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Transport & Logistics

Rethinking what is acceptable – Rio Tinto’s approach to greater safety around rail

29 Feb 2024, by Amy Sarcevic

With numerous intersections between people and high speed vehicles, business-as-usual risks in rail are among the highest of any industry.

Like many operators, Rio Tinto has always managed these risks in line with the ‘So Far As Is Reasonably Practicable’ (SFAIRP) standard, required by Rail Safety National Law.

More recently, however, it has begun to investigate how it can go further.

“There is no denying that rail is a dangerous business – but what is more dangerous is the complacency the Rail Industry can have around business-as-usual risks,” said Crispian Fitzhardinge, Operational Readiness Specialist at Rio Tinto.

“I’m not talking the high profile safety concerns that dominate our Rail Safety efforts – like human errors, track defects and equipment failures. Rather, the smaller, albeit impactful, ones attached to our daily work.”

Zeroing in

To get a better handle on these, Rio Tinto recently ran an Agile Scrum to identify weak spots in its practice.

“We decided to revisit some of these daily risks and found that we could be doing much better,” Crispian said.

So what exactly did the organisation uncover?

The need for yard markings

In total, Rio Tinto came up with seven overarching recommendations, including 30 improvement areas, to enhance safety around the railway.

One key revelation was that better delineation of danger zones could make a meaningful impact to yard workers.

“Working in yards is an everyday occurrence that we have done for years. As an industry, we haven’t thought too much about highlighting the danger zone – we’ve left that to the judgement of the rail safety worker.

“But, when you stop and think about it, there is lots to gain from helping workers identify which areas of the yard carry more risk, rather than letting them make a judgement call.

“We believe that with better awareness of risk, workers can act accordingly.”

Crispian admits this kind of intervention is challenging to execute, but believes the effort is worth it.

“Adding markings is hard to do because rail yards are huge – but there are certainly ways to go about it. Paint markings, rumble strips that are bolted on, and barriers, can all help delineate where a danger zone is.

“Anything is possible if put your mind to it. And with worker safety at stake, why wouldn’t you?”

The need to refresh shunting protocol

Rio Tinto’s analysis also pointed at subtleties around the organisation’s shunting procedures.

“We looked at areas where shunting was typically carried out and, on review, our old way might have been convenient, but the same results could be achieved with less risk.

“By performing the task in a different part of the yard, with minimal impact on operations, it could be much safer – as could making subtle changes to the procedure itself.”

Cause to pause and reflect

In the last three years, the Australian rail industry has seen four fatalities involving business-as-usual activities and Crispian said these figures are an ongoing impetus for Rio Tinto’s effort.

“The figures are sobering. These people weren’t doing anything extraordinary or something that could have been reasonably foreseen. They were just doing the day-to-day work we all take for granted.

“It’s important we all learn from these events. As an industry, we do lots to keep out workers safe, but are we looking deeply and seriously enough at day-to-day activities, or just the risks that stand out?

“We need to abolish our ‘it is what it is’ mindset, and pause and reflect about what we could be doing better as a sector.”

Further insight

To learn more about the 30 improvement areas identified in Rio Tinto’s analysis, join Crispian Fitzhardinge at the upcoming RISSB Rail Safety Conference, hosted by Informa Connect.

Joining him on the stage are Dr Natalie Pelham Chief Executive of ONRSR; Carolyn Walsh Chair of the National Transport Commission (NTC); and Amy Lezala Zahr, Chief Engineer – Rail Network Design & Integration at the Department of Transport and Planning Victoria.

This year’s event will be held 30 April to 1 May at the Grand Hyatt Melbourne.

Register your tickets here.

About Crispian

Crispian is an Operational Readiness Specialist for Rio Tinto, where he supports key Sustaining Capital projects, aimed at delivering improvements in safety and productivity.

Crispian has over 25 years of experience in the railway industry, in both operational and safety roles working for both the public and private sector.

A highlight of his career so far was providing stakeholder and project management skills to Rio Tinto’s Autohaul ™ project, the world’s first automated heavy haulage railway system.





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