Rail employee hand safety

Thursday, 15 September, 2005

Kiwi ingenuity is leading the way in the rail maintenance industry, with major safety initiatives developed by local rail maintenance workers being implemented not just on New Zealand's rail network - but on the Australian network as well.

The safety initiatives were developed by Transfield Services' employees as part of a training program and were so impressive that the company is already in the process of introducing them in New Zealand, with plans to roll them out in Australia. They include a new Hirail braking system, which has reduced stopping distances by 50 per cent and is already the recipient of a major national safety award, as well as a study into hand/arm vibration injuries. This study has since led to a major initiative that has not only increased worker safety but improved productivity. Transfield Services, the company that maintains New Zealand's entire rail network, introduced the 'Agents of Change' training program to encourage rail employees to develop and implement safety initiatives to promote and facilitate safe behaviour.

The hand/arm vibration project involves replacing the 'poinjar' handheld tampers with mini tampers imported from China and never before used in New Zealand. Poinjars are widely used in track maintenance work to pack the stones under the railway sleepers, however they vibrate heavily and can cause injuries and so time limitations are put on their use. Mini tampers are also man-operated, but are larger machines that run along the tracks and do not transfer vibrations to the rail employee, enabling track work to be carried out safely, efficiently and effectively. The catalyst for change was an Agents of Change research project by Palmerston North track maintainer, Brendon Gutschlag, who investigated the awareness and incidence of symptoms of hand/arm vibration injuries caused through excessive use of hand tampers. His findings showed that 80 per cent of his fellow workers were experiencing symptoms of hand/arm vibration injuries.

"The prevention of nerve damage resulting from excessive use of heavy handheld tools is an ongoing problem within this and other heavy industries," said Gutschlag. "These tools are used frequently; however there is a limitation on their use of 60 minutes per person per day."

The introduction of mini tampers eliminates the health hazards associated with the use of hand tampers. By the end of June 2005, Transfield Services was significantly reducing the numbers and usage of handheld tampers currently in the workforce through the introduction of the new mini tamper technology.

Tony Fisher, general manager of Transfield Services New Zealand, said that this is a significant development for the industry.

"Brendon's research has made workers more aware of the incidence of hand/arm vibration injuries and through the subsequent introduction of mini tampers we have created a safer working environment," said Fisher. "We have also seen a significant increase in productivity. Not only are mini tampers relatively inexpensive, they do a more consistent job than the hand tampers in less time and have no time restrictions set on the use of them. Another initiative that has been implemented as a result of the Agents of Change program is a new Hirail truck braking system, which improves stopping distance by 50 per cent and is now fitted to all new Hirail trucks.

This initiative was recently awarded the NZ Department of Labour Workplace Health & Safety Award for Best Design or Technology Initiative, which best demonstrates effective solutions to health and safety issues.

"This award, along with Transfield Services' recent achievement of 750,000 hours Lost Time Injury Free, is a fitting tribute to the work we have all done to improve safety within our rail business in New Zealand," said Fisher.

"These projects are superb examples of how a significant difference can be made to safety through the passion and determination of individuals realising they can make a difference. It is great to see that the Agents of Change training program has resulted in some tangible benefits to the workers and the rail maintenance industry."

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