Psychosocial issues for rail workers

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Magdalena Marczak and Juliet Hassard, Birkbeck University of London, United Kingdom


Introduction

The is a dynamic, rapidly changing and growing sector [1] [2]. The expansion of the European Union has changed travelling habits and the free movement of goods. These changes has contributed to major changes in the way transport companies operate; which has, in turn, affected their employees’ working conditions. This article describes some of the work-related psychosocial issues in the rail transport sector, and provides an overview into how these psychosocial issues may affect the physical and mental health of rail workers. Finally, strategies and measures for tackling psychosocial issues in this sector are presented.

Why examine rail workers?

In 2012 more than 500 thousand people were employed in principal railway enterprises within the EU-27 [3], comparatively less than the estimated 880 thousand persons employed in 2005 [4]. Between April 2009 and March 2010 research conducted on behalf of the British Office of Rail Regulation showed that in the United Kingdom, at least 3.5 million working hours were lost to work-related ill health in the rail industry [5]. The rail network requires a large and diverse workforce to operate, maintain and upgrade the system. More specifically there are six main categories of employment within the rail network [6]. These include [6]:

  • general administration, including central and regional management staff (e.g. finance, legal, personnel etc.)
  • operations and traffic (station staff, train crews and associated central and regional offices)
  • traction and rolling stock (tractive units’ crews, workshop, inspection staff and associated central and regional offices)
  • permanent way development and maintenance (maintenance and supervision staff, including staff operating control and safety systems)
  • other operations (passenger and goods road services, shipping services, electric power plant, hotel staff etc.)

European employers are, on account of the EU Framework Directive 89/391/EEC [7] subject to the same requirements in terms of the field of occupational safety and health, whilst, except for specific provisions, adhering to their respective national legislations [8]. The European regulations and national legislation’s role is to protect employees from occupational risks associated with working conditions and occupational safety and health [8]. According to the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) report from 2012, working conditions in the rail sector has changed considerably, mainly due to deregulation and the outsourcing and subcontracting of activities. These changes had further consequences in terms of “working hours, the place and content of work, training, wages, social benefits, etc.” (pg.15) [8].

The European Statistics on rail transport accidents showed that safety in rail transport has steadily increased over the years, with the estimated number of accidents and the number of victims decreasing by 2.3% and 10.1%, respectively, from 2010 to 2011 [9]. Table 1 shows the number of persons killed and injured in EU in 2011. Whilst these changes positively reflect the improvements that have taken place in rail transport safety itself, the impact of such accidents on rail workers’ health and wellbeing cannot be underestimated. Rail workers also face other types of accidents, e.g. those occurring during maintenance operations, and a number of occupational health and safety issues that have consequences in experiencing health problems; these are presented in the next part of this article with a particular focus on psychosocial risks.

Table 1: Number of persons killed and injured by type of accident and category of persons in EU-27 in 2011 [7].

Rail Table.png

Work-related psychosocial issues among rail workers

The occupational safety and health (OSH) risks typically encountered by rail workers, include material loss and damage and/or human victims, prolonged sitting, loading and unloading goods and handling dangerous substances [10]. Exposure to this myriad of OSH risks is clearly associated with serious implications for worker’s health and safety [10]. However, there is growing awareness and acknowledgement of a wider and more diverse set of OSH risk factors encountered by rail workers, including psychosocial risks and associated issues. Work-related psychosocial hazards are link to the way work is designed, organised and managed within its respective economic, organisational and social context. Repeated and chronic exposure to such workplace characteristics can result in increased levels of stress; and, in the long term, can lead to the serious deterioration of both mental and physical health [11]. Data from EUROSTAT observed 19.9% of the total number of people employed in the EU-27, in 2007, reported experiencing stress, anxiety or depression [12]. A more recent Eurobarometer survey by the European Commission (2014) found that 53 % of workers believe that stress is the main safety and health risk they face in the workplace [13]. However, data examining the prevalence of work-related health problems associated with psychosocial issues (e.g., stress, burnout, anxiety and depression) among rail workers is lacking at the national and European level. However, preliminary data from the UK estimated that between April 2009 and March 2010 3.5 million working hours were reported as lost due to work–related ill health in the rail industry [7].

Consequently, within the transport sector concentrated efforts are being made to further understand the nature of this problem, and, in turn, actively address and support efforts to manage the psychosocial working environment. Such concentrated efforts is evidenced by a joint project on the psychosocial risks within the railway sector that was started as part of the 2012/2013 social dialogue programme between the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER) and the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF) (ETF project) [8]. It incorporated a 6-dimentional framework adapted to the rail sector (Figure 1) as a way of providing a clear picture of the different factors influencing the occurrence of the risks identified by the EU OSHA’s Risk Observatory for rail workers described above.

Figure 1.Examples of destabilising work situations according to the six psychosocial risks (PSR) dimensions as presented in the 2013 report by the EVA European Academy for Environmentally Friendly Transport, 2013 [8].

Working in the railway service is known to be very challenging because of the degree of responsibility and [[[Job demands |psychological demands placed upon an individual]] [14] [15]. Numerous factors are known to contribute specifically to work-related stress among this group of workers, including: lone working, irregular working hours (shift work and weekend work), work pressure, customers’ and co-workers’ aggression, conflicting tasks, and constrains posed by having to comply with a number of strict regulations [7]. The following sections aim to provide more information on the aforementioned factors.

Lone working

In general, according to the British Security Industry Association figures published in 2013, more than six million people in the UK work either in isolation or without supervision, often in remote areas or circumstances that put them at potential risk [16] [17]. In the transport sector, lone workers often include ticket office and platform staff, train managers, engineers and delivery drivers [18].

Working patterns

Work in the transport sector is characterised by working long hours, shift-work and being ‘on-call’ [19]. Results from the Fifth European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS, 2010) showed that the highest percentage of workers ‘on call’ was in the transport sector (30%), followed by construction (27%) and health (25%) [20]. The Fourth European Working Condition Survey conducted in 2005 showed that 30% of employees in the transport sector in Europe work more than 40h a week; with 37% occasionally work night shifts, 57% work more than 10h a day and 25.6% work in shifts which is more than EU average (28.2%, 21%, 47% and 18% respectively) [21]. More recent data from the fifth wave of this survey found workers in the transport and storage sectors reported working on average 42 hours per week (compared to an average of 38 hours across the EU-28); with almost a third (versus 18% of all European workers) reported a poor match between working hours and family or social commitments [22]. One key area of human factors research is investigating train driver vigilance and perception, as well as the train driver ability to recognise and respond to sign and signals [23]. Within this broad research domain, a key area of fatigue investigation is shift work research, where a significant topic of debate among key stakeholders is that of shift duration.

One of the problems associated with rail workers, and more specifically train drivers is fatigue [24]. Train drivers’ schedules have been linked with reduced sleep [25] and increased sleep problems [26]. Fatigue is an important issue for the rail industry as whole, as safety-critical tasks have to be performed around the clock by terminal operators, controllers and signallers [24]. Indeed, research indicates that fatigue (and associated probability of accident likelihood) increases with shift duration [27] [28] [29].

Violence

Workplace violence is a very important safety and health issue associated with individual consequences, both physical (e.g., bruising, wounds) and psychological (e.g. anxiety, sleeping problems, PTSD) [30]. It is recognised that psychological consequences may have more serious implications than that of physical injuries, and may vary for individuals from minor stress reactions to long-term sick leave, permanent removal from working life and sometimes a cause of suicide [30]. Work-related violence also has consequences to the organisations in terms of economic losses, decreased job satisfaction and productivity of the employees; and for victims, as well as other employees, increased absenteeism and turnover rates [30]. Third-party violence is also classed as an occupational risk in the transport sector, and this issue has over the recent years attracted increasing attention from the industry [28]. It is recognised that whilst a form of workplace violence can be found in every occupation, the risk of being exposed to third party violence depends not only on an individual’s profession; but also on the circumstances in which this individual performs specific tasks [31] [32]. Whilst the perpetrators or aggressors of workplace violence can be supervisors, managers, co-workers, the term ‘third-party violence’ refers to situations where a transport worker is attacked by a third party, that is a customer, or a customer’s relative [18].

In 2009 report on occupational safety and health in the European transport sector reported violence, together with work-related stress, as key occupational risks that have increased over preceding years [8]. It is reported that rail workers, alongside bus and subway workers are often blamed for inadequacies of the standard of public transport [16]; and typically deal with incidents regarding disputes over cost of fares, hooliganism, and traffic accidents. In addition, recent results from The European Survey of Enterprise on New and Emerging Risks (ESENER-2) show that having to deal with difficult customer is the most frequently mentioned risk factor in the ‘education, human health and social work activities’ (75%) and ‘trade, transport, food/ accommodation and recreation activities’ (62%) sectors [33]. Other risks associated with workplace violence within the rail sector, include: aggression against other passengers; vandalism to property; dealing with the public, especially when carrying out inspection or enforcement duties (ticket inspectors); working alone cleaning; maintenance and repair staff); and working at night or early in the morning.

It is difficult to compare prevalence rates or exposure to different forms of third-party violence between different countries due to methodological issues. These include the use of different definitions of the concept, different methodologies for collecting and analysing data, different time limits used and the accuracy used to measure the nature of the incident to name just a few [34]. According to the Fifth European Working Conditions Survey [35], the risk of experiencing adverse social behaviour at work, understood as “all acts of physical and verbal violence and intimidation at work” (57), is above the EU-27 average of 14% (13% for men and 15% for women)) in the transport sector (20%) and health (23%) sectors [36].

Incidents of aggressions and vandalism in public transport have increased over the last few years [36]. Press reports regarding incidents of harassment in public transport make many people feel insecure using public transport. At the same time as acts of aggression has seemed to have increased, the number of staff members in public transport has decreased; driven predominantly by economic factors [36]. Comparing the available statistics on physical and verbal attacks, it appears that figures on verbal attacks against staff members in railway sector are remarkably high. For example, in Germany the number of reported verbal aggressions against staff members has risen from 242 in 2003 to 496 in 2009 [36]. Similar pattern can be seen in figures on verbal attacks against staff in Switzerland (448 cases in 2003 and 497 cases in 2009) and Belgium (497 cases in 2003 and 819 cases in 2009) [36]. Figures on incidents of reported physical attacks against staff within the same time period (2003 to 2009) show an overall increase in some EU-27 countries. This appears to be the case for Germany (from 356 to 836 cases), Czech Republic (14 to 36 cases) and Romania (from 1 to 6 cases); however a decreasing trend has been reported in France and Switzerland (from 1200 to 1050 cases and from 385 to 251 cases respectively) [36].

Changes in the job content

The fifth European Working Conditions Survey [35] observed that transport alongside financial services, industry, health, public administration and defence is one of the sectors with the largest proportion of workers report having been exposed to organizational change during the previous three years. Transport workers report being involved in monotonous tasks more than the average working population (49.3% vs 42.9% EU-27 average) due to the increasing use of new technology (such as, remote planning and monitoring tools, onboard computers and mobile means for communication) [18]. Moreover 61.2% of land transports workers report working at high speed and 72.7% working to tight deadlines at least 25% of their working time. The share is 59.6% and 61.8% in the overall EU-27 workforce respectively. In addition, the average EU-27 worker appears to have more job control (64.4%) than the average transport workers (50.1%); and is more able to choose or change his/her method of work (66.9% and 50% respectively) and the speed or rate of work (69.2% and 63.7% respectively) [18].

Management of psychosocial issues among rail workers

Managing psychosocial risks and stress is a legal imperative set out in Framework Directive 89/391/EEC, which oblige employers to prevent all occupational safety and health risks, supported by the social partners’ framework agreement on work-related stress and harassment and violence at work [37]. Prior to any interventions to prevent and manage psychosocial risks and work-related stress, employers and rail managers should work together to identify – with worker participation - any psychosocial risk by conducting a thorough risk assessment. Some guidance for risk assessments specific to rail industry have been developed [38] [39], nevertheless, more practical tools facilitating psychosocial risk assessments and management tailored to rail workers are needed. As a result of the ETF project “A guide to identifying and preventing psychosocial risks at work in the railway sector” has been published [8]. It suggests that to minimize the high human and financial costs of the psychosocial risks, their assessment process needs to be followed by corrective action and prevention measures [8]. The guide includes a description of three different, but complementary, avenues for corrective action and prevention measures that can be used in the rail transport industry. The first (or primary) level involves eliminating and actively managing psychosocial risks at source (e.g., improve work processes of dealing with difficult customers). The second level of prevention aims to help employees cope with the exposure to psychosocial risks (e.g., provide training on dealing with difficult customers to minimize the risk of third-party violence). The third level focuses on containment and thus involves providing a form of psychological support scheme for these employees who suffer from work-related disorders [8]. Developing a comprehensive approach to actively and effectively managing psychosocial risks should involve strategies and actions that include each intervention level. Safety is a fundamental issue for the rail industry ensuring workers and passengers are protected. Breaches of health and safety legislation can often result in delays on working and maintaining rail infrastructures, possible staff injuries, work related absence or worse.


The following section aims to provide a national level example of a prevention measures used in the rail transport industry. United Kingdom The Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) is the independent safety and economic regulator on Britain’s railway. It aims first of all to assist and encourage other people in their activities that control health risks faced by people at work (such as employer organisations, employee trade unions and trade associations). Secondly, it responsible for ensuring that companies comply with the law on health and safety [40]. ORR published, in 2012, its strategy for regulation of health and safety risks [40]. In April 2010 ORR put in place its first occupational health programme [41], and whilst some improvements across the country have been reported, a second Occupational Health Programme 2014 -19 “Making it Happen” started in April 2014 [41]. This health programme has been created for all rail workers. In terms of work-related stress, ORR advocates a three level approach: (1) a primary focus on work and how it is carried out to prevent harmful levels of stress; (2) a secondary focus on the individual and the need for that individual to have adequate resources coping skills; and (3) a focus on support after a traumatic event [42]. The findings from a European railways project, involving rail companies from Sweden, Italy, France, Germany and Bulgaria, presents this three level approach in the context of the rail sector, including practical examples of prevention measures[43].

Every organisation working within the rail industry in the UK must comply with Network Rail Group Standards. Network Rail is in process of introducing two services covering Lone Worker Protection: Heartbeat (using GPS system monitors the employee on a regular basis at 60 minutes intervals) and Push4Help (an immediate push-button alert system that feeds directly through to an operator who can monitor any ongoing situation with the individual, calling emergency services if necessary). Currently, whilst awaiting Trade Union approval, the new Lone Worker system is being trialled within the London North Western Route [44].

Conclusion

There are a number of psychosocial issues prevalent in the transport sector that impact on workers’ health and wellbeing. Work-related violence, lone working, irregular working pattern and associated fatigue appear to be the most stressful. It is important for transport management to be aware of the range of factors that have the potential to cause stress. Adequate strategies for assessing and reducing psychosocial risks must be implemented in the workplaces. These include raising awareness of psychosocial issues among managers and workers to promote a culture in which workers actively raise potential stressors to management, putting in place adequate support mechanisms (work design, social support networks and training).

Links for further reading

European Commission — Directorate General for Energy and Transport, ‘Transport Research in the European Research Area — A guide to European, international and national programmes and projects’, 2006.

References

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