Cramped cab causes carpal tunnel syndrome
The importance of risk assessments has been highlighted by another case involving poor ergonomics in train cabs, says William Gasson.
When the judge in the case of Allison -v- London Underground  EWCA Civ 71 (see Health and Safety News Autumn 2008) confirmed that it is not enough for risk assessments to be carried out after a hazard is brought to their attention, common sense would have seen employers being proactive.
Especially rail industry employers.
Yet Arriva Trains Wales appeared not to have taken on the significance of the Court of Appeal decision in Allison when it failed to carry out either pre or post-injury risk assessments of the cabs and seats in locomotives used on lines throughout South West Wales.
In Thomas, Studholme and Rogan -v- Arriva  Swansea County Court, Thompsons was instructed by ASLEF to represent three members who worked out of Arriva’s Carmarthen Depot. They had been driving the 140, 142, 150, 152 and 153 locomotives for many years. All three developed carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) and needed surgery.
The incidence in the population of CTS is 0.5 per cent. So three drivers out of one depot of 50 drivers is an unusually high incidence of the syndrome: over ten times higher than the national average.
All three men alleged that the symptoms had been caused by their repetitive work, adopting awkward wrist postures to operate the brake and power controls of the locomotive, and the cramped conditions and poor ergonomics within the cabs.
In particular, Thompsons alleged:
- Inadequate seats with little or no adjustment.
- A lack of suitable arm rests – the drivers rested their arms on the edge of a desk creating a risky posture.
- Generally cramped conditions within the cab with insufficient legroom.
- Increasingly longer turns at the controls.
- Repetitive and awkward deviations due to extended wrist movements of the controls through the brake and power controllers.
- Increased use of the control levers (to satisfy the Professional Drivers Standards being monitored by the On Train Monitoring Report system which required more use of controls to avoid wear and tear caused by extreme braking).
- A breach of Regulation 4 of the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 – the suitability of equipment.
- Breaches of Regulation 8 and 9 of the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations – information and training for train drivers about the risk of injury in these positions.
Medical evidence linked the CTS to the men’s work as train drivers on the specific locomotives and routes. An ergonomist confirmed that the job was repetitive within HSE “danger” guidelines and that the repetition and awkward wrist movements did give rise to a foreseeable risk of injury.
In effect, the drivers were extending their arms fully and deviating the wrist to both sides on regular occasions.
Reducing the risk
The ergonomist said that simple and inexpensive measures, such as providing adjustable seats with arm rests would have significantly reduced the risks of injury.
But Arriva denied that the locomotive cabs had caused the drivers’ conditions or that it was liable for them. The company obtained its own medical evidence from a rheumatologist and a report from an engineer.
Significantly, Arriva was unable to produce any pre or post-injury risk assessments. Risk assessments of the cabs and work processes had not even been done by the time the case reached trial – long after the drivers’ claims had been started.
Instead Arriva insisted that the risk of injury was so minimal as not to trigger risk assessments and claimed that what risk there was arose from the individual habits of drivers rather than the set-up of the workspace (some drivers found standing up in the cab more comfortable because of the lack of leg room under the desk).
The trial Judge, at Swansea County Court, even visited the local station and inspected some of the cabs himself, comparing them with a newer 175 unit, which is more spacious and designed around the driver.
The Judge was clearly struck by the lack of space in the 153 units and said he understood why some drivers would sometimes stand up to drive.
The case has wide implications for train drivers across the UK but also for all workers in that it further emphasises employers’ duty to risk assess.
The Judge ruled that each of the drivers had proved that they suffered CTS and that it was work related. He said that just because it had taken years to develop did not indicate that it was not. Years of working in those conditions would tire the muscles.
Significantly, though not surprisingly, he said that Arriva had failed in its duty of care towards each of the claimants in failing to risk assess their work systems.
A risk assessment was the crucial pre-requisite to assessing whether the work was being done in a suitable way and place as required under Reg 4 PUWER 1998 (he cited Robb -v- Salamis 2006 UKHL 56).
A risk assessment should have identified the shortcomings in the ergonomic conditions of the cab and observed the individual habits of drivers which gave rise to risk of injury.
There was a failure to take even the most modest of measures to prevent or significantly reduce the risk of injury to the drivers and there was a failure to inform and train the drivers in breach of Regulations 8 and 9 of the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations.
The judge cited the Judge in Allison on the need to observe and then train and inform each train driver at their workstation.