Last year, there were three workforce and passenger deaths on our railway lines as well as almost 700 injuries. We’ve spoken to some of our clients to hear what their businesses are doing to support rail safety.

Nicola Uijen is a chartered health and safety practitioner and a SHE director for the rail sector. She works with industry leading clients such as Crossrail, Network Rail and LUL and is involved in all aspects of HSQ&E support for rail-based projects.

Currently working for Costain, an international development company which is acting as a consultant on HS2, Nicola is often the first point of contact for those in crisis, which means she is no stranger to the problems faced by rail workers.

We caught up with her to speak about how to combat mental health issues within the rail sector and what solutions there were for workers to prevent mental illness.



mental illness in rail.

Randstad: More than a third of construction workers have experienced a mental health condition in the last 12 months. Is this a reality that you are aware of and has been affecting your business?


Nicola Uijen: Definitely. When we look at the five largest issues in the rail industry, mental health is a top contender. In my experience, a third seems quite conservative, this could be higher. I attended a recent networking event, and a snapshot poll revealed that nearly everyone in the room has been affected.


It is very rare that a person be diagnosed with stress, despite the fact that stress is a strong indicator of greater mental health problems and the consequences of stress can manifest as anxiety or depression. It is important to address the cause of the problem, rather than just the symptoms.


It has been highlighted in data that presenteeism is much higher than absenteeism, which means we have people in the industry that are suffering in silence. 32% of respondents felt a high level of pressure, which can impact their decision making capabilities. Too much pressure on staff means sacrificing safety and quality, which may have consequences for other workers.



talking about mental illness.


R: Do employees know where to go and who to talk with?


NU: This often depends on factors like the location, the manager and the individual. At Costain, we are normalising conversations around mental health, using a variety of tools and techniques. Our Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) includes a counselling service, and it has an above average number of people using it on the supply chain. We also have trained mental health first aiders, as well as physical ones.


A mental health first aider is a trained individual with photo ID who is based on site. Employees know they can go to them if they ever need to speak freely and confidentially to a trained mental health aider. This has been running for the last 12 months, and is working well.


We also work with a company called State of Mind, who work to break down barriers and help people to open up, rather than bottle up. In addition supervisors up to directors are given awareness training to spot the signs of stress and understand the correct routes to provide support for individuals.



fighting back with technology.


R: Just under a quarter (23%) of construction workers are considering leaving the industry in the next 12 months. With this in mind, what are the main support structures that your organisation offers to support your workforce with any mental health conditions? Is this an alarming stat for you?


NU: This is unfortunately not a surprising stat, but we are looking at how we can deal with this better. It is essential that we keep hold of the workforce. We can also look at reducing people’s exposure to stressful scenarios through technology, for example a high risk job like a train driver can be done with programming rather than people.


Automation can be useful in providing an alternative for highly stressful roles, although we have to be mindful of what we can do for those who may be replaced by machines. This is why a correctly implemented development scheme is necessary to provide workers with transferable skills.



Helping with drinking and smoking.


R: Do you have any plans in your business moving forward to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health in the rail industry, and to encourage communication?


NU: So long as they are comfortable sharing, having open conversations with people who are affected by mental health can be the key to a positive working environment. We have to let it be known that it is fine to talk about mental health. Sometimes the symptoms are hidden but openness is often the answer.


R: 20% of 3,400 surveyed have increased their use of tobacco and alcohol due to stress, what can organisations do to lower this?


NU: Costain helps to reduce stress amongst employees by working to identify the root cause of the problem. If an employee is suffering from sleeplessness, headaches and indeed partaking in self-destructive activities such as drinking or smoking, it is probably a good time intervene and offer support to that employee.


By showing people how to manage mental health issues when they do arrive, and by raising awareness about factors that may contribute to poor mental health such as nutrition and lifestyle choices, we can help to prevent stress from turning to an illness.


physical risks in rail. 


R: What are the main health hazards that face your rail workers, both on a day to day basis, and long term?


NU: Musculoskeletal hazards and manual handling, hand vibration and tremors and respiratory risk from ballast dust. As a business, risk assessments are an important method of preventing accidents. Personal protective equipment (PPE) is essential on site. There are also more general moves in the industry to build washing plants to eliminate risks associated with ballast dust. 


We have occupational health nurses who assess new employees when they first join us. Improving both the mental and physical health of employees is something that businesses should take on as a way of improving workforce sustainability. Everyone should be provided with a full health assessment to determine which tasks they are capable of carrying out without injury.


R: What assistance would you expect from your recruitment partner surrounding rail safety?


NU: Being able to provide us with information on whether workers have any health issues would be useful. The conversation needs to evolve, to be more open and inclusive and to help people achieve the best for themselves.