The Ballast Dust Working Group (BDWG) was set up in 2012 by Network Rail, as a cross-industry group of stakeholders with common interests in identifying, mitigating and managing the risks associated with ballast and stoneblower dust and aggregate. Here, Network Rail's Nigel Bownes tells us how the group members collaborate to improve industry practice.

The BDWG brings together industry members to look at how they can improve and reduce the exposure of the workforce to ballast dust, classified as a carcinogen since February 2020 in Government guidance set out in document EH40. Members come from across Network Rail’s supply chain community and include CIRAS members such as Morson International, TXM Plant, VolkerRail, Babcock International, APPSUK and Balfour Beatty Rail Services. The BDWG is committed to supporting Network Rail in protecting the health, safety and welfare of employees and other people who might be affected by ballast handling activities. It achieves this through a co-ordinated approach to knowledge sharing and working together to propose and support mitigating actions.

Network Rail's Route Services (RS) health surveillance paper, currently being drafted, will include a programme of ongoing health assessments for employees exposed to specific occupational hazards – including ballast dust. The BDWG will use data from this process to inform its work. Indeed, several members have arranged health surveillance monitoring on their work sites, and the results will be publicly available on Network Rail’s Safety Central web pages in due course (www.safety.networkrail.co.uk).

The BDWG has been instrumental in supporting a range of initiatives. Here are some examples:

  • Ballast dust check reporting sheet - To aid ballast dust complaint investigations, the BDWG has agreed the format to be used to support an effective and efficient method to determine root causes and potential corrective actions.
  • Ballast dust stabilisers - Earlier this year, the BDWG was advised of several chemical products that were available on the market to help reduce the release of ballast dust from ballast operations. Network Rail is now conducting ongoing tests with these chemicals.
  • Stoneblower and other on-track plant design - An ongoing initiative to ensure plant and on-track machines comply with ‘health by design’ principles, by building in requirements to have water suppression for dust management included.
  • Ballast washing facilities - Ballast supplier and BDWG member Tarmac has installed a secondary rinsing plant at the railhead loading point at its Mountsorrel Quarry. Since the rinse plant has been in operation, Network Rail has seen a reduction in quality complaints, and improvements in the quality data provided by Tarmac.
  • Ballast processing improvements - Midland Quarry Products, another fundamental part of the ballast supply chain, has collaborated with Network Rail to make important changes to how ballast is produced and loaded at the railhead at its Cliffehill Quarry. These include changes to water cleanliness needed for rinsing the ballast and introducing an Air Knife that removes excess water during ballast loading.
  • Aggregate handling depot (AHD) ballast testing - A business case for testing labs at AHDs is nearing completion. Once finalised, this will be presented to the senior leadership team in Network Rail’s Supply Chain Operations for discussions on funding and implementation.
  • AHD screening and rinsing - Network Rail is investigating options to wash and/or screen ballast as it is loaded into possession trains at the AHDs. Applying water from piped water tanks to dusty materials before they are delivered to work sites has been very effective in reducing airborne dust.

A few BDWG members share their thoughts on what they get out of the group. 

Caroline Meek, head of SHEQ (Route Services) at Network Rail and chair of the BDWG, says:

“I decided to take up the leadership role of chairing the BDWG again, after taking a few years away from it (being one of the original founder members). I am passionate about reducing and managing the risks of exposure to ballast dust and respirable crystalline silica (a dust coming from the ballast) in our rail workforce. As a cross industry group, we are winning the cultural journey of raising rail industry awareness of the hazards of ballast dust, and as a collective we can achieve greater compliance around controls to reduce exposure to ballast dust, as well as sharing best practice, than separately as individual functions and companies.”

Richard Romaszko, assurance director at BDWG member TXM Plant, and member of the Rail Plant Association (RPA), says:

“The RPA supports the BDWG’s activities. We are ideally placed to assist with determining and promoting appropriate and reasonably practicable engineering controls to mitigate the residual risks of ballast dust.  We are also keen to promote the use of respiratory protective equipment which is appropriate and comfortable for machine operators to wear when seated in the cab and which does not introduce additional risk to the tasks which they perform with the machines.”

The BDWG welcomes feedback on its work and encourages learning from all areas of the industry through the sharing best practice and innovations. To find out more about the work of the group, contact Nigel Bownes at Nigel.Bownes@networkrail.co.uk.