Worker Safety Background

A brief overview of railway worker safety

At the birth of the mainline railway era, in the 1830s, public concern grew over passenger accidents and the lack of standardisation between railway companies. The 1840 Railway Regulation Act imposed some duties upon railway companies, including providing the state with statistics about passenger accidents; crucially the act also established the Railway Department of the Board of Trade, including the appointment of Railway Inspectors. Until the early 1890s, the majority of their accident investigation work was focused on passenger accidents – employees were, largely, neglected. However, from the 1890s dedicated inspectors were appointed solely to investigate employee accidents – and it is their reports into employee accidents we are working on.

Reports were printed, by order of Parliament, once per quarter. These reports (confusingly, called ‘Returns’) would typically feature a brief summary of the quarters accidents, and three appendices. Reports in Appendix A were the longest and most detailed, often running over multiple pages: they considered passenger accidents, and reflected the visibility of passenger crashes and the concerns of the public.

Reports in Appendix B examined employee accidents; they were often around half a page or a page in length. Reports in Appendix C were rather briefer – sometimes only a paragraph or two. Employee accidents were so numerous that only around 3% were investigated in a given year, so what we are left with is really only the tip of the iceberg. However, it does give us some very useful insight into work on the railways.

Appendix B report, 1911’

Appendix B report, 1911’

Appendix C reports, 1913

Appendix C reports, 1913

At the moment the accident reports are freely available in hardcopy at the NRM, in Search Engine, and in other institutions like the National Archives at Kew. They have also been digitised, as part of the ProQuest UK Parliament Papers database – and we are grateful to ProQuest for allowing us to make PDFs of these documents available to our volunteers, as this is a specialist, subscription-based service, so not freely available to the public. All of this means that most people don’t have easy access to the original documents or the information they contain. We hope that this project will open up access to this information, by transcribing details into a spreadsheet which will then be made available to interested researchers.

The railway industry was strongly hostile towards trades unionism, and any attempt (as it might have been seen by railway company managers) made by the trades unions to encroach upon managerial prerogative (e.g. by raising safety issues) was resisted. Sometimes the reports – whilst phrased neutrally – give indications of where these tensions manifested themselves: for example, in one report of 1911, it was recorded that a complaint had been made to the inspector about lighting provided in a yard. Whilst not guaranteed that the complaint was made by a union representative, from other documents we know that union officials did complain to the inspectors about these sorts of issues.

Similarly, the companies often asserted that the rule book was the solution to safety problems, so any mentions of rules or regulations are of interest to the project. From 1913 the companies issued highly-illustrated safety booklets to staff (examples are available at the NRM’s online exhibition, noted below), so we’re keen to see where this sort of thing appears in the accident reports.

Responding to trades union pressure, the state passed the 1900 Railway Employment (Prevention of Accidents) Act. This made a number of changes, but also mandated the use of a number of technologies intended to reduce worker accidents. Comments about these technologies sometimes appear in the accident reports, so please watch out for this. Technologies included brake levers on both sides of wagons (either-side brakes), labels provided on both sides of wagons, conditions associated with tow roping to move wagons, provision of steam brakes on engines, lighting of areas where shunting took place, covering point rods and signal wires, marking of fouling points, protection of gauge glasses in loco cabs and protection for permanent way men.

Further background, including a wealth of images, is available from the NRM’s online exhibition about railway safety:

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