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For employees who work on or around forklifts as part of their daily jobs, hazards can be found virtually everywhere.  A large chunk of standard forklift operator safety training is dedicated to spotting and mitigating common hazards, such as avoiding unsafe travel speeds and properly securing loads.  When an accident occurs, safety officers point to these same hazards as the cause of the accident, but are they truly the fundamental root cause?  What if underlying habits and beliefs regarding forklift safety play a compelling role in how operators approach their work with forklifts to begin with, setting up conditions that might make unsafe behaviors more common than we may expect?  In many ways, the actual cause of accidents can be squarely found in underlying business and employee practices, and in this article, we’ll shine a light on several of these hidden hazards of forklift operations. 

Everything Starts with Awareness

In 2020, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) violations involving Powered Industrial Trucks (including forklifts) registered as the seventh-most common infraction for the year.  With such a high volume of violations, forklift safety is clearly a highly visible target that federal regulators have in their sights.  Are all of these citations written against willful safety violators?  We’d wager most likely not – it’s more probable that a large portion of these violators were not aware of, or not in the practice of, the full extent of safety regulations at play.  A fair number of violations involved no accidents or injuries at all, instead citing insufficient qualification or poor behavior observed by an inspector during a routine or surprise audit.      

This brings us to our first hidden hazard in forklift operations: lift truck operators, and all employees performing duties exposed to forklift traffic, have to be knowledgeable enough in forklift safety that they can actively identify and react to safety risks in real-time.  If employees are not given ample information, and if these topics are not reinforced continuously over time between formal training sessions, they will forget, and they will eventually make a mistake stemming from this blind spot in knowledge.  You may have some employees walking around now facing hazards that they’re not even aware of, because those hazards do not explicitly fall within training that they do receive, but that they certainly deserve to know about.  

OSHA has a tremendous amount of helpful data intended to keep forklift operators, adjacent staff, and business managers abreast of industrial fork truck safety topics.

Gambling on Compliance 

Let’s talk economics for a moment.  In one cost container, we have the costs associated with training and incentivizing safe employee behavior while operating forklifts.  In another cost container, we have the potential costs associated with an accident or lost-time scenario stemming from such unsafe behavior.  Business managers effectively must weight these two cost containers against each other, and decide for themselves how much to invest into the training container in an effort to stave off the risk container.  Different groups have different risk appetites, and so each settles this equation for themselves in unique ways.  Further, the reality of current OSHA staffing levels may result in a facility not receiving an inspection in many years, as OSHA does not have the resources for proactive audits.  These days, OSHA usually only comes knocking after a complaint or accident occurs.  As economic models go, business managers may be inclined to gamble on these conditions, reducing training efforts (costs) in an effort to find a cost floor, based on the presumption that their lucky track record is the result of overspending.  This gamble therefore becomes a hidden hazard, in short, firstly in arbitrarily influencing training expenses downward, and secondly in the knock-down effects this has in other business areas. 

For examples of this, we might turn to OSHA violations that only partially involve a forklift itself.  Looking at common 2020 Powered Industrial Truck violations written by OSHA, ‘unsafe operation’ leads the pack as the most frequently written citation.  Poorly maintained painted traffic lanes, insufficient facility lighting, and failing dock levelers may all fall under unsafe operations.  The reason behind such poor maintenance upkeep might be found in our safety gamble hazard – budgets might not extend into these facility maintenance areas because these issues had not proven problematic in the past, though they still create unsafe conditions and can present imminent accidents nonetheless.  To reverse our thinking on this topic, we might look at another rule of economics for a solution:  the future value of money is always more expensive than today’s value of money, which in analogy to forklift safety, translates to the fact that we would need to actually ‘increase’ our efforts and expenditures here today to maintain our safety threshold into tomorrow.

We’d also be mindful to consider that OSHA is a federal government department; they will eventually make it to your facility in response to an accident that occurs due to unsafe conditions, and they will immediately impose very expensive fines without a second thought.  Especially when viewed in the long run, the economics of this gamble clearly do not pay out.  

Misapplying Training

Where safety is concerned, not all industrial vehicles are created equal.  A very common hidden hazard seen on construction jobsites, in material handling warehouses, and with part-time lift operators such as handymen or facility maintenance staff, is that of misapplying training between dissimilar types of lifts.  For example, a certified forklift operator is clearly ‘not’ certified in scissor lift safety unless they have also gone through separate and specific training for scissor lifts. Grade-all reach lifts are another common subject – these are all-terrain, off-road lifts that share very little in common with warehouse forklifts, and certification for one does not apply to the other here either.  Aerial platform safety, boom lift safety, forklift safety, and so on, are all different and distinct training programs.  You might be able to justify certification overlap between similar lifts from different manufacturers, where the lifts are clearly similar in size, function, and performance.  However, stretching certification to obviously dissimilar pieces of equipment is only inviting trouble. 

Beyond the certification and compliance aspects, dissimilar lifts operate very differently, and all operators should be clearly aware that they are creating hazardous situations jumping from one lift format into another without proper training.  Business managers must understand this as well, as operating a lift that an employee is not specifically certified in is a safety violation, and no certification type in one type of lift can stand to credit that the employee is prepared for all of the risks associated with operating a different type of forklift.     

Allowing Underage Operators

For lack of a better phrase, you might know this hidden hazard as the ‘just jump on’ situation.  In all of the commercial environments that a forklift might be found, only a portion of those sites have dedicated forklift operators. Construction sites, small retail stores, restaurants, and agricultural centers tend to have forklifts available for their use but perhaps no formal operational program governing any and all employees expected to ‘just jump on’ a lift when needed.  In such cases, we find a forklift being operated by and around individuals who are not properly oriented to the risks they are undertaking.  While this can apply to any age and background of employee, we’d like to specifically speak about underage operators as they are especially vulnerable.

It is federally illegal for a person under the age of 18 to operate a forklift except in a few scenarios outlined in OSHA standards.  Further, the US Department of Labor firmly prohibits “minors under the age of 18 years old to work in any occupation that it deems to be hazardous” per the Fair Labor Standards Act, and specifically outlines its justification by reviewing forklift accidents involving minors in this Information Bulletin.  This is of particular interest to OSHA and safety officials, as there is a direct correlation between a general acceptable of allowing minors to ‘just jump on’ when a lift needs to be operated, and increasingly common accidents and deaths involving minors on forklifts.  Employers must assure that no underage employees, friends or children of employees, volunteer help, or other groups of unqualified individuals are told to ‘just jump on’ a lift, no matter how this might have been a common practice in generations past. 

“How we’ve always done it”

When it comes to personal safety in commercial and industrial environments, our comfort zones might be one of our worst enemies.  Forklift safety is rooted in a set of best practices that apply to all lifts – for example, driving slowly, keeping the forks down, wearing a seatbelt or tether.  Beyond these foundational tenants, the rest of the safety landscape constantly evolves over time as regulators expand their requirements, fork truck capabilities increase, customer load requirements change, and the speed of our businesses all grow to meet exploding demand.  When operating or working near a powered industrial truck, we have to keep our knowledge base current, and remain observant and ready to react at all times.  In other words, falling into old habits, comfort zones, or ‘how things have always been done’, are all a hidden hazard of forklift operation.   

‘How we’ve always done it’ is a phrase that you might hear immediately after a forklift accident.  The operator is admitting to having fallen into their personal comfort zone, and they are trying to shift blame for taking risky action onto the company culture and habits.  Perhaps the operator was originally trained to drive over a curb with the forks elevated so as not to bump the load, but when the company changed to a different lift, the elevated load reacted differently, jumping off the forks and injuring a nearby pedestrian.  In another example, perhaps maintenance always drilled a hole in every new forklift’s left fork in order to use as a chain attachment, which had never led to a fork failure until they received a lift with a unique fork material that fractured under load after the chain hole was drilled.  Habits can be hard to break, and it takes everyone involved in lift truck safety to be aware of and actively question potentially hazardous habits.  

Poor Documentation

Documentation – or the lack thereof – makes up another hidden forklift hazard worth recognizing.  We can break down forklift documentation into three categories: maintenance records, safety training records, and violation records. 

Maintenance records describe how often each lift is serviced, and satisfies any challenge by OSHA or other regulators should there be suspicion that a lift has not been properly maintained.  Should an accident occur and a citation hinge on management’s ability to prove that sufficient maintenance was performed, proper records are the only defense you might have against receiving the citation. 

Safety training records serve a similar purpose, this time around assuring that operators have been properly familiarized and instructed on how to operate a lift in a safe and mindful manner.  Here again, should an accident occur and suspicion be cast upon the operator’s understanding of safe fork truck operation, pulling out a recent certification record (and the corresponding passed final exam) can help defend against the citation. 

Lastly, internal violation and written warning documentation may deliver a strong message to OSHA inspectors and your wider employee pool about where your managerial priorities lie when it comes to forklift safety.  We’ll speak more about insufficient enforcement in the next section, but for now, consider the following famous management phrase: “Employees only respect what management inspects, not what management expects”.  If your company is not inspecting for safety on a daily basis, and has no documentation to show that a single warning, re-training, behavior discussion, or termination related to forklift safety has ever occurred, then inspectors will reasonably conclude that your company doesn’t care that much about safety.  A manager caught in this scenario may hope to convince others that absolutely no safety issues ever occur whatsoever, but the reality is more likely to be that while management may speak at length about safety, if they do not measure and document it, then such lofty claims are simply lip service.   

Lack of Enforcement 

Perhaps the greatest hidden hazard on this list is our last one:  working in an environment that does not enforce, remind, or practice fork truck safety as a matter of daily business.  Too often, a company will provide OSHA-required certification for its fork truck operators, but afterwards makes no effort to monitor employees for retention and compliance.  Operators leave a training session with a clear mental image of prioritizing safety above all else, but over enough time where management doesn’t enforce safe activities, operators will de-prioritize safety over those things that management does measure and enforce.  Often times, management will send the message that job speed, fast picks, high truck turn-around times, and oversized load transfers are more important than safety, simply by talking about these performance criteria while not talking about safety. 

Enforcement does not need to be an expansive or complicated process.  It can start simply, perhaps with one manager taking thirty minutes a week to walk the warehouse, offering observations on forklift hazards and safe work to whoever they bump into.  Enforcement can also be expanded to ‘huddle conversations’, where an operator is pulled aside for a quick, five-minute chat about how to respond to a figurative unsafe situation, testing (and documenting!) their safety awareness on the spot.  Larger forklift refresher sessions can be held once a quarter, as can general staff awareness sessions to show folks who might incidentally encounter forklift traffic how to be safe.  No matter how you strive to tackle the hidden hazards we’ve discussed above, the first step is to assess your operation for where it might need the most attention, and then decide to move quickly in that direction.  If you’d like help performing this risk analysis, developing a plan of attack, and implementing a safety empowerment plan for your team, Fairchild Equipment would be happy to support you with information, consulting, and solutions tailored to your business.

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