How many workers can you injure in one go?

As is probably well known, the birth of the modern mainline railway system was greeted with excitement and fear. The passenger crashes that followed were high profile as a result of their spectacular and – despite perceptions – relatively rare nature. They were a visible manifestation of the dark side of the new technology; and not least when they happened, they killed or injured many people.

On the other hand, worker accidents went largely unnoticed and unremarked for much, if not all, of the 19th century. Generally, they happened out of sight of the public, didn’t produce dramatic wrecks, were relatively commonplace and (perhaps crucially) ‘only’ killed or injured in small numbers (though of course cumulatively the total was greater). This pattern didn’t change in the 20th century – and arguably is still the case to this day.

This pattern of large numbers of individual incidents is nicely illustrated in our database. Most of the cases involve one or two workers in any one accident; more occasionally you might find three or four people. But there are two cases which both involve 8 workers being injured – and perhaps unsurprisingly, they took place amongst permanent way workers. One of these took place on 23 April 1915.

Normally we would give names and details of those injured. However, in this case it seems as though there were too many injured to be named in the report – Inspector John Main simply notes that the accident occurred ‘to eight permanent-way men, at Totnes, on the Great Western Railway.’ Perhaps if they had been fatalities they might have been named?

Main briefly outlined the details. It was night work; 14 men were riding on ‘a low-sided wagon partly loaded with sleepers’ which was loose-shunted (that is, the wagon was not coupled to the loco when it was moved) into a siding. The move was made under the direction of ganger JJ King, who told one of the men riding on the wagon, packer Bearne, to apply the screw brake. However: ‘the brake was not tested before the shunt was made, and when Bearne came to apply it he found that it took no effect’; as a result, the wagon hit the buffers ‘and eight of the fourteen men riding thereon sustained injuries.’

The immediate cause of the accident was easily identified, according to Main: brake failure ‘due to the fact that one of the coupling-pins was missing.’ This was – perhaps inevitably – found to be the fault of King, in not testing the brake before the shunt was made. That said, Main did go on to look at why men were riding on the wagon – in broad terms. He noticed it was ‘most unwise’ to loose shunt the wagon for around 300 yards, including quoting rule 113(b): “The loose –shunting of vehicles containing passengers, or live stock, or explosives, is strictly prohibited.” So there was nothing explicitly stating that workers were not allowed to be on vehicles being loose-shunted – was there less concern for their safety and well-being than for that of cattle? Or was it that cattle and livestock was being moved more frequently, plus cost money in compensation for any injuries caused, and was therefore in the sight of the railway company, whereas there was an implicit expectation that workers would not be in the wagons?

Either way, Main saw the absence and concluded: ‘The loose-shunting of vehicles on which men are riding should also be prohibited, and it would appear that some amendment of the Rule to cover this is required’ (1915 Quarter 2, Appendix B). And with that, the case was – officially at least – resolved.

Did the GWR change the rule? Yes – but not in the way intended by Main. In the revised 1933 rule book the relevant rule had changed to 110(b), but the required addition to prohibit loose-shunting of wagons containing workers was not made. Loose-shunting of stock containing passengers or explosives remained strictly prohibited, but in a relaxation of the rule, live stock might now be loose-shunted ‘when absolutely necessary’. Once again, workers were not mentioned.

Clearly a case injuring so many workers was very unusual, but even then it didn’t warrant more than a few short paragraphs – and as ever at this time, clearly the Inspectors didn’t have the power to enforce changes. If eight passengers had been injured there would have been considerably more to say (although that same issue about enforcing changes would have remained) – but this was a mark of the world and the railway industry at this time. Culture change was a long time coming.

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