Home > The RoSPA Occupational Safety & Health Journal/July 2002
Below is the second of the RoSPA articles about the Holden verses Connex South Eastern tribunal. Part one is from the June 2002 issue of the RoSPA Occupational Safety & Health Journal. A few follow-up comments have been written for clarification.

All material from these publications is the copyright of RoSPA.


  This Working Life ______________________________________________________________________________

Part of the
                union?

The natural response, when you feel yourself slipping, is to put out your hand to break your fall. On the Dartford railway sidings this is not a good idea: you could end up holding a rail carrying 650 volts. So when Laurie Holden slipped he saved himself by holding onto the side of the cab. Nick Cook continues the story of one man's fight to improve health and safety for railway workers.

Laurie knows his slip on the sidings was in November 1997 because he wrote out an account of the incident and sent his report to Connex South East management. Something should be done about the state of the sidings: the next person to slip might not be so lucky.

The sidings are four railway lines which run parallell to the main line. There is a walkway running alongside each of them. These are the walkways the drivers use when they walk to and from their cabs.

Unfortunately three of the walkways are worn, muddy and damaged. The drainage is poor, so when it rains they get even more slippery. At night inadequate lighting increases the risk.

Nor was there any choice: a driver whose train had been directed onto a siding with a poor walkway had to use that walkway. Taking an alternative route across the lines is obviously forbidden.

As an ASLEF Health and Safety Rep Laurie Holden knew he had to do something but this proved difficult because Connex SE were less than helpful when it came to giving him the statutory time off to do his union duties.

Somehow, he had to fit these duties around his driving - which meant doing them mostly in his own time. But Laurie was a train driver himself and subject to the same exhausting work regime he was campaigning so hard to reform.

On 3rd December Laurie wrote his second report on the potentially dangerous Dartford walkways. This was for a local driver scared of slipping every time he had to jump over a puddle on the poorly drained path.

Christmas came and went and Connex SE sent neither a card nor the present of action on the sidings to Laurie Holden. On 6th January 1998 Laurie wrote his third report. In it he reminded management about his two previous reports. The first of these was by now two months old.

In the face of Connex silence Laurie decided to make a point. He told Dartford Control to make sure that in future they always re-routed his train into a safe siding. He told them he was not prepared to put himself at risk and would refuse to take the train into an unsafe siding.

The very next day he his train was re-routed into an unsafe siding. So he did exactly what he said he would do. "It caused a certain amount of disruption," he says dryly. "They had to re-route trains. I believe one was even cancelled."

Suddenly Connex South Eastern stopped ignoring Laurie Holden and his campaign on the Dartford sidings. He found himself in the London Bridge office of his Driving Standards Manager (DSM). "He was clearly annoyed," says Laurie, "but even then he had not yet even received, let alone read, any of my reports."

So Laurie handed the DSM his own copies who read them and promised that something would be done.

Then he handed Laurie two Connex South Eastern SESM5.1's. These were the official Connex SE accident reporting forms. "I'd like you to copy out your reports in longhand onto these."

Laurie couldn't believe it. "I don't see the point," he said. "You've got all the information there."

He indicated his meticulously typed reports which he had typed at home, at his own PC, on his own paper and in his own precious time. There were pages and pages of detail.

"No, no, no," the DSM was insistent. "I want you to copy out your reports on these forms. In longhand." Laurie shook his head in disbelief. "But you've already got all the information there."

The DSM was firm. "I want you to fill in these two separate reports." Laurie pointed out that his typing was much clearer than his handwriting. But the DSM assured Laurie that his handwriting was "perfectly clear."

Laurie knew it would take him at least two hours to copy out his reports. "I could've been out driving trains," he comments. He compromised and suggested he pasted the his typewritten report into the relevant sections on the Connex form.

"No, no, no, it's got to be written out." The DSM was not in the mood for compromise. Laurie says he didn't know whether to laugh or cry. He shook his head. He forced his voice to stay polite, to stay neutral.

"I can't see the point."

Deadlock.

Finally it was the manager who broke the silence. "Wait here." He stalked out of the cubicle.

"What he didn't realise," says Laurie, "is that the walls had virtually no sound insulation." So when the DSM made three phone calls from the outer office Laurie heard every word.

"They were to other managers," remembers Laurie. "He was almost shouting. He won't do this! He won't do that! I'll take his driving license away!" Even now Laurie spreads his hands in disbelief. "He actually bragged to all these managers that he would take my license away."

How did Laurie feel? "I wasn't intimidated. But I thought to myself, so this is what you're up against. And I knew he certainly did have the power to take away my driving license."

What Laurie did not hear was what the other managers said in reply. Apparently the DSM did not get total support. "No that'll be alright," said the DSM on returning to the room. "I'll accept your reports." He sat down at his desk and began to busy himself in paperwork. The interview was at an end.

As a result of Laurie's stand Connex SE put some Melton dust onto the trackway. It proved to be a token gesture since it was soon washed away by the rain. "They really needed to fix the drainage," says Laurie.

Then, in April 1998 he was nearly electrocuted by a live rail as he tried to jump puddles. And eighteen months later Connex SE were still apparently happy for their drivers to risk electrocution in the Dartford sidings.

Sevenoaks tunnel collapse

This was not Laurie's only battle. He took up a whole range of safety issues with Connex SE. In 1998, he drew attention to the unsafe condition of the Sevenoaks tunnel. In almost every case the management response was the same: they simply ignored Laurie's reports.

In the case of the Sevenoaks tunnel, however, they did respond. But only to tell him that it was nothing to do with them. The maintenance of the tunnel was down to Railtrack. They did not even regard it as their responsibility to notify Railtrack. In the end it was the tunnel itself that notified Railtrack. It brought its unsafe condition to everyone's attention by collapsing onto a train. Fortunately nobody was seriously injured.

Despite Connex indifference Laurie was not one to give up. Especially on the one issue he saw as crucial. This was the fact that DOO(p) (Driver Only Operation (passengers)) and the Driver Restructuring Initiative (DRI) were exhausting drivers.

Motorways have signs which say "Tiredness kills, take a break." Railway lines don't. And even if they did the managers would not allow the drivers to take those breaks. This is graphically illustrated by the treatment of one driver, now an ex -driver. In September 1998, he requested relief. He had just driven for six hours without a break. He was exhausted.

His manager said. "If you do not continue to drive the train for the rest of your shift you will be stopped three and a half hours wages."

The driver felt tears pricking the inside of his eyelids. He was upset, agitated and very close to the edge. "I am already making mistakes," he said. "I'm scared I could cause a major accident. Would you be happy to have your kids on my train?"

But the manager did not relent. Before privatisation nobody in such a state would have been allowed to drive a train. But in the end this driver somehow forced himself to finish his shift. "I was in fear of losing my job," he said.

This was a driver who had never had problems before DRI. Nor was he alone.

"Most of the drivers at my depot, including myself, were on pro-plus to try and stay awake."

There was no shortage of such anecdotal evidence. It confirmed what Laurie already knew. Exhausted drivers were putting themselves and their passengers at risk. But how to prove it? A previous survey, carried out by the Railway Inspectorate, implicated fatigue but not conclusively. So what could Laurie measure to prove that levels of fatigue had risen to unacceptably high levels?

The numbers of drivers requesting relief? No. First of all the data would be very difficult to get and secondly many drivers, scared for their jobs, were reluctant to request relief.

He thought about the effects of fatigue. Days off sick had risen significantly since DRI. But Connex SE had responded the only way they knew how. They had introduced their five stage Management for Attendance procedure. "I call it Bullying for Attendance," comments Laurie.

It takes just two days sickness or unauthorised absence in a thirteen week period or five days in a year to trigger stage 1. Once you are stage 1 you are given a warning. Further sickness takes you up through the stages which include a final warning and, ultimately, dismissal.

Laurie Holden knew all too well how the system worked. By the end of 1998 he was up to stage 3 - a final warning. Any further sickness in the next twelve months and he would be sacked pending appeal.

Increased sickness among drivers would indicate increased fatigue. But would it be a reliable measure? Laurie felt that "bullying for attendance" would force a lot of sick drivers into work and this would distort the data.

SPADs

He discussed the issue with his fellow safety reps. Together they decided on a possible approach. They would focus on SPADs otherwise known as Signals Passed at Danger. The term describes the act of driving past a signal when the signal is set to danger or stop. Potentially this was a good measure. All SPADs had to be recorded and investigated. And a SPAD was just the sort of mistake which an exhausted driver might make.

The first step was to find out how many SPADs had occurred on Connex SE since the introduction of DRI. This proved to be difficult: repeated requests for SPAD information were ignored. Laurie knew that a group existed to investigate each SPAD and that this group issued reports. But getting these reports was almost impossible. It seemed to Laurie that the deliberations of the SPAD group were deliberately shrouded in secrecy.

Finally he visited the Connex South Eastern Health and Safety Library at Blackfriars. "Well," he says, "the term library is perhaps a bit grand. It was just a corner in a bigger office."

But here at least he was able to study the loss control reports. From these he pulled out accounts of every SPAD since the introduction of DRI.

Laurie wrote or spoke to each driver involved. His survey included one key question. "Did the changes brought about by DRI have a major effect in causing your SPAD."

Laurie was open in saying that he would be sending the results of his survey to the Railway Inspectorate. It turned out that twenty two SPADS occurred on Connex South Eastern lines between the introduction of DRI in June 1997 and the end of 1998. Laurie analysed every one of them. In 11 of them the Driver blamed exhaustion resulting from the introduction of DRI.

In January 1999 Laurie sent a 4 page report to the Railways Inspectorate. This highlighted Connex South Eastern's SPAD record - which was the worst in the UK. Driver fatigue and hence DRI was heavily implicated. In his report Laurie also castigated what he saw as the secrecy of the Connex SPAD investigation group.

A month later Laurie Holden was reporting for duty. His DSM told him that the new area manager would like to see him. He wasted no time in getting to the point: a driver had complained about Laurie requesting SPAD information. The driver felt that Laurie's approach was intrusive.

Laurie started to explain that most of the drivers he contacted had been only too pleased to talk to him. They were grateful that someone was trying to do something about the fatigue caused by their working conditions.

But Laurie's comments were dismissed with a wave of the arm. "Different people," he was told, "see things differently. At Connex South Eastern we take harassment seriously. We recently sacked somebody for harassment."

When Laurie pressed for more details it turned out that the Area Manager was referring to a case of sexual harassment. "That is not exactly relevant to what I am doing he argued.

The interview ended with Laurie signing a paper which outlined that the meeting had taken place.

The second meeting with the Area Manager was no better than the first. Laurie was waiting in an outer office to go to attend a routine health and safety meeting when he was called into the inner sanctum.

Once inside the office he was shown a photocopy of the SPAD report that Laurie had drawn up. "Is this yours?" he was asked. Laurie confirmed that it was.

He was accused of inaccuracy. In particular his allegations of Connex SE's secrecy when it came to SPAD reports were highlighted.

"Well I can't get to see them, " said Laurie. As a safety rep he knew this was his right. The allegation of inaccuracy was repeated. "Your report is incorrect in saying that the SPAD group is secret. And now it has got into the press. I'm under a lot of pressure from Head Office to deal with you."

Five days later Laurie Holden received a letter from the Area Manager which spelt out Laurie's position in no uncertain terms. "By this letter I am warning you that future instances of conduct that damages the business will be dealt with formally. As I stated, without prejudging the outcome of that action, the consequences are likely to be serious."

In March 1999 DRI was modified. The maximum hours per shift were cut to 10.5. Other changes were made to help make sure that breaks did not have to be taken right at the beginning or right at the end of a shift.

These were improvements but overall Laurie felt it was a wasted opportunity.

Answering drivers queries in the run up to restructuring had caused him to take a train out late on two occasions. On one occasion it was three minutes late, on the other eight. It didn't matter that he was able to safely make up the time before picking up passengers. Nor did it matter that no other driver had ever been seriously disciplined for such an "offence." Laurie Holden received a severe reprimand.

In August he was again disciplined. His car started spraying petrol over the road as he was driving to work. He called the AA and then immediately let his manager know what had happened. The car had a major fault and took a long time to sort out. Normally in this sort of circumstances the manager would have allowed a day off. In fact that's exactly what did happen to a driver whose kitchen ceiling collapsed before he left for work one morning. But Laurie Holden got a final warning.

Driver training

After Connex SE cut the training time for new drivers by 44% he wrote to the Railway Inspectorate copying his letter to John Prescott and Lord Cullen. In his letter he pointed out that "Local managers have accepted that 80% of new drivers have been involved in safety related incidents within 6 months of their final assessment."

Other issues addressed were SPADS and fatigue and the subject of management bullying which he described as now "completely out of hand."

The letter finishes with a request that, for the sake of the drivers and their passengers, the HMRI should become more involved.

HMRI found Laurie's report useful and he was also thanked on behalf of the Deputy Prime Minister. But, as Laurie wryly comments, "Connex did not share their gratitude."

In November 1999 they charged him with writing and distributing a report that contained "emotive, inaccurate, inciteful personal opinions and statements that are damaging to the company."

He received a severe reprimand and a final warning. This punishment was formally administered on 22 December. For good measure two other final warnings were also thrown in. These were for the car breakdown and absence through sickness.

And before he left he was handed an envelope. This contained a new charge - delaying a train. It ignored the fact that he had already proved that the delay was not his fault but due to an administrative lapse.

"It was clear," says Laurie, "that they wanted me out." He spent Boxing Day writing out his letter of resignation, but for the sake of the drivers he decided to fight on. He took his case to an Industrial Tribunal.

He put his life savings into hiring Clarke Kiernan a local firm of solicitors. It was a colossal act of courage showing he was prepared to put his money where his mouth was.

But why didn't he let ASLEF fight his case? "They were part of the problem," he comments.

Just how much part of the problem became apparent when his legal team learned the names of the witnesses for Connex SE. Two of them were ASLEF representatives.

The story of Laurie Holden shows what can happen to health and safety when ineffective union support is coupled to a bullying management culture. It also shows what can happen to anyone with the courage to speak out - and keep on speaking out.

Laurie, in the end was fully vindicated. The tribunal found that he had been victimised and unfairly constructively dismissed. He was awarded 48,000 in damages.

But perhaps the vindication he values most is a letter from a pensioner who had served on Arctic Convoys during the Second World War. On reading about Laurie in a Sunday Mirror article he wrote:

"Dear Laurie Holden,

I so admire your tenacity and determination to get safety on the railways at no small cost to you personally.

As a seventy nine year old widower, a veteran of the war, it does my heart good to know there are still people like you with that bulldog spirit that realise that human life comes before profit and gain. My best wishes to you, God bless,

From, Joe Gee."



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