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HomeCorporate ResponsibilityHealth and safetyRail Safety Week - Fatigue and competence in the rail industry

Rail Safety Week - Fatigue and competence in the rail industry

Stuart Webster-Spriggs joined VolkerRail as a quality assurance officer from the automotive industry in 2001, progressing to his role as HSQES director in 2011. In his role, Stuart is responsible for further developing VolkerRail's safety and compliance capability, whilst ensuring the provision of a professional occupational health and safety advisory service, including railway operational safety, engineering, quality and environmental management.

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Throughout his career within the rail industry, Stuart has spent his time understanding behaviours and how changing people’s mindsets correlates to the improvement of health and safety. Through his research, Stuart believes that by using Safety II, we can create a mindset change to improve fatigue management and adapt competence learning into a more holistic approach.


Improving the health and safety of our staff is an industry objective, and so we must take an industry-wide approach to creating change. I believe we can do this, by better educating the industry on its understanding of fatigue, the associated risks and how to control them using a Safety II approach.

Open and honest conversations about fatigue are fundamental to much-needed improvements in this area. The best definition of fatigue, that I have come across during my time leading this topic area for the industry is ‘a feeling of extreme tiredness and being unable to perform work effectively.’ Or a more apt definition would be ‘a state of impairment that can result from prolonged working, heavy workload, insufficient rest, and inadequate sleep, which can include mental and/or physical elements.’

At some point in our life, we have all suffered from fatigue. In the UK rail sector, it has been revealed that fatigue has been a factor in 21% of high risk rail incidents and that 22% of rail employees suffer from excessive sleepiness. Fatigue is therefore one of the 12 key priority areas in our industry’s Health & Safety Strategy for good reason.

For me, although our safety culture is continually improving, we are not yet in a place where our employees and members of our supply chain, feel comfortable reporting when or if they are suffering the effects of fatigue, and therefore just ‘get on’ with the job in hand. This is of particular concern, as studies show that the more fatigued a person becomes, the less likely it is that they begin not to notice the increasing effects and ‘feel OK’. This is where mistakes happen, as a result of the effects of fatigue - with potentially devastating consequences.

So, we need to talk about fatigue more. We need to have open and honest conversations, in order that we can collectively address the issues and support one another and our daily business operations. To help address this, VolkerWessels UK has developed a ‘tool box talk’ style app, which asks employees three simple questions to help us produce a basic risk assessment relating to fatigue in that individual, which has been a great asset for change.

Whilst we are taking great strides, there is still a way to go – both within VolkerRail and the wider rail sector – but together, with training and understanding, we can all help take a step forward in eradicating incidents resulting from fatigue.


VolkerRail has been looking at the development of a ‘holistic’ competence, using a Safety II approach, and assessing how embedding non-technical skills (NTS) is bringing about a greater understanding of competence and how it meets the needs of working in our safety-critical environment.

Back in the early 2000s, there was a certain amount of realism involved in training. I vividly remember my initial personal track safety course where, before the course began, the trainer marched us all out onto Paddock Wood station and off the platform end. He then sprayed a line four feet from the nearest running line, and instructed us all to stand there, whilst a through train thundered past. He said: “That’s what you’ll be faced with on a daily basis; so if anyone wants to leave, go now.” One candidate did.

Now, though, training is much more informed (and takes place in a safer environment)! The adoption of NTS really focuses on what training should be about – giving people the complete range of skills to build actual competence.

Some time back, I read an article about the Safety II approach, which was adopted by the Air Traffic Control sector some years ago. It is based around the concept of ‘work as imagined versus work as done’ and moves from ensuring ‘as few things as possible go wrong’ to ensuring ‘as many things as possible go right’. For me, Safety II is exactly what ‘good’ looks like. Closing the gap between work as imagined and work as done is what a good safety (and competence) management system should seek to achieve.

It challenges us all. For instance, competence assessments are routine tasks, and their usefulness is rarely questioned. A once-a-year snapshot of idealised work cannot capture ordinary day-to-day activities. Some operational staff see it in the same way as they might see a speed camera. When you see a speed camera, you automatically revert to the intended speed (‘work-as-imagined’). But once past it, you might revert to the previous speed (‘work as done’). We do not get a true insight into the uncertainty and variability experienced in normal work.

We need to ‘calibrate’ the traditional view of competence. NTS goes some way towards addressing this, but its use needs to be widespread, and accepted across all safety critical competencies.

The goal of every integrated, safety and competence management system should be to close the gap between work as imagined and work as done. It will achieve excellence.