An occupational health physician's view of the rail industry and the importance of maintaining a healthy workforce - By Dr Jonathan Cleeland.
The UK railway system has prevailed since the start of the nineteenth century and has seen many changes over the years, including major downsizing and privatisation. Throughout its existence it has presented a challenging and potentially dangerous environment to those working on its infrastructure, manning its rolling stock, controlling train movement and to those who travel on the network as passengers.
For these reasons many of those working on or near the network are regarded as working in a “safety critical environment”, that is to say they are expected to discharge their duties in such a way as not to present a risk to their own safety or that of others working on or travelling on the network. There is therefore, a requirement for them to undergo rigorous training, follow strict codes of practice and safe systems of work and to undergo regular checks to ensure they are medically fit to work on or near the system. That includes maintaining and upgrading the infrastructure, driving and maintaining trains and other rolling stock, collecting revenues and planning and controlling the movement of trains on the tracks. Staff are required to undergo health assessments, the content of which varies according to their role but mainly focuses on vision, colour vision, hearing and general health with the emphasis on safety to undertake their role, not fitness for task – although the latter may arise and be dealt with at the same time. The rail industry has an unfortunate history of disasters and therefore it takes safety extremely seriously.
As with many other industries, resources are tight and the constraints to run a successful business are immense, not least with rail, where delays and disruption to timetables result in heavy penalties and loss of revenue. The industry relies on the coordination of engineering works to renew/improve the infrastructure and the availability of the fully operational tracks to ensure punctual services. Staff absence due to sickness is therefore a major consideration and has to be managed actively on a daily basis. The rail industry therefore generates a high number of management referrals for reviews of absence, advice on ongoing management and fitness to resume work and occupational health is therefore taken very seriously as the industry’s source of expert advice in this respect.
Railway companies also operate a zero-tolerance approach to the use of alcohol and drugs and employees are subject to random and for-cause alcohol and drug testing. Medigold Health assists clients by providing related services including cover for emergency call-outs in the event of an incident in the workplace.
Clinicians helping to provide occupational health services to rail companies have to be fully aware of the medical standards that prevail and to have an understanding of the general environment in which rail staff operate. Medigold Health is rapidly building a cadre of suitably qualified and experienced physicians, nurses and technicians who are on hand to help deliver the highest quality services to its ever-increasing portfolio of railway clients.