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How stories from the past can help build a safer present

This post is one of a series exploring how the same source might be approached in different ways by different types of researcher, so we can better understand each other and work together more easily. There’s an introduction to this, and the associated posts like this one, here.


‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’

These words, written by Spanish philosopher George Santayana, are so famous that they’re almost a cliché. But while clichés often begin with a fundamental truth, that doesn’t mean we can always remember them when we need to, especially in what one might call the arrogance of our own present. Here’s a case in point: not so long ago, I attended a meeting to present the details of a run of recent safety events. I sat up. The room looked my way. I started to speak. I was silenced by the Chair, who told me sharply that “we know all this”. She was quite right, of course, but also quite wrong.

Yes, we as an industry can know much as a collective, but as our demographic changes – as more people retire, move on or move in from elsewhere – corporate amnesia can kick in very quickly. In my work for the Rail Safety & Standards Board (RSSB), and as a historian, I usually consider the corporate memory in light of big process accidents like Clapham (1988), Ladbroke Grove (1999) and Hatfield (2000). As it is on the macro scale, however, so it is on the micro scale too…

Guard Beaumont was injured when he dropped a coupling link onto his toe at Cudworth in 1911. Fast-forward to 1962, and British Transport Films made Manhandling to help train staff about the perils of injury when lifting barrels, crates and boxes in goods depots. While the precise nature of the coupling task and the precise nature of freight work have changed, the need for staff to move, lift and carry heavy items remains. One only needs to glance at today’s daily incident logs to see cases involving power tools, signalling equipment, signage and so on.

Imagine hitting your own thumb with a hammer while trying to hang a picture. You’ll remember it, remember the pain of it and vow never to do that again. You will, in traditional parlance, have “learned the hard way”. How much better would it have been if you could have learnt from the example of someone who’d got there before you? What if you could have read their story?

Storytelling is seen as a key element of what we now call “knowledge management”, though it’s really part of an oral tradition that stretches back for centuries.  In the context of safety management, if you tell a story in which a mistake or sequence of events leads to an unfavourable outcome, it will stick in the mind, as the listeners or readers will empathise and imagine themselves in similar situations. In this way, managers can benefit from the story of Clapham, as it shows how changing the infrastructure while a business is reorganising can have fatal consequences. Similarly, all who engage in practical work can benefit from the story of Mr Beaumont, who reminds us that caution when handling objects is required at all times.

Accidents and incidents seldom have one cause, of course. The famous ‘Hidden Report’ shows that to be so for Clapham; local newspaper reports and even medical records would shed more light on Mr Beaumont’s comparatively minor case. But remember that it wasn’t so minor to Mr Beaumont, nor would it be to anyone else doing comparable work. A lesson on the micro scale can be just as valuable as one on the macro scale, after all…

I started with a quotation, and I am going to end with another. In Henry IV Part 1, Shakespeare wrote that ‘out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety’. It was thought so pertinent that L. T. C. Rolt quoted it in his literary litany of railway accidents, Red for Danger (1955), and E. B. Gibbens cited it in the public inquiry report on the Hixon level crossing collision of 1968. The ‘flower of safety’ is like the baton in a relay race. We pass it on from generation to generation. One of the ways we can avoid dropping it is by continuing to tell the safety stories. That is why – for train accidents – Red for Danger and the excellent Railways Archive website are so important. For the personal accident side of the equation, however, the Railway Work, Life & Death project – and stories like those of Mr Beaumont – must live on. They have to.


Greg Morse

Dr Morse is RSSB’s Operational Feedback Lead. His work strives to preserve the rail industry’s corporate memory. As a Member of the Institution of Railway Operators, his short book Railway Accidents (Shire, 2014) is aimed at those new to the world of railway safety.

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