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Burns Awareness – past & present

17 October is National Burns Awareness Day, organised by the British Burn Association, a charity set up in 1968 to educate and encourage research into all aspects of burn injury, its treatment and prevention.

Some railway staff could have used the Association over 50 years previously, however, as they experienced burns as a part of their work. We’ve already noted, in passing, the concern of the Railway Inspectors in the 1930s about ‘blowback’ burns suffered by footplate crews (when fire was effectively forced out of the firebox and into the cab, endangering the driver and fireman) – see this blog post. A handful of burns cases can be found in our database for the 1911-15 period, comprised of steam burns/ scalds, fire burns (like the cases of ‘blowback’ which set greasy overalls on fire in 1911, for example) and electric burns.

LBSCR overhead electrification, c.1920s – clearly no trains running!
Image from Tim Dunn.

One such case of electrical burns occurred on 21 October 1913 at London Bridge station on the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, and demonstrated some of the dangers associated with the still relatively new technology of electrically-powered railways. Labourer Amos Boniface was working a night shift with 6 other men, when at nearly 1am he was getting ready to start ‘scraping the cradles and insulator fittings, &c., in connection with the trolley wires of the overhead electric system’ – presumably the ‘scraping’ was a form of cleaning, removing contact residue.

London Bridge station, c.1915.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland maps

Chargehand Joseph Richardson went to switch out the current, telling two of the men to take a ladder to Platform 6 and get ready to start. However, Inspector JH Armytage’s report stated that ‘instead of waiting for definite instructions from Richardson to commence work, they placed the ladder against the smoke trough over No. 6 platform road’ and started to clean some of the overhead equipment which did not carry current. This meant that when Boniface ‘apparently allowed his wire brush to touch the clip in connection with the saddle supporting the catenary wires’ [i.e. the wires carrying the current] the current ‘passed through his body […] and his right arm, side and leg were burnt.’ He died 19 days later ‘from inflammation of the kidneys caused by the shock.’ What care had been provided to Boniface in the time between accident and death was not related, nor even where.

London Bridge station (centre left) from the air, 1934.
Courtesy Britain from Above (EPW045435)

At the inquiry, the colleague who had been with Boniface claimed that Richardson had told them to put the latter up ‘but all the other men stated that no such instructions was given’, so Armytage recorded that he was ‘not inclined to accept Stanton’s statement.’ Stanton also admitted that usually they wouldn’t put ladders up until Richardson had rejoined them after switching the current off. Stanton, Boniface and a third colleague with them, lookout man Giblett, were censured for breaching the rules on this matter.

However, Armytage did also note that the men were not in the habit of using an earthing chain, as a set of ‘special instructions’ said they should. He believed that the absence of the chain ‘would have been a clear indication to the men that Richardson had not intended them to start work’, a statement rather belied by the following part of the same sentence, which noted that Richardson ‘had never been supplied with earthing chains, and had never used them.’ This was deemed ‘unsatisfactory’. The inspector who should have supplied the chains left the Company’s employment earlier that month and his successor was, apparently, unaware that Richardson wasn’t using them. Armytage concluded with the hope ‘that the Company will take steps to prevent any similar negligence in future’ (1913 Quarter 4, Appendix B).

The various rules and regulations are quoted (at some length!) in the report, which provides a useful source for material that might otherwise have escaped the historical record (particularly the special instructions). At the same time, it demonstrates how the rules might be used to find workers responsible for accidents and, more unusually, to hold the companies accountable.

The LSWR’s 1915 accident prevention booklet, & its advice on electric dangers.

How did the companies deal with electrical risks? Some included short warnings, often illustrated, in the safety advice booklets they produced for their workers, though for various reasons these were aimed at the 3rd rail system rather than overhead lines. In the 1920s they also started including limited first aid advice in the same booklets (as they provided more detailed guidance elsewhere), but these don’t seem to have touched upon burns. Presumably at this point it was still relatively uncommon, at least in the eyes of the companies providing the advice.

Hopefully this brief look back at the past of burns on the railway – if only a microcosm – will be useful in demonstrating how occupational exposure to burns isn’t particularly new, as well as serving as a reminder of the importance of handling electricity (and hot water/ steam) with great care.

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