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Dead on the point of safety: occupational safety education on the Great Western Railway, c.1913-1939

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

In February 1914, the Great Western Railway Company (GWR) observed of its occupational safety education campaign that it was ‘dead on the point of “Safety”’. This statement reveals one of the key themes explored in this thesis: the quote marks surrounding ‘safety’ unwittingly acknowledged the socially constructed nature of occupational safety. The study that follows deconstructs the techniques used by the GWR to convey its understanding of occupational safety to its employees and to the state. The techniques introduced by the GWR in 1913 were recognisably modern in nature, being reliant upon photographs and visual media to transmit ideas, and contributed to the development of the educative campaign in Britain – a subject previously neglected by historians of occupational health and safety. This focus also makes a significant contribution to the field of transport history, which has largely ignored safety in general, and employee safety in particular. Further, in exploring the political economy of safety, through the lens of one of the largest companies in Britain in the early twentieth century, this thesis contributes to business history.

Despite the innovative appearance of the campaign, the understandings of ‘safety’ put forward by the GWR were traditional. These understandings were formed within a ‘culture of blame’ towards the employees, in which responsibility for occupational casualty and its prevention ultimately lay with the individual employees. The campaign sought to normalise the existence of occupational casualty, leaving an area of ‘acceptable risk’ in which the railway system could continue to operate without major changes and in which employees would be put at risk. The campaign’s definition of ‘safety’ also contained a disciplinary element, in which the GWR attempted to extend its control over the labour process. This thesis therefore interrogates the concept of ‘safety’ in terms of power relations between Company and employees. In addition, the safety campaign formed a bulwark against the external intervention in managerial autonomy threatened by the state and trades unions. The campaign became proof that the GWR and other railway companies could safeguard their employees, thereby removing the need for intervention. A similarity of outlook between regulator and regulated is observed, which ensured that the safety campaign left control of occupational safety in the hands of the GWR and other railway companies.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of York
Supervisors/Advisors
    Award date2007
    Relations Get citation (various referencing formats)

    ID: 5193946