Friends of the National Railway Museum
South of England Group


Lecture Reports

la Previous Article uparrow Return to Index Next Article la
Be Safe Men! Making Railway Workers Safe, 1900-1939 - Mike Esbester
  Mike Esbester, of Reading University, gave a talk based on his PhD thesis covering the development of the Railway Companies to promote a safety culture amongst their workers. Mike became interested while looking through company magazines during his Masters at the Institute of Railway Studies. He noticed several articles on safety and wanted to find out when this started and why.

In the 19th century the general approach of the country was that people were responsible for their own safety - with the singular exception of railway passenger safety. Here the State felt it appropriate to have statutory regulation because passengers were not in a position to take charge of their own safety. Accidents were, even then, front page news - the impact of the press on politicians is nothing new! Accidents to employees were of little interest and mostly happened out of sight of the public, press and politicians. After 1890 the trade unions began to flex their mussels and pushed that more attention be given to workers' safety. Their activity resulted in the first Parliamentary Act covering workers' safety which was introduced in 1900. However, the impact was minor. The accident statistics, collated by the Board of Trade, between 1900-1913 showed an annual average of 17,000 people injured each year with the trend being upward; in 1913 a total of 30000 workers suffered some form of accident. Even hard-hearted business managers couldn't ignore this, especially when it was costing money. The GWR, for example, paid out £13,000 in compensation, equivalent to well over £1M in today's money - and that didn't include the cost of the lost working time. The problem was how to reconciling the business of operating the railway at lowest cost and improving safety of the workers so that a) the costs were reduced and b) Government were persuaded to keep their noses out of the business of running the railway. This was the catalyst that brought about the idea of safety education. The GWR was the first to take action, quickly followed by the other railways, during the course of 1913. Until this point, the companies had relied on their rulebooks. The typical rulebook was not particularly approachable for the average literate worker - and for those who couldn't read, it was a closed book! The layout was full of closely spaced text and read as a top-down lecture from senior management in legalistic language. As most injuries were to manual workers with limited reading ability, the GWR 1913 promotional programme addressed them using photographs, bold headlines with simple messages and attractive layout as an insert in the company magazine. More novel ideas followed - italics, upper case and even letters on their side. However, the magazine was charged at 1d, and only 40 copies were sold for every 100 workers. Also other articles in the magazine were probable more interesting! By 1914, the GWR were aware of the lack of penetration, so reprinted the safety articles in booklet form for issue to all workers without charge. Eight booklets were produced before 1939.

Other novelties followed, all bearing safety slogans - a token in the form of a coin, safety pendants, matchboxes, and cinema presentations in special coaches. A crossword was published in 1925 with BE SAFE MEN as the blocked parts - this was only a year after crosswords were generally introduced. GWR waived copyright on the 1914 booklet so other companies could follow and 700,000 booklets were distributed before 1939.

Why did the change happen in 1913? Probably recognition of the economic benefit of education compared to alternative of introducing expensive technical safety changes, such as automatic couplings. External pressure also played a part, from trade unions and government. A government committee was finally established in May 1914 and the companies used the education programme as evidence of their action and that the companies could be left to manage their own business. They claimed savings of hundreds of workers accidents as a result of the campaign.

This argument was accepted since the perceived wisdom was that accidents were an inevitability of work, and that it was the employees who must change their approach not the company. It was the company's responsibility to promote safety and the employees were responsible for their own action in putting the advice into practice. Work colleagues were responsible for avoiding putting each others in danger. However, the companies continued to push for improved efficiency, and did not provide any financial support for the employees to put the advice into practice.

Did it work? The casualty figures did decline from 1919 to 1937 but were also effected by other factors, e.g. reduced working hours and practices. Employees may also have been unwilling to report accidents. The trade unions were in favour of safety education and push for more whenever they saw unsafe practices. The government followed this lead, the chief railway inspector making repeated calls for more safety education. This also meant that further safety legislation was avoided. Other businesses saw the benefits of this, London Omnibus followed in 1916 and the approach was in general use in factories by the 1930s. Ultimately, safety education permeated society's consciousness and resulted in the founding of the Royal Society for Prevention of Accidents in 1941 - which is where Mike ended his story.