Jan. 27 2010 08:32 AM

Forklifts and other pieces of industrial equipment are an indispensable part of almost every warehousing operation throughout the world. They're also a primary danger in these facilities.

Each year they're responsible for approximately 100 U.S. fatalities — and at least 20,000 more injuries. 

Thankfully, with thorough safety training for the people who work around them, many of the incidents commonly associated with industrial vehicles can be avoided.     

PARCEL recently visited with longtime warehouse safety professional Dixie Brock of APL Logistics to get her take on why forklift safety training is especially important -- and why it pays to make it everyone's job. 
Talk to us about the relationship between forklift safety and overall safety.

There are about six primary categories of safety concerns in most warehouses. Two out of the six are directly related to forklifts and other forms of industrial equipment. Additionally incidents involving such equipment tend to be more severe and thus deserving of special focus in any safety program.  Every company needs to be sure that all of its industrial equipment operators and the people working around them have adequate training in how to operate and work around these heavy machines. 

I don't just mean regulatory compliance. I mean training that's specific to that organization, its operations and the unique risks they pose. 

Your organization has a much lower rate of OSHA-recordable incidents than the industry average. Yet it unveiled a new industrial equipment safety training initiative a few years ago. . . .

Our safety programs are very driven by data from the field; it plays a huge role in helping us pinpoint new risks or common risks that seem to be increasing in frequency or severity.  In 2006, that data led us to conclude that it was time for us to update and expand our industrial equipment operator training program. We put together a comprehensive new program with the assistance of our worker's compensation insurance broker Marsh & McLennan. It includes a mix of classroom instruction, written materials, video training, hands-on training and opportunities for discussion.  We conduct this training annually and have additional industrial equipment safety review sessions at least two other times a year. 

Can you share some of the particulars from your forklift training course?

Our first focus was to ensure compliance with OSHA's 1910.178 training requirements, which require that operators know the differences between operating industrial equipment and operating cars.

When you're looking at a forklift, it's easy to assume that it's a lightweight device. But it's actually much heavier than a car, and it poses the same dangers to pedestrians and drivers as a car can. Collisions between industrial equipment can have devastating results — and so can incidents when industrial equipment strikes other employees or vehicles tip over and lands on drivers or pedestrians. 

How can accidents like tip-overs be prevented?

Every company's industrial equipment operator training program must be tailored specifically to the equipment its employees are driving, the products they're transporting and the location they're working in — because all of these can impact a forklift's delicate balance. Although each forklift has a maximum loading capacity that's clearly posted on its name/capacity plate, equipment operators must be trained to recognize that this is merely a starting point and that they must also factor in the equipment's load center and the height and stability of the load. Any error on the operator's part can lead to serious safety consequences as well as damage to equipment and the product.  

OSHA has several other regulations that address the challenge of tip-overs, too. For example, drivers should carry loads no more than six inches off the ground, and they should never tilt a forklift mast forward while driving, because that alters the vehicle's load center. 

Besides the potential to tip over, are there other major differences between operating industrial equipment and automobiles? 

Unlike automobiles, forklifts have rear steering, which can be awkward and tricky if a driver isn't used to it. And forklifts don't ride like a car either. They don't have shock absorbers or springs, and their tires are usually solid or hard rubber. As a result, they're much more sensitive when they encounter small bumps or run over even small objects, which can easily dislodge or shift their loads. They also don't brake as smoothly, so sudden stops can result in a tip-over or a load falling. 

Your forklift training also covers the proper procedures for loading and unloading trucks.

Our company's forklift safety training program firmly outlines how trailers are to be attached and secured to docks: with trailer brakes set and dock locks used. If a facility doesn't have dock locks, we have an alternate procedure that involves cones and glad-hand locks. Either way, we stress that no driver is ever to drive onto a trailer unless he or she is 100 percent sure that a trailer is secure and will not move. And no truck driver is allowed to drive away with his or her trailer until that trailer has been officially released by the forklift driver.

Let's say a driver has taken all of the proper precautions for preventing tip-overs and it still happens. Should he or she try to jump out?

That's actually the worst thing an operator can do. It's best to try to stay in the vehicle and lean away from the point of impact. This is one of many reasons why OSHA now enforces the use of seatbelts — and why our locations do, too.  Like wearing seatbelts in cars, this is one safety requirement that can keep a minor mishap from turning into a major catastrophe. 

So far, most of the practices we've discussed deal with industrial equipment operator safety. And yet it's not always equipment operators who get injured. 

That's right. Some of the common injuries to pedestrians who work around industrial equipment include being struck by the forklift, hit by objects that are being loaded or unloaded, being crushed between a forklift and its load, or having one of their feet run over.

We train our forklift drivers that pedestrian safety is their responsibility. And we train them to do their part to minimize these injuries by being conscious of their blind spots and doing things like honking every time they approach a pedestrian, turn a corner or approach a new warehouse aisle; stopping their vehicles each time a person approaches them to have a conversation (and not driving away until the person is clear of a vehicle); and driving in reverse if a load is impairing visibility. 

But we also have to train our other warehouse workers to be responsible for their own safety when working around industrial equipment. Among other things, we teach them to look both ways when they're walking through the warehouse, avoid walking underneath a working forklift and to never get in the way of a forklift and its load.  In addition, we stress that they're never allowed to "hitch" a ride on a forklift. And we absolutely forbid any form of horseplay on or around a forklift. 

Your forklift safety training video specifically mentions that safety violations are punishable.

Individual employees and their managers have to be held accountable for their unsafe behavior each and every time it occurs, because if you don't address a safety violation as soon as it happens, you're essentially giving someone permission to repeat the behavior, and that's never a safe proposition. Safety has to be non-negotiable. 

Your company has dozens of distribution centers in North America alone. Do you conduct forklift safety training at all of these facilities yourself? 

I often train the trainers. Because we are geographically spread out, my objective is to always create in-warehouse safety expertise. That's a winning situation for all of us.

In order for safety in an organization to truly work, it can't be seen as just one person or one department's job. Everyone at a company — from the CEO to the newest person on the loading dock—must believe in its importance and be held accountable for supporting it. 

As we conclude this discussion, do you want to leave our readers with any parting thoughts? 

You must constantly be analyzing your company's workers compensation and other safety data, because it will reveal a lot about where your greatest areas of forklift-related risk are — and provide a clear view of where you next safety focus and energy need to be directed. In short, forklift safety is a never-ending job.