Today we are fortunate in that the idea of work-life balance exists – if only as an ideal, in many cases. People interested in understanding how and why accidents happen are increasingly recognising that boundaries drawn between work and home life are false. But this isn’t new. A notable rail example is the 1892 Thirsk passenger disaster, in which a mistake by signalman James Holmes resulted in an express train hitting the back of a goods train, killing 9 passengers and the guard of the goods train. Holmes had been up for 36 hours, tending to his sick daughter; he had self-certified as un-fit for work, but had been overruled. Subsequently charged with manslaughter, he was given an absolute discharge in light of the circumstances.
Clearly, then, family life might play a part in the workplace. Whether it be through children and grandchildren following in the family line, hurry to finish a shift and get home, or decisions made to try maximise earnings, factors beyond the workplace might still be in play at work. Rarely do these events appear in the formal (written) record – certainly so far as accidents are concerned. Holmes’ case was unusual, in that it was particularly public (involving a passenger train) and tragic (sadly his daughter died of her illness). Rather more mundane family issues might have had an impact in any number of cases in our database, but their inclusion in the original investigations would have been very dependent upon the inspectors thinking broadly around the possible factors having an impact on behaviours and actions.
However, in one case there is a glimmer of this. On 17 April 1914, platelayer John Prickett, 56, was at work at Bardon Hill station on the Midland Railway. At 7.30am he had been on duty for an hour and a half of his 11 ½ hour shift. He was working alone, so had to keep watch for trains as he was making sure the ballast was level under the sleepers. He was ‘just in front of the station platform’ and had been keeping an eye on the goods train passing on the adjacent line. Unfortunately ‘he apparently failed to notice a light engine [i.e. a locomotive not pulling anything] then approaching’ on the line he was working on. The driver of the goods train, W Forgham, warned Prickett ‘to “look out for the engine,” but evidently the warning was not understood.’ Prickett was hit and killed.
Inspector Amos Ford concluded that ‘it is thought that being over-anxious respecting certain severe family troubles Prickett was not so alert as he otherwise might have been’ (1914 Quarter 2, Appendix C). This was a rather delicate way around the usual attribution of responsibility in such cases (‘own want of care’), without giving any further detail about those ‘severe family troubles’ (presuming their substance was revealed in the course of the investigation). How many other cases where domestic life intruded directly into the workspace and contributed to accidents is unknown, but it must surely have happened.