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Women Inspiring Rail: Q&A with Priscilla van Keulen, Safety Manager at ProRail

Posted: 20 September 2019 | | No comments yet

For our Women Inspiring Rail series, Priscilla van Keulen, Safety Manager at ProRail discusses how safety management has been her passion from the conception of her thesis idea, right through to her present-day occupation.

Women Inspiring Rail: Q&A with Priscilla van Keulen, Safety Manager at ProRail

How did your career in rail begin and what does your current job involve?

I would say it all started in my family; I am not the only one who works in the rail industry. My father and two of my uncles have been working in the industry for quite some time and still do. When I was younger, however, I did not consider a job in the rail industry to be an interesting career choice, but I could not have been more wrong, my career path turned out to be much more different than I could have expected.

My career in rail began in September 2007, the year I was graduating for my Master of Science in innovation management. I found a very insightful topic for my thesis (Integrating RAMS in the design process of moveable bridges) and an internship at an engineering and consultancy company. ProRail (my current employer) is one of the big clients of this company. After graduating, I was fortunate enough to be offered a job at the same company where I was writing my thesis.

I am currently working on diverse projects to enhance safety culture within the company and department: I am involved in developing and implementing the corporate safety management system, educating within the domain of safety management and work as a consultant for projects and management.

In my first job I was working as a RAMSHE engineer for rail projects. That is where I was bitten by the rail bug. After a while, I wanted to do something different than risk analysis, and so I started working as a project manager, mainly for projects related to signalling systems. In 2012, I started working as a Safety Manager for ProRail, again in the domain of signalling systems but with different challenges than safety engineering. Nowadays, I’ve specialised myself in the field of system’s safety, especially within the scope of ‘product development’. 

I am currently working on diverse projects to enhance safety culture within the company and department: I am involved in developing and implementing the corporate safety management system, educating within the domain of safety management and work as a consultant for projects and management. Together with a colleague, I developed and provide the two-day course Safety Management in Product Development – introduction and the four-day course Safety Management in Product Development – advanced (which is due to begin in the Autumn of 2019).

What aspects of your job do you find the most challenging/rewarding, and why?

Within the rail industry there has always been a great focus on safety. Nobody wants to be responsible for a mistake or fault which then results in an accident. Consequently, I have never had to convince my colleagues of the importance of safety. On the other hand, some of my colleagues still rely on their craftmanship leading to safe products.

These colleagues did not see the added value in applying (prescribed) safety management methods like risk analysis which lead to discussion on the added value of those methods versus the ‘old way of working’.

Therefore, for me it has been a challenge to convince these colleagues to apply safety management methods in the correct way and convince them of the added value of these methods.

Consequently, in recent years, my job considers enhancing safety culture within (certain parts of) the company.

Together with other colleagues we are working on different initiatives within this theme. Most rewardingly for me, I noticed the change in question: colleagues started to ask; “Could you help me implement safety management methods within my projects?” compared to a couple of years ago when the question was “Why do I have to do this?”

What is it about the rail industry that you are most passionate about?

I have been interested in product and process improvement ever since I was a student: How can we perform our activities more effectively and with more efficiency, and what means do we have to improve our products.

Combining my passion for product and process improvement with the domain of safety management, the rail industry is a great industry to work in as continuous improvement is key.

Safety management is a domain which focuses on the improvement of systems for the aspect of safety. And, when making decisions to improve systems’ safety one should also consider other aspects like RAM (reliability, availability and maintainability). As a result of this I get to revel in my favourite job, product improvement. The other aspect, process improvement, is also a part of my job: Process improvement techniques can be used to implement safety management within an organisation in an effective and efficient way.

Combining my passion for product and process improvement with the domain of safety management, the rail industry is a great industry to work in as continuous improvement is key. Especially in the field of product development, where I am situated, work is done more on a project basis and there is no single right solution.

Every product development project requires its own approach. Legislation and regulations in the industry are also becoming stricter, so we continue improving our safety management system and safety culture. This continuous drive for improvement in our processes and systems makes the rail industry such an attractive sector for me.

What has been your biggest achievement/proudest moment so far in your rail career?

I have been working in the rail industry for 12 years now. With lots of colleagues working in railway for decades, this is considered short. Even though, there have been several highlights.

With regard to my current position, I am proud that my former manager instilled the confidence in me to fill this position. ProRail was looking for a senior at the time and when I applied for the job I was just 28 years old with five years’ experience. I am confident that I have shown this wasn’t a mistake. The advantage of my position as a safety manager was that, at the time I applied for the job, the function was not clearly defined. Consequently, I could shape my own work. Now I work as a safety manager for the system integration department. By working for the department, I set the standard for projects and assess whether projects adhere to them. I also advise projects and management.

ProRail was looking for a senior [at the time] and when I applied for the job I was just 28 years old with five years’ experience. I am confident that I have shown this wasn’t a mistake.

Moments that also made me proud are, for example, the success of the training that I set up with my former manager. The participants of the course are generally satisfied and positive about how a dusty topic (considered by some) like safety is put down in an attractive way. Former attendees are passing their enthusiasm onto future attendees and they keep coming voluntarily. Now we have trained over 90 persons and more course dates are to be planned. Our training is one of the means that helped ProRail take steps on the safety culture ladder (Dutch norm to assess safety culture). We have risen to step four and are proud to say that we have a proactive safety culture.

How has the rail industry evolved since you joined? What have been the biggest changes?

Things have changed in the 12 years that I have been working in the rail industry.

The requirements for safety management are becoming stricter, more formalised and more standardised. Consider the introduction of the common safety methods and the introduction of the assessment body in the EU.

For system development, in Europe, the ERTMS programme is taking flight and we are innovating our systems faster than before. This presents challenges, especially in my field. Where safety management processes are elaborate and strict, there is the need to implement (system’s) changes at a higher rate. In the rail industry we are working more and more with computer-based systems and consequently we are increasingly working in short cycles (for example agile). Safety management should not slow down product introduction. It will be a challenge to find the right balance between introducing new or adapted systems at an acceptable rate while maintaining our high standards for functional safety.

In terms of personnel, I see that employees are aging within the Dutch Rail industry. ProRail is active in attracting younger people and sparking their interest in the industry. ProRail does this by making more places available for internships and graduates and by actively recruiting interested students.

Who within the rail community has been an inspiration to you, and why?

I’ve been asked this question before by one of my former colleagues who also acted as my coach at the time. Back then I considered it to be a difficult question to answer and I still think is as there is more than one person within the rail community that inspires me. It is hard to drop names and be complete at the same time. An inspirational person is not necessary one of (top) management and may also be a direct colleague. In general, I am inspired by people who inspire others, people who easily adapt to the situation and conversation partner, people who radiate confidence, etc.

What can be done to diversify the workforce in the rail sector? What advice would you give to those thinking about pursuing a career in rail?

For those girls who are considering applying for jobs in the rail sector – apply! Don’t be held back by prejudice; choose what is important to you and makes you happy.

Statistics show that girls in the Netherlands are less likely to choose a technical study compared to boys. During my study, women were in the minority. Graduating for my BEng, I was the only girl receiving my diploma that day, despite the ceremony including about three or four technical related studies and over 40 students. In my opinion this is one of the causes for lack of diversity within the rail industry. Rail is dominated by technical functions requiring a technical background. Therefore, the first thing is to convince young girls that a technical study is a good choice and to overcome the prejudice that technology is mainly for men/boys. Companies can play a role in overcoming this prejudice by helping to inform young girls and make them technical enthusiasts: provide information, invite them to open days, and show that working in the rail sector offers a lot of potential also, or maybe especially, for women.

For those girls who are considering applying for jobs in the rail sector – apply! Don’t be held back by prejudice; choose what is important to you and makes you happy. Also, keep in mind what is important to you along the way on your career path. When I had just started working, I had a second ‘handicap’ besides being a woman: I was only 23 years old. Some of my colleagues considered me to be too young and not technical enough for my function. I proved otherwise. Although I never wanted to believe that these prejudices existed, unfortunately it turned out that they do, but luckily only within a limited set of persons. It is how you handle them, that matters. I have chosen not to be discouraged by it and, where possible, to even make use of some of the prejudices. Also, find a sponsor or coach that encourages you to go further.

If you would like to take part in the Women Inspiring Rail series, or would like to nominate a colleague to part, please email: Craig Waters, Editor, Global Railway Review.

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