Safety first: 20th-century health and safety messages

From squirrels on handkerchiefs to milk bottle tops, Mike Esbester investigates changes in health and safety messages over the 20th century...

A badge promoting the Tufty Club, an organisation launched by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents to educate children on road safety, 1941. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the August 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine

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In 1913 over 30,000 railway workers were injured or killed; in 1916 there were over 54,000 road accidents in London; and in 1930 over 7,000 people died in accidents in the home.

So how have handkerchiefs, bars of soap, and milk bottle tops been used to try to reduce these figures? They have all featured in safety education campaigns, carrying messages to persuade us to behave safely.

Compared with formal Victorian methods of reducing accidents, such as notices and rule books, the introduction of a new informality in safety education in the 20th-century was revolutionary. Launched by the railway industry in 1913 to show that the government did not need to regulate worker safety, education soon caught on and safety-related paraphernalia was produced by groups such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) and government agencies, such as the Central Office of Information (responsible for the Green Cross Code and Charley Says films).

Whether or not safety education alone has reduced accidents is a debatable question. Despite this, various types of safety education have been popular and have proved a pervasive means of trying to improve safety for nearly 100 years.

This feature, based on research funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, shows some examples of safety education in Britain, charting its spread through the 20th century.

Huntley & Palmers sign, 1880

Representing the 19th-century approach to safety, signs such as this one, from Reading-based biscuit manufacturers Huntley & Palmers, sternly warned employees of dangers. These signs were formal and did not have to be attractive: workers had to obey them as a condition of their employment. They also passed responsibility for hazards from the management (who might have been able to remove the danger) to the worker (who had to avoid the danger). Oiling machinery while it was moving was very dangerous, but despite such signs it was often tacitly encouraged by managers, as it was quicker than stopping the machines.

Great Western Railway booklet, 1914

This booklet was given free to all 80,000 Great Western Railway Company employees in 1914, and is one of the earliest examples of safety education in Britain. The photographs show some of the practices that the company deemed unsafe while others show how to do the job safely.

Use of photographs in this way represented a massive change in style from the earlier formal approaches to accident prevention that relied solely on text.

Safety education soon caught on: by the mid-1920s it was used by the entire railway industry, and from the railways it spread to other workplaces, particularly factories and mining.

‘Percy Verses’ booklet, 1946

This attractive booklet was jointly issued by RoSPA and the Ministry of Labour to factory workers in 1946. Demand was so high that the first edition was soon exhausted and 100,000 copies of a second edition – of which this is a copy – were printed. The use of colour was important as a means of making safety messages attractive, along with humour, verse and cartoons.

During the Second World War, RoSPA was co-opted by the state as its official industrial accident-prevention arm, and after 1945 the two continued to work closely together.

Home Safety poster, 1956

From the 1930s, local and national home safety committees produced leaflets and posters and gave talks to promote safety at home. This continued after 1945, with posters such as this making use of newly introduced fluorescent inks – important when in competition to attract attention on display boards in maternity clinics, libraries, and doctors’ surgeries. Note who is portrayed as belonging in the home: women and children. Unsurprisingly, safety education reflected the dominant social norms of the time – into the 1970s, men were shown working with tools in the garden or in the garage, and women in the kitchen or cleaning.

Tufty hanky, c1960s

Concern over road accidents grew from the 1910s, and so a large proportion of safety education material has addressed road safety. Some unusual items have been employed, including this handkerchief from the 1960s. Tufty, the road safety squirrel, was introduced in the early 1950s and was used by RoSPA to capture the interest of children – a major target group for safety education – on the understanding that if children could be trained while young, they would be safe for life.

The handkerchief shows how to cross the road using the ‘Kerb Drill’, which was introduced in the 1940s and was later replaced in the 1970s by the Green Cross Code.

Think! Poster, 2010

Safety education is still commonplace today: this example is from the Department for Transport’s most recent Christmas anti-drink/driving campaign. The Christmas campaign usually includes radio and TV advertising and a range of other channels, and demonstrates how the state still produces safety education. Now an annual event, the first Christmas road accident prevention campaign took place in the early 1960s. Of course, safety education has never been used in isolation: engineering and law enforcement have been used alongside education, and this continues today.

Mike Esbester is an Arts and Humanities Research Council early career fellow at Oxford Brookes University. His research concentrates on safety and accident prevention in 20th-century Britain

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For a history of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, go to www.rospa.com