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Safety Matters
Steven Roy

Steven has been obsessed by motor racing in general, and Formula One in particular, for as long as he can remember. He can always be called upon for informed opinion on any aspect of F1, be it the sport, technology, business and politics or its history.

Instinctive reactions - Learning lessons from preventable accidents


At work on the other side of the safety fence
At work on the other side of the safety fenceCredit: Sidepodcast

We all know that motor racing is dangerous, if for no other reason than TV commentators constantly tell us that those words appear on every piece of paper from tickets, to programs, to notices around every circuit in the world. We know that death is, always has been and always will be part of racing. We know that marshals can die because we remember the deaths of Graham Beveridge in Melbourne and Paolo Ghislimberti at Monza both from loose wheels.

Despite all of the above it was shocking to discover in the aftermath of the Canadian Grand Prix that a marshal had been killed by a forklift. This is one of those accidents that just should not happen anywhere but occasionally because of a combination of circumstances they do.

In this case the root cause of the accident appears to have been the marshal dropping his radio. He bent down to pick it up and was hit by the forklift. It was an instinctive reaction to pick up the radio. It is the sort of thing we all do every day. If we drop something we automatically bend down and pick it up but sometimes all it takes for an accident to happen is someone to react the way they always have only for circumstances to make the outcome extremely serious.

Breaking point

Over the years I have managed a few laboratories and trained many technicians. One thing I taught myself when I was a technician was that if I dropped a piece of glassware I would take a step back and let it drop. Before teaching myself to do that I had always tried to catch the falling glassware until one day I realised that most of the time I caught the falling object as it was level with the bottom of the bench with my hands moving upwards quickly. Once you realise that it doesn't take too much imagination to figure out what could happen if the glass breaks and you move your hands quickly towards the broken edge of the glass and push it into the bottom of a lab bench. That is before you consider what the contents of the vessel might do.

Once I realised the problem I very quickly trained myself that as soon as I lost my grip or knocked something over I got my hands out of the way and kept my eye on the falling object until it stopped moving. It is a very long time since I was a lab technician but to this day if I drop anything even if it is something like a pen that presents no real danger to me my first reaction is to pull my hands to my sides and step back. Having done this for many years almost immediately on dropping anything I have assessed the risk and decided whether to catch it or not.

Every time I saw someone catch some falling glass I took it from them and broke it

Despite explaining to new and not so new technicians why it was a better idea to let something drop and break rather than try to catch it, human nature meant that the vast majority would always try to catch. I was given all sorts of reasons from "my reactions are so fast" to "it was the last one of those we had so I didn't want to let it break". After putting up with this for a few months I adopted a new tactic. Every time I saw someone catch some falling glass I took it from them and broke it. By doing this I was able to make them believe that there was no value in saving the company £2.45 so they may as well concentrate on not hurting themselves. Unfortunately for the marshal on Sunday he probably hadn't dropped his radio next to a forklift previously and then had some nuisance take the radio from him and smash it into a hundred pieces.

The only reason I was able to learn to protect myself in this way was because for several years I spent all day, every day in a lab handling glassware. Often this was done with cold, wet hands and occasionally a piece was dropped. Unfortunately when the marshal dropped his radio last Sunday he was doing something that he did a few days a year. He was not doing his normal daily job where he has had time to work out how to make himself safe.

Most people's reaction to events like this is shock. My first reaction tends to be anger that someone died in a totally preventable accident and then to try and understand how it happened.

The primary hazard

One of the things you are taught if you go for any serious safety qualification is safe systems of work. It sounds boring but while it is not very exciting it is essential to make sure that there are safe systems of work in any hazardous activity.

Marshals extract a beached Force India at Silverstone
Marshals extract a beached Force India at SilverstoneCredit: Sidepodcast

I haven't seen the accident and I don't know all the details so anything I say after this is just to illustrate what should have happened and what probably did happen.

I have no doubt a lot of people would have immediately thought that the driver had somehow been negligent and not paying proper attention to where he was going. That is unlikely to have been the case. We all know F1 drivers have to do dozens of things at the same time and at a track so does a forklift driver. As well as manoeuvring his vehicle he also had to watch his load. Any load on a forklift is never 100% stable and an F1 car is more unstable than most. The car is also big and would have been blocking a substantial part of the driver's view.

He would also have had several people in very close attendance which is something that is not normally allowed to happen when operating a forklift. Normally the most you would have is one lookout or banksman whose job is to make sure that no-one gets in the way of the forklift and to guide the driver round obstacles.

He also has to cope with a number of different surfaces and the effect each transition between surfaces has on his vehicle and his load. He would also probably have been getting information from a number of sources. Apart from his own view he presumably had a lookout in close proximity guiding him and moving people out of his way. One of them would have been receiving information on the route they had to take and when they were allowed to move.

When moving from the trackside there would no doubt be someone feeding him information about the on track traffic and alerting him to gaps in that which were advantageous for certain parts of the journey. Race control may even have been asking about when the forklift and its extended crew expected to be clear of the track so that they could replace the yellow flags with green.

The driver would undoubtedly have been very busy and even had he not been he would still have had great difficulty in watching people walking near all four wheels at the same time. Equally the lookout can only be in one position and given the size of the vehicle involved there is nowhere he could have placed himself to view all four wheels, the load and any obstacles. Even if the driver and the lookout had been able to view the marshal and had seen him drop his radio it is possible they would not have been able to react fast enough to prevent the accident.

Since it is impossible for the driver and lookout to see everything you need a safe system of work. This can include anything from a rule that the forklift doesn't move unless 3 people agree that it is safe, that all marshals other than the lookout(s) must walk behind the forklift or that everyone must stay a minimum distance away from the forklift. Each aspect would be simple in itself and there is a good possibility that something like this was in place in Montreal.

In most situations where a forklift is used, it or its load is the primary hazard. In Montreal on Sunday there were racing cars approaching that corner at high speed so it may be that marshals had been instructed to keep the forklift between them and the cars. It is even possible that they had been instructed to stay close to the forklift.

With the best intention

As with any accident it is essential that lessons are learned and that there is never a repeat. My first thought on this was on potential improvements in the management of the forklift and that has to be looked at. Then it makes sense to try to find a way to attach radios to marshals so that they do not drop. Finally and by far the most important efforts have to be made to stop people reacting instinctively. In short if a marshal drops a radio or anything else he has to carry out a quick risk assessment before he decides whether it is safe to pick it up or not. Unfortunately it is not that simple.

This was not even the first accident that resulted in a marshal dying as a result of his natural reactions. During the 1977 South African Grand Prix for example Renzo Zorzi's Shadow stopped on the main straight just after the brow of a hill. Frederik Jansen Van Vuuren, a 19 year old marshal, reacted instinctively and took off across the track carrying a 40 pound (18kg) fire extinguisher. Had he had time to assess the situation he would have realised that he was unable to see cars coming from behind that brow at 170mph. However he did not. The first drivers were able to avoid him and another marshal by incredibly small margins but Welsh driver Tom Pryce who was following right behind Hans-Joachim Stuck could not. He hit the marshal who was thrown in the air and torn apart. The fire extinguisher he had been carrying hit Pryce in the face and almost decapitated him. Two young men died because one of them reacted instinctively to go to the aid of a third who it turned out was not in any real danger.

There are, no doubt, many other examples in Formula One where people have reacted instinctively and been injured or worse and unfortunately, it is something that happens every day in the wider world.