Could the new science of psychometric testing be the answer to the railway industry's worrying safety record? Alasdair Reisner reports
IT IS not difficult to see why the life of a track worker is more dangerous than the average construction worker. Coupled with the hazards found on any site are the added dangers of high voltages, live rails and trains moving at speed. So it is vital that everyone working trackside has the right skills, motivation and attitude to get the job done safely.
But how, when you are taking people on, do you know whether they will be able to cope with such hazardous conditions?
Lucy Elliot, of the Occupational Psychology Centre, reckons the answer is psychometric testing. Literally meaning 'measuring the mind', it involves carrying out a series of tests on new recruits to determine whether they have the necessary skills and mindset for the job.
She says: 'The performance of new recruits on these ability and personality tests can be directly related to their performance later in training and on the job.'
Cynics may argue that this is all well and good but what evidence does the testing centre have to back up these claims? Could they be just a load of psychobabble?
Over the past five years the centre has had a chance to demonstrate this isn't the case.
For the last six years the firm has been working on a research programme on behalf of Her Majesty's Railway Inspectorate to prove the benefits of psychometric testing and to develop tools to allow it to be used across the sector.
'The first stage was working with industry stakeholders to establish which activities were safety-critical.We chose four activities based on a number of factors including the safety risk associated with the activity, the frequency it was carried out and also looking at known problem areas, ' says Ms Elliot.
Analysis of these activities - managing safety, controlling possessions, isolating supply and inspecting track - was carried out to determine the personal characteristics needed to be competent in each.
Ms Elliot says: 'We took all that data away and broke down the characteristics into four groups.
The first was abilities and skill.These are things like identifying faults and analysing, understanding and working with written information.The second was the emotional aspect.That is about being able to remain calm in an emergency.
'The third is motivation. It is no good if people understand the rules but don't actually have the motivation to follow them. Finally there is their ability to work with others.'
The centre then cast its net wide in a search for tests that would measure each of these characteristics.To make things as specific as possible the occupational psychologists only looked at tests that had either been researched or developed in the rail sector. In the end four tests were chosen on the basis that they covered most of the required characteristics and were relatively easy to assess.
'It would be great to test everyone for everything but you would be looking at three or four recruitment days.Neither the prospective employee nor employer would want to do that, ' says Ms Elliot.
With all the tests in place it was time to try them out to see whether they worked in practice.
'Sadly this was at around about the same time as the Hatfield rail crash so we were asking people for help but they were saying they had their hands full, ' recalls Ms Elliot.
With the help of Amec, enough workers were found to trial the scheme but some had concerns about what the information was to be used for.
'People were twitchy.They thought it might be a witch-hunt. Bob Crow and the RMT were vital in giving their support at this point.He was able to tell them it was a good thing and that they should help us out, ' says Ms Elliot.
Around 400 people were tested and the results showed there was a correlation between scores on the tests and the way people performed in their jobs.
With this evidence in place the next stage should see these tests rolled out across the sector.
But, while all this was going on, changes were afoot elsewhere in the rail sector.
Ms Elliot says: 'Network Rail has taken the recruitment of a lot of these people back in-house.
We are in talks with them about the tests and they are doing their own research.We'll have to wait and see what they think.'
Yet, no matter who is in charge of recruitment, it is widely accepted that the industry is struggling to bring enough workers in to the sector. Is there a danger that testing could put off potential recruits?
OPC director Jo Lawrence disagrees. She says: 'The test should mean that more people will stay in their jobs for a longer period of time. At the moment people are being recruited and then leaving the job very quickly.
Getting the right person at the start means that you are reducing that turnover.'
This claim is backed up by Christine Hardy, head of personnel for Amec Rail. She says: 'We have used the tests and they have certainly increased our retention of staff and therefore reduced our turnover.
'They have proved to be a great leveller.They also get rid of the blue-eyed boy syndrome, where someone almost charms the interviewer into giving them the job even when they aren't the right candidate, and they have provided us with a lot more information about potential workers.'
How the tests work
AT FIRST glance the Safe Concentration and Attention Test appears to be written in Klingon or some such alien language.
In fact the symbol-based test measures your ability to carry out the repetitive task of circling one particular symbol throughout page after page of other symbols.
While it seems simple, the 45-minute test ensures that those with serious problems with concentration will get bored and miss symbols, highlighting their unsuitability to work in a sector such as rail, where mental concentration is a must.
The Rules Acquisition Aptitude Test measures a potential employee's ability to read, understand and work with rules related to their jobs.
The candidates are presented with passages of information about a fictitious transport company and have to answer multiple choice questions based on them.
The test screens out people who have trouble reading and working with rules.
The Rail Maintenance Engineering Exercise measures the ability to identify faults, analyse procedures and work with diagrams.
It is based on responding to scenarios that the employees will come across in their day-to-day work.
The Safe Personality Questionnaire is designed to determine whether someone will choose to work safely.
It is based on the candidates rating themselves against a number of statements that in turn give a measure of whether they are able to follow rules, remain calm in emergencies and maintain a cautious and conscientious approach to work.