It may seem obvious to state that not all industries are the same.  A lot of safety knowledge is transferable from industry to industry but some is not.  As the health of industries rise and fall in Australia, workers are also taking their safety assumptions with them to new sectors, and this can increase the risk of injury and illness.  This is particularly the case with the construction of rail infrastructure which is increasing, particularly, in Australia’s Eastern States.

Just as civil construction is increasing in some capital cities so is the construction of new rail and light rail infrastructure.  Rail infrastructure has remained insular for decades with “train people” believing there is something special about their industry.  In some ways they are right as the operation of public transport has operated under its own legislation and “Book of Rules” which has paralleled but remained separate from occupational health and safety laws.  But those barriers are being eroded as the rail transport sector comes under more regulatory scrutiny through the Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator and State safety bodies, and rail safety is being measured by OHS metrics. The safety journey experienced by New South Wales’ RailCorp is an obvious illustration of this change.

Rail infrastructure is in the process of a transition from a foxed view of safety to a more inclusive one but remains based on concepts and operations that are unique.  There are different words for structures, tools, plant and equipment, incident notifications and other standard workplace items and activities.  For instance, a set of personal protective clothing prescribed in one State will not be allowed in another State.  Some rail operators require hardhats to be worn, others do not. This inconsistency creates problems for those workers entering this sector for the first time and from other industry sectors, such as mining and manufacturing.

Many of the construction activities will feel familiar because building a railway station remains construction but the fact that trains may be continually running through the worksite introduces a substantial new hazard.  And because the end user is often partly owned by the government, the project is under a lot more scrutiny than the standard construction project.  There are more stakeholders and many of them want to be more engaged with the construction project than they have in the past.

This is a set of circumstances that the usual construction training has not addressed.  Construction Induction training is very generic and, for working in the rail environment, is usually supplemented by awareness training.  This training provides a basic understanding of the rail corridor and its contents.  It discusses the rail structures, overhead power systems, rail signals and, perhaps most importantly, a system of safety protection unique to the railway called Rail Safety.  All of this introduces the non-rail worker into the rail safety world.  It is intended to help workers transition from a generic construction work environment into a very different one – an environment where familiar construction activities are undertaken but with different terminologies, different levels of supervision, and different accountabilities.

Drugs and Alcohol

One of the most obvious differences of working in rail construction is that the obligation to be free of alcohol and drugs while at work is reinforced by random drug and alcohol testing.  There have been moves to introduce such a safety measure in the regular construction after years of trade union resistance.  Rail construction has had this requirement for many years and a mandatory drug and alcohol test is part of the certification process to work within the rail corridor.

Construction companies take this obligation seriously and have even sent workers offsite after they were having after-work drinks from the back of the ute in the site car park.

Positive test results are often reported up-the line to safety regulators and government clients and are seen as serious safety management failures.

There is no “dummies’ guide to working in the rail construction” and there probably never will be as each State’s rail network is slightly different and tramwork is different from light-rail even within the same States.  This places a great significance on safety training as the main method of increasing your OHS knowledge as it relates to rail infrastructure.  As with most safety training, the quality of courses varies between providers.  So to be able to be the most attractive supplier of safe workers in rail infrastructure, dealing with a reliable and reputable rails safety training provider is crucial.