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My ‘Underground Story’

Another day while I am waiting for the Tube on my way to work. The only difference today is the lack of my headphones, which give me an illusion of privacy on my journey. Without the music, the reality slaps me in the face - the noisy commuters, always busy, always in a rush. Exacerbated greatly during the rush hour. I look up - 3 minutes to the next train. I try to entertain myself with a piece of social media stalking when my attention is caught by the sound of the coming train. Surprisingly, after many times travelling in the tube, I perceive the situation from another perspective. People are impatiently pushing me forward, the rumbling sound and the vibration from the approaching train cause anxiety. Suddenly, the train appears, passes at speed, then decelerates quickly, and I am brutally squashed and pushed forwards - towards the train - is this part of my 'bright future' of a regular 9-6 worker? I’m hardly breathing and wishing for the next technological innovation in transport systems - teleportation would be nice! 10 stops later, I get off the train, moving with the flow of fellow travellers like a small mouse in a labyrinth.

London Underground

My travelling today provoked four questions in me, questions driven by my recent exposure to HSE management in the oil and gas industry.

"Would this amount of crowding be tolerated in the industry?

Would close proximity to high speed vehicles be tolerated?

What will happen if I am in the Tube and there is a sudden fire?

Would I have any real chance of survival?”

So safely home, I start googling ‘London underground incidents’. The first which shows is the King Cross's fire:

"On 18 November 1987, a fire started under a wooden escalator serving the Piccadilly line. It erupted in a flashover into the underground ticket hall broke out at King’s Cross tube station, killing 31 people and injuring 100. The tragedy was followed by a public inquiry - investigators reproduced the fire twice. The outcome determined that the fire had started due to a lit match being dropped onto the escalator. In addition, the Underground staff didn’t know how to deal with fires caused by the lack of any training on evacuation procedures."

As a result of the inquiry, a report was released which provoked significant changes:

1. The introduction of new fire safety regulations – based on Risk Management. Here are some of the key recommendations from Fennel’s report:

  • Installation of heat and smoke detectors
  • Proper cleaning and inspection
  • Regular fire safety training for staff
  • Smoking ban extended to all station areas wholly or partly underground
  • Safety auditing of London Underground
  • A director on the board with responsibility for safety
  • Underground radios for British Transport Police, compatible with those of the London Fire Brigade
  • Platform phones
  • A new, suitably equipped control room at King’s Cross
  • More vigorous inspection and enforcement by the regulator.

2. The wooden escalators in the London Underground were replaced by metal ones.

Criticism of the lack of safety awareness in Underground staff led to senior management resignations in both London Underground and London Regional Transport.

This story made me realize two things:

1. Small mistakes can lead to big consequences.

2. Being aware of what can go wrong by knowing and adhering to appropriate rules may save lives.

The next step in my research is to examine the HSE Risk Management and Risk Assessment definitions:

"The HSE Risk Management appear as anything hazardous that may cause harm, such as chemicals, electricity, working from ladders, an open drawer etc. The risk is the chance, high or low, that somebody could be harmed by these and other hazards, together with an indication of how serious the harm could be."

For risk assessment the companies usually follow

• Step 1: Identify the hazards.

• Step 2: Decide who might be harmed and how.

• Step 3: Evaluate the risks and decide on precautions.

• Step 4: Record your findings and implement them.

• Step 5: Review your assessment and update if necessary.

Are we really going through all these steps or we are waiting for the catastrophe that appears suddenly and take innocent lives? Do we have to make mistakes in order to progress safety? Does taking measures after the incident help to redeem our guilt?

Here there are parallels between the King’s Cross Disaster 1987, and the offshore oil platform Piper Alpha Disaster 1988 – the Offshore Oil and Gas Industry’s King’s Cross, close in time, in root causes and in impact, between them they claimed the lives of 198 people. One shared root cause was lack of awareness and management of the risks inherent in the operations.

Offshore Oil & Gas Operations

HSE eCompendium:

"3 volumes, 10 sections and 53 chapters of contemporary offshore policy, standards, regulations, engineering and technical innovation"

I wonder if the risk assessment of my tube journey would be accepted as part of every-day work in the oil and gas industry?

  • Very close proximity to speeding trains?
  • Crowding on platforms to the extent that stumbling in the crowd could propel waiting passengers into the path of the train?
  • Crowding that will make evacuation in the case of a fire difficult?

I know it wouldn’t. In the meantime, people accept the risks in travelling on the Tube as a necessary part of getting to and from work. For 265 people in the last 10 years that risk proved fatal (Other than natural deaths and those due to terrorist actions). More than a billion passengers use London tube network every year. It has one fatal accident for every 300 million journeys. Using that number might produce an apparently acceptable level of accidents, but an average of 26 deaths per year? Surely that is not acceptable. So, for the life of me – literally – I can’t reconcile the fatality/user number with the high-risk experience I had during rush hour. How might we apply at least the first three steps in risk management to rush hour on the tube, when the overcrowding risks are at their maximum? Something to think about while wearing my headphones on my next Tube journey. Do I have any other option than to take the risk in the meantime?

Mind the Gap - HSE

Encompass ICOE, Dec 2018

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