This article by Ray Prest was originally published in the October 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.
Periodically, someone will float a proposal to remove speed limits from American highways. The critical response is predictably skeptical, with pundits suggesting that a highway without speed limits is a disaster waiting to happen, and the proposal is effectively squashed. In many ways, the skepticism makes sense. We know that drivers have limited reaction times, and the faster people drive, the longer it will take them to stop. Letting people rush around as fast as they want seemed like a recipe for an increase in both the number and severity of car crashes.
But take a look at a highway without speed limits, and you will be surprised to see that the predicted rise in road incidents may not be as much of a certainty as some may think. Perhaps the most famous example is the autobahn, Germany’s superhighway and one of the world’s few motorways without a universal speed limit. When you peek under the hood, the autobahn highway reveals some fundamental truths about the dangers of rushing and the structural nature of safety, especially when it comes to material handling.
Start of the Autobahn
The autobahn is a system of highways not dissimilar to interstate highways in the United States. It is almost as old too, with the construction planning on the German highway system beginning in the 1920s. Despite a common misperception, the autobahn does have speed limits but that was not always the case.
In the early 1950s, the West German government removed speed limits on all roads, including: highways, city streets and everything in between. This was a short-lived experiment and, after five years, the sharp increase in traffic collisions led to a return of speed limits in urban areas. As any safety expert will tell you, let people do what they want with no restrictions and incidents are bound to pile up. Still, while speed limits were reintroduced in many areas, the autobahn remained free of speed limits. Well, almost free of speed limits. These days, nearly one third of the autobahn has some sort of restriction on how fast you can drive. In some cases, it is because a stretch of highway passes by a city or a construction zone. In other instances, speed limits may temporarily take effect because of inclement weather and other poor driving conditions.
However, on 70 percent of the highway, you can drive as fast as you want. Some people do, with 15 percent of cars traveling over 170 km/h (105 mph). It is worth noting that there is a recommended top travel speed of 130 km/h (about 80 mph). Drivers seem to stick relatively close to that suggested speed, as one study found, the average speed of cars to be just under 142 km/h or about seven mph over the advisory speed limit.
What do a bunch of German citizens zooming around on a highway have to do with material handling safety? Before we get into that, there is one more thing you should know about the autobahn: on a per capita basis, almost twice as many Americans die on our motorways as Germans die on theirs. Clearly, the differences in highway engineering and rules of the road—plus uncontrollable factors like the weather—lead to vastly disparate driving outcomes. Or to put it a different way: system and environmental design matter for safety.
System and Environmental Design = Safety
In the context of workplace safety, most EHS folks think of rushing as people moving and acting quickly—setting down a hand truck too quickly and toppling the load or moving so fast that someone does not notice that his/her hand is about to be cut with a boxcutter. Yes, those are both examples of rushing, but they don’t tell the whole story. As the autobahn demonstrates, you can move at incredibly high speeds and the incident rate can still be low.
When it comes to rushing, whether you are driving a hatchback or a pallet truck, the issue is not speed as much as comfort and ability. The only people who travel at blazing speeds on the autobahn are drivers who feel comfortable and capable of doing so. It is worth emphasizing here that higher speeds are correlated with greater severity in outcome if an incident occurs, so even if those drivers are not more likely to crash—and higher speeds do reduce reaction time—they will still be more likely to be killed or seriously injured if they do. Yes, speed kills. However, it is not the only factor involved, and it may not even be the biggest factor.
In the workplace, many material handlers work both quickly and safely. These tend to be more experienced workers with the skills to complete tasks rapidly. For them, working at a quick pace is a choice. But often because of that, workers of all skill levels are made to work faster than their ability will safely allow. When this happens, it is usually because their employer has asked them to. On the autobahn, no one is forced to drive faster than he/she wants to. But on the job, a sudden change in production demands frequently leads to workers, especially material handlers, being pushed to work faster and longer. The pace of work outstrips the ability to do the job right and, more importantly, to pay proper attention to the task. In the end, rushing errors are almost always caused by a lack of attention when it is needed.
In the examples listed above, the workers likely felt that they did not have time to stabilize the hand-truck load or the placement of their hands. Sometimes, it is even more simple than that: the faster people work, the quicker they get tired. The more fatigued they are, the more likely it is that their attention will fail them in a crucial moment.
Rushing is almost always a structural issue. Relatively few incidents occur because someone felt like working at unsafe speeds. There is almost always a catalyst, whether it is a supervisor yelling at them to hurry up, an improperly designed workplace that requires workers to rush from one place to the next or some other structural impetus to work too quickly.
Let us turn back to the autobahn for a moment. While some drivers go as fast as they want, most will drive fairly closely to the advised speed. Knowing this, the posted speed is within a safe enough range for the majority of drivers, acting as an influence on their speed without restricting faster road users or forcing slower drivers to move at speeds they cannot handle. In more dangerous sections of the highway, speed limits are strictly enforced to protect construction workers and other vulnerable people. But predominantly, drivers’ personal awareness is left to lead the way, aided with some heavy-handed nudges from legislators.
Contrast this with the workplace where hard-and-fast rules abound. They exist with good reason, but those reasons are often unclear to workers, who often view them as arcane and restrictive. The spirit of those rules—to work at a safe pace and protect people from injury—frequently clashes with production demands handed down from upper management.
Managing Human Factors
What does a safety manager to do? You do not want to and cannot just remove various safety regulations and make it a free-for-all. You can explain to workers why certain rules exist so that they feel less constrained by them. You can also solicit feedback from workers regarding what makes them feel like they need to rush while moving goods throughout the facility. Frequently, they will identify delays, errors, troublesome locations and other issues that you were not fully aware of.
You can also let people’s personal awareness carry the day while applying greater control on more dangerous areas of work. If you cannot stop your company from making workers rush, then you can at least train workers to recognize and respond appropriately when they are rushing, which will mitigate some of the risks that it poses. This type of worker education typically falls under the umbrella of human factors training and can have a notable impact. You already know the places in the workplace and times in the production schedule that people are most likely to get hurt. They may be permanent problem spots, or, like inclement weather, may fluctuate from week to week. Focus your interventions—like toolbox talks, walk-throughs and additional hazard reminders—in those areas.
Of course, driving on the autobahn is a lot different than navigating the typical American workplace. For starters, people driving on the autobahn are not usually towing a trailer full of goods, looking out for pedestrians and do not have someone breathing down their neck. Roadway engineers designed the autobahn knowing that people will speed, ensuring lanes are wide enough, corners smooth enough and signs large enough. Drivers are not allowed to backup, do U-turns or stop on the highway to chat with a co-worker—all of which are things that happen in a dynamic, complex workplace environment.
In a similar vein, safety professionals should observe and design the flow of materials from and to various places at their facility to be as barrier-free as possible, by reducing blind spots, separating pedestrians and vehicles when possible and taking other engineering steps. Workers, and material handlers in particular, will inevitably need to rush. Workplace design should also account for how people actually operate. This is why human factor training is useful for material handlers, when rushing cannot be prevented, it gives them the tools to manage the pace of work more safely.
Ray Prest is the Director of Marketing at SafeStart, a safety company focused on human factors solutions that reduce preventable death and injuries on and off the job. A columnist for Safety Decisions since 2015, Ray’s been helping people learn about safety and training for over 20 years. Read more at safestart.com/ray.