Administration, technology & workplace safety in the early twentieth century

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This article examines some of the adverse consequences of industrialised work, and the administrative means used to address these consequences. It is argued that the administrative approach won out over technological solutions, and came to dominate workplace casualty prevention. By 1913, when over 29000 employees in Britain were killed or injured in a single year, railway worker safety was becoming an urgent issue. Forestalling possible state imposition of new technologies, the railway industry introduced its own, administrative, solution: the educative safety campaign. The article examines safety education, which used "social" techniques to try and "educate" employees as to "correct" and "incorrect" work practices. It is shown how education fits within the bureaucratic tradition of the railway industry, representing an attempt by management to use administrative structures to influence safety at the shop-floor level, and negate the need to introduce expensive changes to existing practices. As a result, attention was diverted away from the possibility of developing alternative technologies that would reduce the danger of injury, and was instead focussed upon a "rational" administrative solution that enabled the retention of the existing system of work and its inbuilt dangers. It is shown that the success of safety education lay not so much in reducing casualties, but in convincing the state that it did not need to intervene in managerial prerogative
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)95-117
Number of pages23
JournalJahrbuch für europäische Verwaltungsgeschichte
Publication statusPublished - 2008


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