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Be Safe Not Sorry

Published: 21st Apr 2015


As many of the railway safety problems of the 1900s remain to this day, Dr Mike Esbester shares his research into how workplace accidents have been dealt with historically to provide avenues for future exploration.

By April 1913 it was too late to save Mr Sanders’ arm. But his application for the cost of an artificial arm – around £8 – demonstrated who he felt had a moral responsibility to help him make the best of his remaining years: his employer. He had lost his arm in 1909 while working on the London and South Western Railway as a shunter, that is, someone who worked among moving freight wagons. Needless to say, this was a highly dangerous occupation. The railway company clearly felt some obligation, as they agreed to pay the costs.

Similar requests for prosthetic limbs are frequently found in the minutes of railway companies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They show just how common injuries to the arms and hands were among railway workers and, in turn, these injuries contributed to the vast numbers of railway employees who were harmed while carrying out their day-to-day tasks.

In 1913 alone there were nearly 30,000 casualties. It is useful, therefore, to look to the past to see the dangers to hands and arms to which railway workers were exposed, and to see what solutions were adopted. As many of the problems remain to this day, a greater awareness of how workplace accidents have been dealt with historically may provide avenues to explore for future improvements; or routes to avoid if they have already been tried and found wanting.

So what was the extent of the problem in the 19th and 20th centuries? Good statistics for hand and arm injuries are hard to come by. When accurate figures were collected, from 1878, hand and arm injuries were counted alongside foot and leg injuries. Taken together, they show an increase in incidence in the run up to the First World War, rising from 607 in 1884 to 8,094 in 1913 – around 9% and 27% of all casualties on the railways, respectively. Of course, not all of these were hand or arm injuries, but this area clearly represented a significant cause of casualties for the railway industry.

Unsurprisingly, manual work featured heavily in the job roles in which the hands or arms could be injured. Handling goods was one area: moving boxes and barrels, as well as working capstans and using fibre and wire ropes, exposed employees to frayed edges and stray nails. As some urban and suburban routes were electrified from the late 19th century onwards, employees were exposed to the dangers of electricity by touching either overhead wires or the third rail.

Those in the railway workshops, such as Swindon, Crewe or Doncaster, faced dangers typical to working with machinery – trapped hands or arms in belting or gears, open power-driven saws, crush injuries and the like. Crush injuries were also found among staff working on the railway lines. Empty wagons were sometimes moved by hand, running the risk of trapping fingers or arms between vehicles. Points also needed maintaining if they became jammed, but if this was done using the hands the danger came when the points, once free from obstruction, would move suddenly and trap the fingers.

Interestingly, in an industry where safety was the most obvious problem, there were also two quite specific concerns about health. Firstly, blood poisoning through untreated wounds was a particular danger, given much of the work was undertaken in relatively dirty conditions. Secondly, there was a danger of anthrax entering the body via the hands or arms as a result of handling contaminated animal hides when loading or unloading goods.

With the exception of electricity, these issues have remained fairly constant across the history of railway work. Given the range of potential dangers, attempts to prevent harm were varied. For much of the 19th century, it has to be said that attitudes toward employee safety were, by today’s standards, shocking: it appeared that human life was relatively cheap. Companies were often unwilling to invest in safeguards or changing processes to ensure workers were not exposed to danger. Company-provided (or even company-subsidised) PPE for the hands or arms was largely unheard of. Instead, employees were told that they had to obey rules, such as: “The servants of the Company... must not expose themselves to danger”, or were told that deaths and injuries were a result of carelessness. Some machines carried warning signs, forbidding oiling while in motion, for example, but what use were these if pressure to maintain production ensured shortcuts had to be taken?

Things changed from approximately 1890, when the trade unions began to take more action on general occupational safety issues and the state investigated worker casualties more actively. A law to improve worker safety measures was passed in 1900 and by 1914 the government was considering further regulation. These pressures forced the railway companies to take more of an interest in employee health and safety – including protecting the hands and arms. So, from 1913 the railway industry began to promote safety education: company managers produced articles, booklets, posters and later films showing particular dangers and giving tips on how to avoid them. All sorts of items were used to convey safety messages including mugs, clothing and even, in the 1960s, beer mats reminding staff to “Be Safe - Not Sorry”. Compared to the rules and regulations, education was relatively informal and very visual – important when it was necessary to attract attention to safety messages.

In relation to hand and arm injuries, advice focused on goods handling, as in 1914 when porters moving iron-bound boxes were reminded to look out for protruding nails or edges: “Before giving them a muscular grip it will be well to entertain a suspicion as to IS-IT-SAFE?” A 1930s booklet dedicated to freight work warned staff: “take care of your fingers when closing sliding wagon doors” and to ensure fingers were not crushed when lowering heavy items. The importance of checking wire ropes for strands that had come loose was also highlighted as a particular menace to the hands.

Men – and it was all men in the workplace at this time – were told to tie back loose clothing when operating machines to prevent hands being dragged into moving parts, and to use sticks when clearing swarf from machines or for pushing wood into power-driven saws. One booklet from the 1960s made clear the dangers of using the fingers to sight alignment of holes – the correct method was shown alongside, making it clear that a pencil or some other object should be used.

Some of the railway companies used films to promote safety. One from 1944 showed an animated character, Mr Damphool, meeting his end or being injured in a number of unfortunate ways, including by having his hand trapped between points. One of his safer colleagues demonstrated the preferred method of clearing the obstruction, using a stick. Posters, displayed in mess rooms and engine sheds, warned of the hazards of electrified railway lines and wires. Photographs showed workers the dangers to hands when coupling wagons together and how to push wagons without risking injury to the hands. These messages were repeated in various safety education materials from 1913 through to at least the 1970s.

PPE also received more attention after 1890. For those who might come in contact with electrified lines rubber gauntlets were provided, and workers were advised in the 1930s that: “It is folly to use damaged or defective gauntlets. They should immediately be exchanged for sound ones.” Guards were not only provided on machines, but safety education emphasised that they should be used. The pressures of production, however, may well have meant that workers were forced to remove or disable guards in order to get the work done more rapidly. Also in the 1930s, those workers who might be exposed to anthrax were told: “When handling hides and skins, always use the gloves and protective garments provided.”

Some of the hand and arm dangers to which railway workers are exposed have of course altered with the changes in the industry during the 20th century. The size of the workforce contracted, as did the route mileage. The industry was nationalised in 1948 and then re-privatised in the 1990s. The nature of the work also changed: goods were not handled to the same extent as before the 1960s, or in the same ways. There has been a vast change in management culture since the 1980s, stressing ideas about safety culture and an active management role. But for all this, some dangers remain the same. Working with machinery, electricity, or in among moving wagons, remains a part of railway life to this day.

Of course, hand and arm injuries were not treated in isolation. Safety education addressed these and many other dangers posed by railway work. Crush injuries were common between wagons or buildings and wagons. Track maintenance gangs were given advice on safety precautions to adopt, including use of one of the gang to look out for oncoming trains. Particular dangers in shunting were highlighted, as was the unauthorised use of capstans, the correct means in 1914 of lifting heavy items, using ladders and even, in 1928, using shovels.

For two areas in particular – eye protection and high visibility clothing – PPE was increasingly stressed. From 1913 the use of goggles was promoted, although ergonomics were poorly understood and there is some evidence to suggest that goggles often slowed work or were uncomfortable and so were not worn. High visibility clothing was introduced for track workers in the late 1960s and gradually extended from a mini-vest to today’s full body suits.

Safety education clearly paid attention to hand and arm injuries, among others, and suggested means of avoiding dangers, albeit often focusing exclusively on the behaviour of the individual at the expense of considering technological safeguards or changes to procedures and systems of work. It was, however, very attractive, and soon became a widespread means of addressing occupational safety and, latterly, health. It was, by the mid-1920s, used across the whole of the railway industry and continues in use to this day, including updated, web-based formats, and responding to more recently identified problems such as hand-arm vibration. It functioned and continues to function alongside older means of tackling safety problems: state regulation and inspection, rules and regulations, warning signs and increasingly during the 20th century, PPE.

Safety education has also had a wider impact. Passengers and trespassers have also suffered hand and arm injuries – whether from contact with electrified lines and wires, or from grasping carriage handles while trains were still moving. Public education materials attempted to address these problems from 1916, using the same techniques as for the workforce, notably through the use of posters.

Safety education was not confined to the railways. In the years after 1913 it spread to other workplaces and into wider society, particularly to address road safety after 1916, but from the 1930s it also tackled safety in the home.

So what might we learn from the past? The continued use of safety education is significant, as it shows that a version of behavioural solutions remain important to safety problems, even though in the present day they are now more likely to be considered in terms of human factors and treated positively than called ‘carelessness’ – as was the case in the early days of safety education. Nevertheless, this brief look at the railway industry, hand and arm protection and safety education in the past suggests several conclusions – perhaps obvious, but worth stating.

Firstly, do not wait for external pressure before introducing measures to safeguard employees. By this point, reputational and economic damage will have already been incurred, regardless of the suffering inflicted upon workers. Secondly, data is invaluable in working out where the most significant problems are and in prioritising action. Thirdly, think carefully about how education is used. By itself it is extremely unlikely to be effective – it needs to be part of a coordinated plan across all aspects and potential solutions (including PPE and state regulation). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, involving workers, unions and regulators in the production of solutions is important – as is a strong safety culture and an active role for management.

Published: 21st Apr 2015 in Health and Safety International

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