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Home > The RoSPA Occupational Safety & Health Journal/June 2002

Connex South Eastern victimises health and safety whistleblowersThe Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents has given us permission to reproduce the 2 articles about the Holden verses Connex South Eastern tribunal that were recently published in the RoSPA Occupational Safety & Health Journal.

The text is as the original; some of the graphics have been amended or omitted due to differences in format. For copies of the magazine, please go to the RoSPA Journals.

The June 2002 article is below; the second article is from the July 2002 issue. Some background information has been written for clarification.

All material from these publications is the copyright of RoSPA.

Role played by Connex South Eastern and ASLEF officials in the victimisation of a health and safety representative  This Working Life ______________________________________________________________________________

Part of the

"He is not one of our members," the ASLEF press officer insisted repeatedly when Nick Cook asked for a comment on the case that Laurie Holden recently took to an industrial tribunal. Indeed when it comes to Laurie Holden, the ASLEF press office appears to be in a state of denial. They deny that he is member of their union. And even when you tell them that they still bank his membership cheques, still send him their membership journal Locomotive, and continue to send him ballot forms, they continue to deny that he is anything to do with them.

It is surprising that the situation described above exists because the case in question arose directly from Laurie Holden's activities as a trade union rep - for ASLEF. His case was that victimisation by managers forced him to resign from his job as a railway driver. The alleged motive for the victimisation was his zeal in highlighting health and safety risks.

I phone the ASLEF press office to check one more time. Is he absolutely sure that Laurie Holden is not a member? The receptionist tells me that the press office is busy and cannot take the call.

Possible reasons for ASLEF's amnesia emerge as Laurie tells his story: one which acts as a grim warning to anyone who doggedly pursues health and safety issues. It is a story which shows what can happen when an aggressive profits before safety culture is not effectively challenged by a committed trade union. It is a story which shows what happens to the lone individual who does makes a stand.

Not that Laurie regards himself in any way a hero. In my dealings with him, he is diffident to the point of shyness. His story begins in 1974 when he left the print industry to join British Rail. His job title then was "second man" - in other words, a driver's assistant. He spent a lot of time simply observing, learning the job and doing chores as requested. Two years, one practical and two theory examinations later he was a qualified driver.

"In those days," he remembers, "drivers were treated with more respect. They were listened to. If the driver was not happy with the condition of a train he could get something done about it."

By the beginning of 1977 he was a suburban driver based at Charing Cross, "the most intensive suburban commuter area in Europe – possibly the world." An ASLEF member since joining the railway, Laurie became a staff representative in 1992. In 1993 after a change in the union rep structure, he became solely an ASLEF Health and Safety Rep.

Over the years he had seen the train driver's job become more stressful. For example in 1983 the maximum permitted shift length was extended from 8 hours to 9 hours.

But as far as Laurie is concerned the first major assault on driver's working conditions came with DOO(p). The acronym stands for Driver Only Operation (passengers) and its introduction did away with guards on suburban trains. It was made possible by the advent of sliding doors which could be operated from inside the driver's cab. As far as drivers were concerned DOO(p) meant stress. They were now responsible for train timings, seeing the train away from the station and dealing with any unruly behaviour.

"Our branch was certainly opposed to DOO(p), says Laurie. "The rank and file were not consulted by management or even the union."

He wrote a letter to Lew Adams the General Secretary of ASLEF. At what level had DOO(p) been agreed? Why had there had been no consultation?" In his reply Lew Adams stated that DOO(p) had been agreed at a regional level. He gave no explanation for the lack of rank and file consultation.

Meanwhile there was an increase in assaults against drivers. "I am sure this was as a result of DOO(p)" says Laurie. "I am sure that this is because they were now on their own."

He recalls one case where a teenager hit a train driver over the back of the head with a fire extinguisher. The youth then bit the driver on the chest, his teeth going through the driver's tunic. The incident took place late at night at Hayes railway station where the night staffing at the station had been cut.

"When you had two members of staff on a train there was more of a deterrent," comments Laurie.

Laurie was under no illusions about what he was up against. "I knew that pushing health and safety issues would be risky," he says, "but I could see how people were suffering. One driver told me how the conditions were affecting his home life. This is what motivated me to carry on. I did not want to just go through the motions and keep my head down."

Laurie's assessment of the risk arising from just being a Health and Safety Rep proved all too accurate. The vigour and conscientiousness with which he pursued health and safety issues set him on a collision course with Connex South Eastern.

Laurie's next major concern was about the temperatures inside drivers' cabs. The heat (solar gain) was due the large glass windows which effectively turned the cab into a greenhouse. There was no air conditioning and temperatures frequently rose to the mid thirties (Centigrade). In one case a temperature of 43oC was reported.

Laurie's attempts to get something done met with no effective support from Connex. In July 1994 he wrote to the General Secretary of ASLEF asking for help. He pointed out that the management response had been simply to offer water containers which drivers could top up with tap water. This was to help prevent dehydration. Management also pointed out that they were trialling air conditioning in one train.

But Laurie's concern was that the heat could cause drivers to lose concentration. The General Secretary wrote to the railway company but to little effect. Nothing seemed to be happening.

Laurie had gone through all the correct procedures. But as 1994 gave way to 1995 drivers were still having to operate in stifling heat. Laurie felt the time had come to take more drastic action. In the Summer of 1995 he telephoned the Railway Inspectorate. Their response was almost instantaneous. Amanda Rudd of the Inspectorate would like to see him. Could Laurie arrange a meeting?

Laurie wrote to his local manager asking to be released from duties to attend the meeting. There was no response. Laurie rang the manager. "It's been passed up to Head Office," said the manager.

Laurie rang head office. There was no answer as to whether he would be allowed to attend the meeting.

Time went by. And then, one Monday afternoon in mid December 1995, Laurie checked in to work as usual. "Where were you?" said the foreman. You were supposed to be at Head Office meeting the Railway Inspectorate." Nobody had told Laurie.

Fortunately, Laurie was not the only one to miss the meeting. Amanda Rudd had been forced to cancel at the last minute.

The meeting finally took place, not with Ms Rudd but with Jim May, Principal Inspector with the Railway Inspectorate. The result was a letter from Mr May to the Director of what was then the South Eastern Train Company which spelt out Mr May's position in words that left no room for doubt: "unless I see evidence of reasonable and practical progress in remedying this problem I would be gathering evidence during any forthcoming hot period to issue an improvement notice .. "

This eventually had the desired effect though drivers had to fight against the heat for some time to come. They were not always successful.

For example, on Friday 13th June 1997 (2 years after the threat of an improvement notice) a driver in a train standing at Hayes railway station had to be woken up by a passenger tapping on the window of his cab. The driver blamed the heat in his cab. There was no air conditioning.

It was not until the summer of 2000 all Connex South Eastern networker trains were fitted with air conditioning. The following extract from personal letter to Laurie from a driver shows just what a difference this made. "On a personal note from me I would like to thank you for all your hard work … in getting the air conditioning fitted to networkers. I used to dread the hot summer months driving a train in those terrible conditions ….."

There was a P.S: "My wife would also like to say thanks as apparently I don't moan as much now in the hot weather."

The battle to get air conditioning in cabs had taught Laurie Holden an important lesson. To get action on health and safety issues you don't just go to the management. You don't just go to ASLEF. You also involve Her Majesty's Railway Inspectorate.

It was in 1996 that Connex South Eastern took over the franchise for operating the South Eastern railway network. The new company wasted no time in launching the next major assault on drivers' conditions of work. This was the Driver Restructuring Initiative (DRI) which drastically changed drivers' terms and conditions of employment.

As he delved into the fine print Laurie Holden realised to his horror that these new conditions could require drivers to work significantly longer shifts. On 28 April 1997 he wrote a letter to Richard Fearn, the Managing Director of Connex South Eastern. He pointed out that the agreement would allow drivers to work a maximum 11½ hours in a single shift. At the time the current maximum was 9 hours. He pointed out that the Railways (Safety Critical Work) Regulations recommended that a risk assessment should be carried before changes are made to a shift pattern which could increase fatigue and affect safety.

In May there was no reply from Richard Fearn. The DRI agreement had now been officially released. Its front page carried the signed endorsement not only of two Connex South Eastern Directors but also four ASLEF officials.

A meeting was clearly needed to discuss the full implications of the agreement. So it was that on the 9th May the four ASLEF signatories found themselves seated at a table in a Social Club in Ashford. These officials were the local union representatives. They were drivers who had been released from their duties by Connex South East. They were therefore, in effect, full time ASLEF representatives. They represented their members on the Drivers' Company Council but their wages were paid by Connex South Eastern.

Facing them were Laurie Holden and the other eleven Depot Health and Safety Reps. Also present were 34 ASLEF staff representatives and some RMT representatives. All were keen to question the four men at the head table who had sat with Connex South Eastern management and agreed the DRI on their behalf.

Laurie in particular wanted answers on the health and safety implications. He was to be disappointed. "It was embarrassing," he comments. "They were supposed to be our representatives but they seemed to know very little about health and safety regulations."

One of Laurie's colleagues asked whether steps had been taken to comply with the Safety Critical Regulations. Had a proper risk assessment been done?

"We'll look into this and follow it up," said one of the men at the head table.

For his part Laurie focused on the requirements of the Workplace Regulations. Had adequate non-smoking rest rooms been provided for staff working the new shifts? Did the rest room facilities meet the requirements of the regulations?

"We'll look into this and follow it up," came the reply.

"This was the response to almost every question, "comments Laurie. "We made our feelings very plain but they refused to make any firm commitment. They were unable to answer our concerns about what DRI would do to the health and safety of the drivers that we – and they - represented."

Laurie left the meeting with the feeling that the DRI was being pushed through by both management and union. There was no proper consultation with the Depot Health and Safety Reps or rank and file train drivers. It was DOO(p) all over again: the pattern was almost identical. And he could tell from the way the meeting had gone he was not alone. Most of the floor shared his fears.

On the 14th May Laurie got the first indication that his fight for the health of the drivers might affect his own . A migraine forced him to take a day off work.

On his recovery Laurie returned to his fight against DRI. He remembered the important lesson during the solar gain campaign. Consequently, on the 23 May 1997 Laurie and three other Health and Safety Depot Representatives met with two Rail Inspectors.

" We demonstrated that the new rotas could result in drivers having to cope with a morning rush hour after working most of the night, i.e. that the maximum time a driver could work per shift would rise from 9 hours to 11½ hours."

Laurie tried to demonstrate this increase in hours to the drivers themselves. But he was not always believed. The drivers had been given the impression that shifts would only last, at most, 9¾ hours. Laurie explained that this was just driving time. The extra duties – making trains safe and walking between train and depot – were additional and could easily push the length of the shift up to 11½ hours. This was not explicitly spelt out in the agreement.

"It did not help that the company only released full details of the actual shifts after the ballot on DRI."

The ballot was held in June 1997. The ballot papers were accompanied by a booklet explaining the DRI and a recommendation from management and ASLEF to accept. The whole pill was sugar coated with a wage increase. Even so acceptance was by no means unanimous. The results were 472 for acceptance and 363 against. A further 111 either didn't vote or spoiled their papers.

"It took our conditions back 20 years," comments Laurie.

He was diagnosed with stress and forced to take two days off. It was now July and still Richard Fearn had not replied to Laurie's letter requesting details of the risk assessment. In fact, Laurie had to wait until the 23rd July for a reply. For a reply that took nearly three months it was very brief. Richard Fearn merely confirmed that a risk assessment had been done, had resulted in a revision of the Company's Railway Safety Case which in turn had been accepted by RailTrack and the HSE.

The majority of the people potentially affected by the risks assessed were neither involved in the assessment nor shown a copy. Laurie's repeated requests for a copy of the risk assessment were either ignored or refused. Ironically, the first time he saw the risk assessment was not when he worked for Connex South Eastern but at his tribunal.

But Laurie had successfully got his concerns across to the Railway Inspectorate. In August 1997 they took action and carried out a survey of the actual hours worked by drivers under DRI. This provided examples of excessive hours. In one case a driver worked 73 hours in a 7 day period (Connex South East and ASLEF had agreed that 72 was acceptable). In another case a driver reported a break of less than 12 hours between shifts. Laurie himself was able to produce an example where a driver had worked 77 hours in a 7 day period.

By this time Laurie himself was able to speak with authority on the issue of the effects of DRI. In the same month as the survey fatigue forced him to take two more days off sick. Later in the month an inner ear infection affected his balance and the drugs used to treat the infection prevented Laurie from driving a train for six days.

The Inspectorate Report contained other examples. Many drivers reported falling asleep at the controls because of fatigue which led to mistakes. These included stopping the train at the wrong position along the platform. One driver had been forced to request relief due to fatigue.

The Railway Inspectorate report commented that "there is considerable concern among drivers about the way in which the DRI package is affecting individuals."

In response the ASLEF journal Locomotive published two articles justifying the DRI. Laurie lost no time in responding by writing a letter entitled Safety Nightmare on the South Eastern, in which he outlines drivers' working conditions under DRI and catalogues the effects of the long shifts. These include drivers falling asleep, signals passed at danger (SPADS), and Connex dealing with the resultant increase in sickness by bullying drivers back to work. He describes DRI as in breach of the Critical Safety Regulations. He points out that much of the agreement would be illegal if applied to lorry drivers.

ASLEF did not escape his wrath either. Not only did they "broker" DRI with Connex South East, they now refused to admit that there is a problem preferring instead to "bury their heads in the sand". The founding fathers of this "once proud union" concludes Laurie must be "turning in their graves."

It was a letter that could only have been written by someone passionate about health and safety who had become frustrated and angry at beating his head against what he saw as two brick walls of indifference, a Connex South Eastern wall and an ASLEF wall. It was a letter that ASLEF never published.

But Laurie was determined to get his message through. He posted it up on the union notice board. His letter was dated 23 October 1997. Within a three weeks he found himself up before the Driving Standards Manager.

"What paper was it printed on?" was the first question he asked. Laurie assured him that it was done at home, on his own computer, on his own paper.

"It is just your own opinion," said the DSM. "You should go through the proper channels." Laurie explained that he had gone through the proper channels and got no response.

"It is addressed to Locomotive Journal" said the DSM. "It should have been sent just to them. It should not have been put up for everyone to see."

"All of the drivers would have signed it if I had asked them," said Laurie, "they all agree with the points I made."

The DSM insisted that, "any future letters of this kind should not be posted. This is not what that notice board is for. If this occurs again it could lead to disciplinary action. Is that understood?" Laurie understood. The interview was terminated.

Laurie has no doubt about the significance of this meeting. "It was," he says, "the first shot across my bows."

But it was not the last. Before the end of 2002 the shots were to become not so much a fusillade as the Industrial relations equivalent of saturation bombing…

Laurie Holden's story is continued next month.
Further information
  • Railways (Safety Critical Work) Regulations 1994 Approved Code of Practice and Guidance L50, published by HSE Books in 1996, ISBN 07176 1260 0
  • is Laurie's own web site which gives details of his case and his health and safety concerns with Connex South Eastern.

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    Connex loses the South Eastern rail franchise