Date of Award

2012

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

School

School of Communications and Arts

Faculty

Education and Arts

First Advisor

Professor Lelia Green

Second Advisor

Dr David Leith

Third Advisor

Professor Robyn Quin

Abstract

This thesis examines whether an understanding of the communication and safety culture of transit officers, who form part of a security section of a large state Rail Transport Organisation (RTO), can lead to strategies to reduce their risk of injury. The core functions of the transit officer position are passenger safety and customer service. This puts the officers in the front line of defence against the antisocial behaviour from some patrons that occurs regularly on the railway system. Like urban railways the world over, this anti-social behaviour can range from bad language to severe violence. Whilst these officers are not police, they do have many similar powers to police, such as the ‘power of arrest’ to deal with certain offences committed on railway property. A key difference, however, is that transit officers tend to deal with issues as they arise, whereas the police are more likely to respond to an event after its occurrence. Additionally, unlike many policing organisations, transit officers are not equipped with a taser or firearm, but rely on their communication skills and physical training to defuse a potentially threatening situation, and a baton and pepper spray for self-defence. Over the years an unacceptable number of injuries have been sustained by the RTO transit officers in dealing with anti-social behaviour. Whilst the organisation requires that statistics for incidents and injuries remain confidential, it is nonetheless known that the incident rate is above that of workers in other traditionally hazardous industries, such as construction. Further, surveys conducted on behalf of the RTO also indicate that passengers feel less safe at night due to the anti-social behaviour evident on the rail system. This raises issues about the safety culture. The term ‘safety culture’ became important in safety science as a result of accident enquiries, analysis of safety failures and organisational disasters which attributed fault to the organisation’s internal attitudes to safety. Many of these organisations had comprehensive safety systems in place; however these investigations identified the importance of human factors in the equation. Safety systems did not mean that the organisation had a culture of safety. To study the culture of a group it is necessary to understand their basic assumptions, espoused values and the artefacts that the group holds as important. These play a significant part in determining people’s behaviour, their adherence to safety procedures and communication in the workplace. In terms of the safety culture on the RTO trains, transit officers have commonly said that anyone wanting to understand the provocation and violence that they deal with in their work environment would need to work alongside them. This research responds to that challenge to understand the cultural and communication dynamics that exist within the transit officer cadre and in exchanges between passenger and transit officers. An ethnographic protocol was chosen, which in this instance involved the researcher participating directly in the workplace and building close relationships with the transit officers. Recognising the significance of obtaining ‘insider status’ the researcher commenced the fieldwork by joining a new intake of transit officers embarking upon the twelve-week training program. Importantly, taking this path enabled the researcher to obtain credibility amongst the transit officers through their shared experiences. Following graduation from training, the researcher spent a further month in the closed circuit television monitoring room obtaining an overview of the many activities involving transit officers that occur during the night throughout the metropolitan rail system. From this communication heart, the Shift Commander can communicate directly by radio with all transit officers; and the video operators can monitor activities from cameras which are situated on all railway infrastructure. The researcher spent the following four months immersed in the transit officers’ world. This included working alongside the officers during the evening and night, being rostered on their shifts and engaging with the variety of their duties on trains, stations and delta vehicle patrols. The information gleaned during this time became the basis of the formal interviews which took place at the end of that period. The researcher later met with ‘best-practice’ transit policing organisations to determine what strategies these organisations had in place to reduce rail officer injury rates. The collaborating organisations included transit policing agencies in the United States, Canada, Britain and interstate Australia. Information obtained during the RTO field work was evaluated against safety practices and the safety culture in these high performing organisations. Recommendations to reduce the risk of injury for transit officers and improve communication practices within the transit officer cadre were subsequently submitted to the industry partner for consideration. A safer workplace for transit officers would reduce transit officers’ personal suffering, leaving more transit officers at work, reducing workers’ compensation costs, and providing a safer environment for passengers.

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