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July 23, 2007

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Safe spills and thrills at Silverstone

IOSH president Lisa Fowlie found out about the high-speed spills and thrills of Formula One racing when she paid a visit to the Silverstone motor racing circuit.

Lesley Cox, Silverstone’s health, safety and environmental manager, invited Lisa along during preparations for the British Grand Prix to see how the many hazards associated with running such a major event are managed.

“We’ve had to carry out a number of safety improvements, such as handrails on the banks, levelling out one of the steeper banks, and building more big screens so that people can see more of the action,” Lesley explained. “And given the unpredictable weather we’ve had recently, we’ve had to put contingencies in place.”

Keeping occupied

Although not responsible for the on-track safety during the Grand Prix, which is the responsibility of the FIA, the Formula One governing body, Lesley has more than enough to keep her busy.

“We like to think of the GP as more than a race. Fans come to see the cars and the drivers, but we try to put lots of other entertainment on so that everyone can have a great day out.”

At this year’s Grand Prix, that entertainment includes activities like bungee jumping, a sky-diving wind tunnel experience, helicopter rides, a funfair, and live music.

One of Lesley’s biggest concerns is the number of foreign visitors: “We have lots of foreign contractors on site, who lack understanding of UK safety legislation and standards, and speak very little English.”

It’s not about stopping them

Then there’s the issue of knowing how to deal with people who actively seek to take risk: “We have a number of racing instructors on site who seek out enormous risk and do so day-in, day-out. They’ve been doing this for years and there have been very few, or no accidents. As a safety practitioner I have to accept that they are experts, but if I’m not happy I’ll have a word.”

“I firmly believe people need to be risk-aware and not risk-averse. I have owned and ridden horses for 35 years and I know that if I fall off, it’s going to hurt. But that’s not an excuse to stop doing something. It is important people take some responsibility for their own safety.”

On being asked a question on the skills and abilities needed to work in health and safety at Silverstone, Lesley said: “As with any safety job, you have to be able to speak to both staff and management at their level. Often, the people you speak to already have the answer — you just have to ask the questions. At Silverstone, it’s not about stopping an unsafe activity, it’s about getting them to understand how to do it safer.”

Lisa said: “It’s only when you go and look at the work being done ‘behind the scenes’ that you get the true enormity of the British Grand Prix. The logistics around the event, the coordination needed between different people, and the partnerships that need to be built and maintained are unbelievable.

“I knew the Grand Prix was an international event, but hadn’t realised there were so many foreign contractors on site, all working so quickly to build everything, and then taking everything down again within hours of the race finishing.”

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