Getting more than your fingers burnt

We’ve featured a burns case in the past – in that instance, it was electrical burns. But often lumped together with burns are scalds, something we’ve not discussed until now. As you might expect, working around steam locos exposed some staff to hot steam. There are relatively few of these cases in our database, though that may simply reflect what was investigated by Railway Inspectors rather than the extent of their incidence.

One place where scalds do appear is the accident to J Crabtree on 13 March 1914. Crabtree was a fitter – that is, someone who carried out routine maintenance and repairs, often on rolling stock (locos, carriages and wagons) but not exclusively. They might work across different locations, sent out to fix a problem on site – a sort of roving trouble-shooter. On this occasion Crabtree was working in the loco sidings at Newton Heath, Manchester, on the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway – next door to the Company’s carriage and wagon works, whose football team would become Manchester United.

Some of the Newton Heath complex in 1915.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland maps.

Crabtree was needed to fix a joint through which steam passed, on the final one of three engines waiting to be moved into the shed. As he had been told it might be some time before the engines were moved, he made a start on the work: he cleaned out the smoke-box (the space at the front of the loco, under the chimney) and loosened the nuts on the steam-chest cover. As he was doing so, shedman Austin asked if the engine could be moved. Crabtree replied that it could. Austin was clearly unsure about this, as he asked again after the engines were all coupled together; Crabtree once again said it could.

Austin then got onto the footplate of the loco Crabtree was working on, and told shedman Cogger, who was driving the pilot engine moving the other 3 locos into the shed, to start moving. By this point Crabtree was standing at the front of his loco, about to get down ‘but when the engine started he slipped and fell forward into the smoke box’, something Austin wouldn’t have been able to see. Painful enough, perhaps, but with predictable bad timing, that was the moment at which Austin opened the regulator (the level which controls the flow of steam) – as a result ‘Crabtree was scaled by the rush of steam through the loosened cover.’

Similar scald dangers, as seen in the GWR’s 1914 ‘Safety Movement’ booklet.

JPS Main investigated the case, noting that Crabtree had a ‘not to be moved’ board with him but hadn’t deployed it. Main concluded – understandably – that the accident was a result of ‘want of caution’ on Crabtree’s part, stating that he shouldn’t have given Austin the say-so to move the engine until he was clear of it (1914 Quarter 1, Appendix B).

The final line of Main’s report simply notes that Crabtree had been on duty for 9 ¾ hours – presumably of a 10 hour shift. No doubt he was in a hurry to complete his last job of the day and get home; but also no doubt he wanted to do his job and get the engine back into service as quickly as possible, keeping the system moving and minimising disruption to colleagues and passengers as well as keeping the Foreman at bay. So, there were likely multiple pressures on Crabtree which acted to produce the accident. In this case and its investigation, as in so many others in our database, such pressures aren’t really brought out. Worker accident investigation at this time was a relatively narrow affair, looking for immediate causes rather than a bigger picture.

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