'Safety' back in the day...
This year would have been my father’s 100th birthday. Sadly, he is no longer alive but let me tell you a bit about his life. He started work at the local coal mine in 1937 at the ripe old age of 14. He was allowed to leave school early as he had a ‘good job’ and was given the task of hooking and unhooking the wagons as they came up the track…while they were still moving.
My dad was brought into the mines by his father, it was a generational profession and a ‘job for life’. This was what my dad told me on taking me to the local mine when I was 15 to see if he could get my name down too. Times had changed, and family connections no longer carried the weight they did, so I never did mine coal.
Just four years prior to my dad embarking on his work underground, a Mr English was employed at Wilsons & Clyde Coal Co Ltd's colliery in Glencraig, Fife. On 27th of March 1933 English was crushed by moving plant. Following this tragic accident his family sought damages from his employers, claiming negligence. Wilsons & Clyde denied responsibility for his death claiming that it was Mr English’s own negligence which contributed. This led to the landmark case Wilsons & Clyde Coal Co Ltd v English.
Eventually in 1937 the case came before the House of Lords. After hearing the evidence, their decision was unanimous. The House held that:
‘When a workman contracts to do work, he is not to be held as having agreed to hold the master immune from the latter’s liability for want of due care in the provision of a reasonably safe system of working.’ (Lord Thankerton)
In the very year that my dad started work, a new base line in safety standards had been drawn but was still in its infancy. When my grandad thought it was a good idea to send my dad down the pit, employers were not automatically called to account for failing to provide a safe working environment. My grandad wouldn’t have seen a problem in this. From his time of starting in the profession at 14 in 1902 he would have seen improvements. He perhaps thought my dad had it easy!
Thing was, both my dad and my grandad were trapped in their social bubble, seeing the risks through the lens of their past experiences, but not necessarily seeing the future potential. How many people now would be happy to send their 14-year-old to work in an environment that affords them little or no physical or legal protection?
It took the death of Mr English to bring an employer’s duty of care to the attention of the House of Lords. Even in 1937 the dangers of the working environment were known, but socially they were accepted.
To forge a truly progressive safety culture we need to shift our focus from ‘what is’ to ‘what could be’. Stepping back to question what we are accepting and looking to what could be possible.
Shaun Curry specialises in safety cultures, and you can get in touch with him via email@example.com.