Hindsight Perspectives for a Safer World Project

PUBLICATION: Reducing the dangers of dock work in the UK, 1899-1939: how past approaches could prevent future tragedies

In 1899 statistics collected by the British government, in the form of the Annual Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories and Workshops, included 115 fatal accidents on the UK docks, and many more serious and minor accidents. Forty years later in 1939, there were 69 fatalities. These are obviously still high figures compared to the UK's safety record today, but clearly a marked improvement had taken place.

a detailed analysis of dock accidents in the Port of London ran to three pages, with the type of accidents listed under six headings and 90 sub-headings to account for 1,588 accidents, including 18 fatal incidents. The most lethal type of accident –  ‘Persons slipping and falling’ – accounted for 290 accidents in total, including nine deaths, and was sub-divided into 22 categories, such as ‘off ladder’, ‘fall from grain elevator’, ‘avoiding swinging load’, and ‘on ice on deck’. This degree of detail helped generate an excellent evidence base to guide accident prevention efforts. Mr Shaxby, the inspector in charge of preparing the statistics for the Port of London, highlighted the importance of eliminating ‘hazardous practices’ (slips and falls, being struck by falling objects etc) as these accounted for many more accidents than ‘deficiencies in safeguards or defects in plant or machinery’.

The section about the docks in the main report for 1922 continued by urging:

…better supervision and organisation of work by the employers and their representatives, and by the exercise of greater care on the part of workmen, who often run quite unnecessary risks.

Dangerous practices were identified and criticised, including:

…workmen crowding on ladders and gangways, taking dangerous short cuts using plant in an unsafe way and failing to use the safeguards provided.

However, the overall assessment was still encouraging and recognised unprecedented progress:

The Inspectors’ reports show that the Regulations are well observed on the whole, and that the standard of compliance was probably higher in 1922 than in previous years.

In the second Hindsight Perspectives report, Reducing the dangers of dock work in the UK, 1899-1939: how past approaches could prevent future tragedies (to be published next week) Dr Guy Collender takes us through how these improvements were made, a combination of legislation and regulation, public attention, inspections, joint safety committees staffed by company representatives and unionised workers, and increasing buy-in from individuals and corporations. The motives of government were not purely humanitarian – the labour shortages following the First World War made the safety of the remaining workers an economic necessity. But still the story is one of progress and co-operation, and early twentieth-century experts' genuine desire to get to the heart of the problems is evident in their words over a hundred years later. The report details many problems and solutions that will be familiar to work health and safety professionals today:

Mr Ireland, writing about East London in 1902, noted that he had attended four inquests linked to ropes breaking in the docks, but none connected to failing chains. He wrote:

…I find firms who are very careful in their use of lifting chains leave the ropes to take care of themselves, or, at any rate, leave them at the disposal of every Tom, Dick, and Harry about the dock or wharf. 

The emphasis on corporate responsibility here is interesting. Mr Ireland did criticise carelessness on the part of the employees, but he also highlighted the importance of senior employees setting an example, and the difficulties caused by the confusion regarding responsibilities in the workplace:

There has to be recorded the usual toll of accidents due to leaving out the little things which are often so important, a pin here or a wedge there, which it is anybody’s duty to attend to, and, therefore, in many cases, nobody’s. The men are happy-go-lucky and very careless, but one looks for better things from the foremen.

Dock work remains one of the world's most dangerous professions today and progress is sadly not irreversible. The report is a glimpse into how safety challenges are caught and addressed, on the ground and in governance mechanisms, and there are still lessons for today in the UK and around the world. Sufficiently granular statistics, and proactive rather than reactive inspections, are two particular features of the period which, the report argues, should be maintained in the contemporary context if safety records are to continue to improve.

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