Occupational health performance

Network Rail

Overview: available evidence shows meaningful progress towards worker health being treated on an equal basis with worker safety, but we are not there yet. Pockets of innovation and good practice exist, but we served a further two notices in 2014-15 on the basics of assessment and control of health risks. These included substandard arrangements for manual handling and the control of substances hazardous to health.

Evidence: available data suggests the level of occupational ill health in railways is similar to construction – another high risk sector. The sickness absence rate in railways is 4%, compared with 2% in the private sector. Respiratory disease rates in railway workers are relatively high. Musculoskeletal disorders, stress, and hand arm vibration syndrome (HAVS) are also key health issues in the industry. New cases of work-related ill health cost railway employers £2.5-5 million a year, not including the longer term economic effects from occupational cancers, and our surveys suggest health claims cost around £3 million per year. We recently issued our 'better health is happening: ORR assessment of progress on occupational health up to 2014 and priorities to 2019' report.

In the short term, we are targeting our inspection to achieve basic legal compliance with occupational health law. We will continue to focus on industry's asbestos management, exposure to silica dust in ballast and management and prevention of HAVs. We continue to proactively monitor the network-wide implementation of Network Rail's 'Transforming Health and Wellbeing strategy', including the appointment of route occupational health managers and the implementation of their route action plans.

All cases reported to ORR under RIDDOR* from across Britain's railways: 2010-11 to 2014-15 (most were related to the mainline railway):

Disease type 2010-11 2011-12 2012-13 2013-14 2014-2015
Carpal tunnel syndrome1 4 0 2 2 4
Cramp in the hand or forearm due to repetitive movements 0 0 2 1 0
Hand arm vibration syndrome (HAVS) 34 95 97 74 80
Infectious disease due to biological agents 0 1 3 0 0
Occupational asthma 0 0 0 2 1
Occupational cancers 0 0 0 0 0
Occupational dermatitis 1 0 0 0 1
Tendonitis or tenosynovitis in hand or forearm 1 1 0 0 1
Total 40 97 104 78 87

1Carpal tunnel syndrome is a nerve disorder which may involve pain, tingling, numbness and weakness in parts of the hand and can be caused by, among other things, exposure to vibration.

Source: RSSB and ORR.
*Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations, 2013

Train and freight operators

Overview: we are seeing some evidence of the benefits of robust and proactively applied occupational health strategies. These include better staff attendance, improved health and reduced employee absence costs, but train and freight operators have more to do. There are some slight variations between comparable operators' staff sickness absence and overall wellbeing levels. 

The specific issues we will be looking at are asbestos management, noise at work, managing stress and the control of substances hazardous to worker health.

Evidence: we found areas of improvement such as safety leadership, the trialling of new technologies and work methods, the provision of safety information to staff, staff engagement and good use of safety targets. However, operators must ensure their line managers and supervisors have health management competencies and monitor the compliance with their own company health plans. We will continue to use our RM3 assessments of operators' safety management systems to identify weaknesses and target improvement.

We found examples of substandard risk assessment, poor provision of personal protective equipment and checks on its use by staff and competence management systems that are not yet good enough. We also saw insufficient efforts to ensure corrective risk management actions are implemented and a lack of consideration of occupational health issues at the design stage.