100 years of workplace safety campaigns

Campaigns to raise awareness of health and safety in the workplace began 100 years ago this month.

Historian Dr Mike Esbester, from the University of Portsmouth, has discovered that widespread efforts to prevent accidents at work first began in August 1913 with a short illustrated magazine feature for Great Western Railway employees.

The workers were reminded about crossing the railway line safely, wearing goggles to protect their eyes and avoiding danger while loading goods.

Bogged down in text

Dr Esbester said the campaign paved the way for a century of attempts to reduce deaths and injuries at work, at home and on the roads because the authorities believed eye-catching posters and photos could reach massive audiences and change the way people behaved.

“Before 1913, safety warnings to workers were very top-down and text heavy,” he said. “August 1913 saw an entirely different tone and style; it was a massive change.

It spoke ‘man-to-man’, using an informal, conversational tone and showed people how to be safe rather than just telling them what to do.”

Initially the focus was on workplace safety, but from 1916 road accidents were an increasing concern. In the 1920s thousands of people were being killed on the roads each year and tens of thousands injured, so reducing the toll became a pressing issue.

Accident advice ‘hysterical’

Over the past 100 years health and safety messages have appeared on a wide range of items, from handkerchiefs, beer mats, milk bottle tops and cigarette cards to the more commonly known films, posters, leaflets and booklets.

Some of the UK’s early health and safety advice, especially the posed photographs, was “unintentionally hysterical” from a 2013 perspective, Dr Esbester said.

“I’m not sure how the audiences at the time reacted or felt, but we are a much more media savvy audience now,” he said. “We are sophisticated consumers of media and you can see this in the way warning messages are now portrayed.”

Source: Daily Mail

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