Some years ago, I had to produce a booklet for school leavers on avoiding accidents at work. I researched different kinds of accidents involving workers young and old, and many, of course, were avoidable. I remember, for example, an account of a young man who was mowing the lawns outside an apartment block. Someone crossed the lawn with, in his words, the ugliest dog he had seen in his life. He was so intrigued by the dog’s lack of beauty that he let the mower run across his foot, and had to spend several weeks in plaster. Another unfortunate tale came from a small leather factory. One morning, a cutting machine operator removed a safety guard and lost the top of his finger when he hand fed some thick material into the machine. The owner was called on the phone and expressed his surprise because such an accident had never happened before. His workers were drilled to keep the safety guards on whatever the circumstances. By the time the owner had reached the factory, the same accident had occurred again! With the injured man on his way to hospital, the foreman asked workers nearby to explain how it had happened. Unfortunately, an overenthusiastic employee stepped forward and gave such a perfect demonstration, that he lost the top of his finger too.
With the passage of time, a technological revolution should have improved our working environment, but it seems to have created more perils and health hazards. Each year, new working practices are introduced, the effects of which are not fully understood. For example:
- checkouts with their nerve-stripping and noisy scanners
- headaches from badly positioned computer displays or flickering lights
- sicknesses arising faulty ventilation, cooling or heating systems
- the increased use of nightwork and shift work
- permanent hearing loss caused by a mindless need for noise in public places.
Each year, increasing numbers of industrial accidents are recorded by factory inspectors, but although the one which follows is from an earlier age, it was the most bizarre that I encountered during my research for the booklet.
There was a factory in the north of England which used a steam boiler to power its machinery. When the boiler reached an excessive amount of pressure, a warning alarm sounded and a worker went outside the building to open a circular valve which released the excess steam into a cooling tank. The same employee carried out this important task for many years in every kind of weather. With impeccable timing, this man never failed in his duty and performed it through some of the most momentous events of the 20th century. The outbreak of WW2, Dunkirk, Pearl Harbour, the allied victory over Germany and Japan, the coronation of a queen, the election of presidents, dramatic changes in fashion and popular music, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, the start of the Vietnam War, Yuri Gargarin, and the assassination of JFK.
Then one day, as he bent over his valve and prepared to release the steam there was a terrible explosion and he was severely injured. Naturally, a full scale investigation was held and the entire steam cooling system was completely stripped. The inspectors were thunderstruck to discover that when they removed the large valve, it was attached to absolutely nothing. Despite the effort involved in rotating this heavy brass item, it performed no useful function whatsoever. Then, searching back through factory records, they made an amazing discovery. One weekend, about twenty-five years earlier, a maintenance team had removed whatever was attached to the foot of the valve, and installed an automatic steam releasing system which operated directly from the boiler alarm.
No one in authority was informed of this adjustment so no one knew that it needed to be serviced. For the next twenty five years, the faithful employee went right on opening and closing his valve until the fateful day that the automatic system failed.
If he ever received a long service medal from his company, the mind boggles at what would be engraved on it.
Tony Crowley (c) 1993