Giving safety a sporting chance 

Safety is not a sport, and all sporting disciplines are not safe. Nevertheless, we can and should take safety principles from sport into the workplace, to guide our approach to safety in industry.

Let’s take a closer look at one of the fastest sports in the world – Formula One racing.

Formula One racing is one of the highest-risk sports, with many drivers having been killed and others seriously injured over the years.

Some of the more prominent accidents include the fatal crash of Ayrton Senna in 1994 and the life-altering injuries sustained by Niki Lauda when his car crashed and burst into flames at the 1976 German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring.

This is not entirely surprising in a sport in which cars reach speeds in excess of 300 km/h, and in which drivers come into close contact with each other while negotiating corners, chicanes and bends, and sometimes drive with poor visibility during treacherous rain.

There is no doubt that these drivers have nerves of steel. We can, however, also be sure that, while certainly not without risk, the safety of Formula One racing has improved significantly over time; with a continuous focus on improving the safety of the cars, tracks and drivers.

Applying the hierarchy of controls

Formula One officials have increasingly made the sport safer by applying the principles of hierarchy of controls. By considering how to eliminate, substitute and engineer the risks out, followed by robust controls and procedures, they have, over time, been able to improve the overall safety of the sport.

The first Formula One race was held at the Silverstone racetrack in England in 1950, with cars having been built for one purpose only: speed! While their speed was (relatively speaking) impressive, they fell short in many other respects. The vehicle balance was somewhat compromised, with engines having been mounted in the front. Disc brakes as we know them today were not used.

There was also very little protection for the drivers: no roll-over protection, no fireproof racing overalls and just open-faced crash helmets. (Fireproof overalls were only introduced in the late 1960s, and at that stage, only as a recommendation!)

Since then, officials have continued to introduce engineering controls to make the sport safer. Some of the more significant controls introduced have included the installation of double safety barriers between the vehicles and the spectators; pit-lane walls between the pit and the racetrack; re-designed cockpits making it possible for drivers to exit the vehicle as fast as possible; and fitting fireproof structures around the fuel tanks.

Some of the administrative controls have included the need for rescue services to remove a driver within five minutes after an accident; the provision of safety marshals around the track at strategic/higher risk positions; the introduction of minimum standards for personal protective clothing and equipment; and minimum safety distances between fences and spectators.

Improvements to personal protective clothing and equipment included the introduction of fire-proof clothing for drivers and pit-crew members, improved helmet design (providing full face protection) and the introduction of six-point seat belts.

A focus on three key elements

Regardless of whether in the context of sport or industry, when considering safety and the necessary hierarchy of controls, there are three key elements to always consider: the issuing of safe equipment, to ensure a safe working environment and the safety and health of people (Formula One racing drivers and employees alike).

• Safe equipment

Over the years, the design of racing cars has continuously changed – with the introduction of rear-mounted engines, disc brakes, rear-view mirrors, improved cockpit designs and the most recent introduction of the halo device around the driver’s head.

• Safe environment

The environment has also been made much safer for the drivers, pit crews and the spectators through the introduction of walls, fences, crash barriers, gavel sections at corners as well as rear lights on all vehicles.

The use of a safety car was introduced in 1992. In addition, the use of warning lights and flags was also introduced, making it possible to alert drivers of any problems ahead on the track.

The speed limit in pit lanes was reduced to 80 km/h to reduce the risk of accidents and injuries to the pit crews. Pit crews are also now expected to move out of the danger zone and back into the garages immediately after the car has left the allocated pit box.

• Safe and healthy drivers and pit crew

Unlike in the early days of Formula One racing, drivers now have to undergo regular medical examinations. They are also required to have a licence to compete in Formula One, issued by the FIA (the International Automobile Federation). In addition, doping tests are conducted on drivers at regular intervals.

Safety marshals are regularly trained and practice drills held to equip them with the knowledge and the skills to rescue drivers from a car in the event of an accident and/or fire. State-of-the-art medical services are also provided at the race tracks to deal with all injuries and medical conditions.

Joint understanding of the team’s objectives

Fortunately, today it’s about winning without injuries to any person involved. So, too, the objectives of industry should be to win without injury to any employees!

People often quote the slogan “Safety First”. For me, safety is not an add-on or simply one item on a long agenda of business priorities. I far prefer the slogans “Safe Engineering First”, “Safe Production First” or “Safe Maintenance First”.

Within the world of Formula One, it’s evident that safety is considered an integral part of the business day, every day. In industry it is unfortunately not uncommon for companies to design equipment or establish working environments without considering the safety and health aspects from the start.

In some companies, projects are planned without any involvement from the safety and health professionals at all … and they then wonder why work has stopped during project implementation phase, due to risk assessments not been conducted, or procedures and/or equipment failing the safety standards.

TeamWork is paramount

The teamwork of a Formula One team is impressive to watch. A car comes to a stop in the allocated pit box position. The team of 20 people moves in towards the car, which is lifted. Old wheels are removed and replaced with new ones. The driver’s visor is wiped clean, and, within seconds of arriving in the pit, the driver is on his way to re-join the race.

They get this right through practice, practice and more practice. This ensures that there is a clear understanding of each person’s role in the team and their individual responsibilities; that clear procedures are in place, and that each person is equipped with the required tools and equipment for his/her role in ensuring that the car is back on the track as soon as possible.

While teamwork in industry doesn’t have to happen at the same pace as Formula One, a commitment to safety is equally important to both! Just like Formula One racing, industry will always benefit from each member of the team having a clear understanding of everyone’s roles and responsibilities.


Industry can learn from Formula One by signing up to an ongoing commitment to safety. By considering the hierarchy of controls when eliminating, substituting and engineering out risks, it can work towards safety becoming the easy option.

To get this right, companies need a team that shares a common objective and an ongoing commitment to the three key safety issues: safe equipment, a safe working environment and the safety and health of employees and contractors. The team also needs to share a clear understanding of everyone’s roles and responsibilities in meeting those objectives.

Significant progress has been made in Formula One. Unfortunately, despite these efforts, accidents continue to happen because of the human element in safety. Within industry and sporting disciplines alike, for as long as there is unsafe human behaviour (whether consciously or subconsciously), accidents will continue to occur.

It is, therefore, also important to focus on developing the desired safety mindset, where employees and contractors make safety a way of life and a habit.  Companies also need to develop an interdependent safety culture, where people look after their own safety as well as that of others.

As with Formula One racing, companies can enjoy continuous improvements in safety through a focus on the hierarchy of controls, strong teamwork, development of an interdependent safety culture, and moving employees into the conscious and unconscious safety mindset.

Published by

Brian Darlington

Brian Darlington is the group head of safety and health for the Mondi Group, based in Vienna, Austria. He has filled the role since 2012 and is responsible for safety and health in more than 30 countries. Darlington started working at Iscor before joining Mondi in 1987, working in Gauteng. In 2000 he transferred to the Kraft Division in Richards Bay. During 2005, he transferred to Europe, taking up the position of business unit SHE manager, responsible for SHE in paper mills in Austria, Hungary, Israel, Slovakia, Poland, South Africa and Russia, as well as forests operations in South Africa and Russia.
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