The issues covered by the term ‘health and safety’ are both numerous and diverse. From the incorporation of safe working practices with complex machinery and live electrical systems on site, to awareness of mental health issues, ‘health and safety’ covers a plethora of topics whose sheer variety can seem overwhelming.

Even worse, it can appear that some ‘health and safety’ requirements are over-cautious, stipulating costly ways of working that are neither practicable nor necessary. Worse still, it can appear to some SMEs that the impact of adopting such requirements is more negative for them than for larger companies, so that health and safety requirements reduce their competitiveness by stealth.

It is a testament to SME resilience and tenacity that so many SME suppliers have managed to survive through two long years of Covid lockdowns and restrictions. RISQS knows that any economic recovery worthy of the name needs to include as many of these SMEs as possible.

It is therefore important that RISQS does not stipulate new, additional health and safety requirements that hurt the bottom line of SMEs disproportionately. RISQS recognises this issue and is always working to prevent obstacles unduly harmful to SMEs.

There’s a second potential problem with integrating developments in health and safety into practical and commercially viable working practices. This second potential problem is the lack of practical work experience by some of those developing new health and safety techniques.

Often experts at the forefront of new health and safety techniques do not have practical, construction project experience at all but are (rightly) focused on their work in laboratories. That’s not a criticism of lab-based experts but does reveal that there’s sometimes a ‘practicality gulf’ between them and construction-project-based experts. 

Six leaders in drug and alcohol testing

Recently, RISQS convened a meeting of six leading UK and European research teams in the drug and alcohol testing space to overcome this gulf. Testing for the presence of drugs and alcohol among staff when at work on projects is vital in a safety-critical industry like rail. When researchers identify improved detection methods in the lab, RISQS wants to help the rail industry deploy these improved methods in workable and commercially viable ways.

At this meeting, the experts represented included NHS researchers and the European Testing Commission. This ensured that the focus of discussion was on the latest and most sophisticated techniques. In addition, the 20-person meeting included representatives from both RISQS suppliers and buyers and RSSB’s Occupational Health Advisory Group (OHAG). This meant that it was a functional meeting focused on finding practical ways to take full advantage of these techniques that were also commercially viable.

So how did this meeting go?

‘Positive feedback was given from representatives of the labs – with special mention for the provision of a platform to ensure they could become more compliant in as short a time as possible,’ said Phil Smith, RISQS Manager, Assurance, at RSSB and facilitator of the meeting.

‘These are the sorts of consultation groups and meetings RISQS is holding frequently. We hold focused groups when formal requirements need to be met, in addition to our daily involvement with the supply chain.’ said Phil.

Convening practical discussions that consider how to apply new tools or techniques in ways that work on projects is an essential part of RISQS enabling improvement in the rail industry.

Phil added: ‘We were very proud and delighted that our trusted and established track record enabled us to convene a meeting with such distinguished experts for the benefit of our members.’

RISQS was proud and delighted but not necessarily surprised, because this meeting is just a small example of how RISQS operates all the time.  Explaining it should remind our existing members about the value we provide them. It should also persuade others, even SMEs wishing to join the rail industry, that they will share those benefits in the future too.