures that bare little relation to the realities of what actually happens in the workplace which only function is to transfers all safety responsibility onto worker. When things go wrong management simply blame workers for not following guidelines.

In to many workplaces it is management that have the whip hand and when bosses have control the result will always be poor standards of heath and Safety. The long term solution to poor heath and safety is to rebuild workplace organisation that can challenge the power of management in order to improve working conditions. Good health and safety does not depend on presenting workers with certificates for attending some nonsense course they have been forced to attend. But rather workers having control over their working environment in order to challenge the power of managers who inevitably but cost before the heath and welfare of workers.

From Catalyst # 14

Posted By

May 2 2006 13:33


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