Published on in TransportReshaping Business

Safety for passengers and the workforce is at the heart of rail operators’ priorities. Network Rail’s mantra is, after all, “Everyone Home Safe Every Day.”

This Rail Safety Week it’s important to appreciate the excellent progress that has been made in this area. Last year Network Rail met its workforce safety targets, achieving a 10% reduction in lost time injury frequency rate (LTIFR) and reducing staff injuries and the effect that they have, accelerating their return to work.

It is possible to go even further using new digital technologies, however, specifically the internet of things (IoT) connected to wearable technology

With enterprise wearables, rail operators and workforces upon the rail itself can not only protect workers on-site but improve their safety, wellbeing and workplace satisfaction for the future, setting a new standard for safety on the rails.

Understanding the risks on the rails

Working on the railways presents a number of extreme hazards, from unexpected incidents like falls or collisions through to over-exertion and heat exhaustion, especially in the summer sun.

Rail workers can be particularly susceptible to fatigue, owing to working long overnight shifts while trainlines are quiet or on irregular shift patterns.

Driver fatigue and drowsiness while controlling a train, car or van is a significant concern and can cause life-changing injuries and fatalities, as the Croydon Tram incident demonstrated in 2016.

And rail workers often work alone, which can make it difficult to monitor their location and wellbeing, even leading to delays in providing assistance in the event of an incident.

While rail operators are focused on improving safety, a lack of data makes it hard to fully understand the factors that contribute to incidents and much less the ability to mitigate them.

Employees are normally asked to report near-misses, for example, but this is voluntary and may be underreported if workers feel they or their colleagues might be perceived to have been in any way at fault.

In the case of driver fatigue and drowsiness it is difficult to prove when fatigue has been a factor, making it harder to understand the scale of the problem.

Without appreciating the whole picture, rail operators cannot  understand where the highest risks lie and make improvements accordingly.

Creating a connected worker

Sensors have been used on the rails for many years, from signals to trains and the tracks themselves. Now wearable devices can be connected to workers, providing constant real-time monitoring of their location and wellbeing.

Wearables worn on rail workers’ wrists can track vital signs such as blood pressure, heart rate and stress, as well as posture, inactivity and height to determine when a worker has fallen.

Importantly, devices can send automated alerts to the rail operator’s service desk, to identify and alert the team to health and safety incidents and the wellbeing status of their staff. This means that the operator is not only able to respond more quickly in the case of an incident, but also has the information to respond more effectively and by doing so reduce the LTIFR rate.

Such Platforms use Machine Learning to develop an understanding of the normal readings for each individual worker over a 40hour period. This enables operators to see when workers are overexerting themselves and could be in danger of causing long term damage.

Similar technology can also be used to tackle driver fatigue and drowsiness. Wearable devices worn lightly around the neck and connected to the earlobe can monitor drivers’ biorhythms, sensing drowsiness before workers start to lose concentration and fall asleep at the wheel. Individuals are alerted with a small vibration, while operators can receive a notification (optional): in effect, preventing incidents before they occur.

Building an insights-driven safety culture

As well as identifying and informing responses to incidents, rail operators can use data collected by wearables to build a safer working culture for the future based on factual insights.

An addition to recording the circumstances that contribute to incidents, wearables can track near-misses with greater precision. As a result, rail operators can identify the times of day, location and activities most likely to place individuals at risk.

By tracking workers’ vital signs over time it’s also possible to support individual wellbeing, mitigating potential harm from exertion or fatigue and even better tailoring working patterns to their strengths.

As a result in lowering the incident rates, lower insurance premiums may also occur.

A future-ready railway

Rail operators already prioritise safety as a core part of their duty of care for their employees and rail workers. By creating a positive, insights-led safety culture, however, it is possible to do much more than simply reducing incidents on the rails.

Continual monitoring can improve employees’ confidence and peace of mind, even while they are working alone. This in turn can support better staff engagement, including lower absenteeism, reduced staff turnover and improved performance at work.

Building a safety culture that is positive rather than reactive is in everyone’s interests, and to do that rail operators need the best data insights.

Using IoT can help rail operators achieve their objective of getting everyone home safe and deliver a new and lasting standard in rail safety.

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