Health and safety management relies on incidents, statistics, probability, and history, yet the Denver train collision repeats the Orlando train disaster.
The relationship between health and safety incidents and continuous improvement remains largely theoretical, writes Mabila Mathebula.
People, organisations and cultures tend to learn a little in their youth, then maintain the behaviour that they found to be acceptable. Deja vu, that feeling of ‘we have been here before’, are rare flashes.
The good and bad examples of history are blurred by supposed new technology and pressing business competition in every sector, including railways.
History is often relegated to the background in favour of new engineering solutions, but as history teaches, and as we are slow to learn, there are always heavy prices to pay for ignoring the many lessons of history.
South Africa is not strong on history, and for good reason. We had many painful moments and few glories.
We must not merely know, but understand the past, or we will be prone to repeating old mistakes, and other people’s, organisation’s, or coutnries’ mistakes.
As Raymond Parsons said; “Tragedies and disasters usually teach valuable lessons, though they may not always have good students” (Business Day, 11 April 2012).
Most ‘new’ safety risks are historic
According to the researcher Pfeiffer (1997), leaders gain three benefits from a deeper understanding of history;
 Fresh perspective from seeing that most of what looks new, is really old;
 Fuller appreciation of the hidden costs of ‘new’ improvements. By the time we learn, we become case studies.
 Understanding of appropriate steps needed to sustain a competitive advantage and avoid being swept up in fads and fashion.
On 28 April 2015, two passenger trains were involved in the Denver train collision station, leaving a guard fatally injured, and 240 people injured, including a female driver.
The Denver train collision happened during the morning peak hours. Many South African will be surprised that the morning of 28 April 1949, or 66 years ago, was the date of the Orlando Train Disaster that claimed 67 lives.
The driver and the guard of the third train in 1949 were fatally injured, and 141 passengers were injured.
The incident was a rear end collision involving three trains, between Mlamlalankuzi halt and New Canada station. Two trains were stationary when the third one collided.
According to the investigation, “…the driver of the third train failed to observe instructions applicable to the operating of trains in sections controlled by colour light signalling, in that he did not proceed cautiously after having stopped at an automatic signal at danger”.
Now, 67 years later, many similar details are emerging, including the role played by signals.
The Orlando Train Disaster 1949 accident scene was superbly managed; “…Immediate arrangements were made for medical and nursing aid to be concentrated at the scene”.
The injured were taken to Baragwaneth hospital “where medical attention and accommodation were hurriedly arranged in advance”. The medical fraternity, Johannesburg City Council, police and railway rescue workers worked hand in hand.
Dreams and visions of safety improvement
Martin Luther King Junior’s speech of August 1963 was remembered, because his famous dream did not exist in the vacuum; “…It is a dream rooted in the American dream.”
Thomas Jefferson’s Solomonic wisdom served as a firm foundation to Luther’s dream. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.
The bright moments of history are inspirational, but it is all too human to forget the bad parts. Sheq managers have to learn to remember, and to gently remind other managers.
Among the 67 passengers who died in the Orlando Train Disaster in 1949, was Bishop Lazarus Nku, first Bishop of St John’s Apostolic Church, one of the first Southern African independent churches.
History is generous with its lessons. On 15 November 1949 at Waterval Boven, 55 people were fatally injured and 118 others injured in transit.
Here are some recommendations for raising a culture of Sheq learning;
• The Orlando Train Disaster should be commemorated every year by railway and transport stakeholders and families of those who died untimely.
• Other industries should choose disasters to commemorate and learn from.
• A church such as St John’s Apostolic Church should partner with the railways to raise awareness about railway safety.
• Other churches should partner with industries to raise the study and understanding of our moral obligation to reduce error and suffering.
• Each industry should build a library of its disasters and incidents, to serve training providers and investigators.
• Political, labour and business organisations, such as taxi associations, should become more involved in health and safety loss prevention. Every organisation have lost some leaders in preventable incidents. Chief Albert Luthuli was killed by a train.
Mabila Mathebula is a senior researcher at the Railway Safety Regulator (RSR) of South Africa. He writes on health and safety culture in his private capacity as a former consultant.