Safety First

Rob Vetter: Assume nothing

Tuesday, 17 September 2013 ( #634 )
Rob Vetter is technical director and managing partner with the Ives Training Group, in Blaine, WA, USA, a leader in North American mobile equipment training systems since 1981.
In the part of the world I am in (North America), there are several regulatory jurisdictions whose requirements include minimum medical fitness specifications for forklift operators. Typically, these requirements revolve around operator trainees being able to demonstrate minimum performance levels relative to eyesight, hearing and possessing the general physical abilities to meet the demands of the job.

Over my career as a trainer, I have qualified hundreds and hundreds of forklift operators. As I look back, I would estimate that about 90% of them had a significant amount of operational experience before I trained them. When I first started out, I felt slightly awkward about this as I was in my early 30s and some of the trainees I encountered had been operating longer than I had been alive. To compound my feelings of awkwardness, none of them was very happy about being sent for training in which they would have to show some punk that they could do something they had already been doing for many years. That being the case, I learned an important lesson very quickly: experience does not equal competence.

One of the golden rules of training is "practice makes perfect - if it is correct practice". Since most of the operators I engaged with did not have the benefit of formal training before they began operating, many of them had been practising the wrong things for many years and had become excellent at doing things incorrectly.

In addition, breaking old habits and replacing them with newer, safer ones after years and years of practice is extremely tough, even among operators who actually want to change. To bring this back around to the lesson of 'experience does not equal competence', never assume that because an operator has a significant amount of experience, he or/she knows what they need to know and, more importantly, is able to demonstrate it.

Although most veteran operators are able to demonstrate a reasonably high degree of efficiency relative to the selection and use of the controls that move the machine, they often fall short in demonstrating safe habits and procedures. In most cases, this is due to the fact that they probably received little, if any, initial training in the safe use of the machine, compounded by years of practising the wrong techniques.

In order to avoid a lot of trainee and trainer frustration, and to maximise the effectiveness of your operator training, try following these guidelines when working with experienced operator trainees:
* Respect them and their experience. Let them know that you are not there to tell them how to do their jobs. If they can learn something new, great. If not, then, at the very least, they will confirm what they already know.
* Focus on ensuring they understand the theory in the classroom. This is likely the area where they are lacking, as most never received initial, formal training. It is also the area where they are most likely to learn something which may validate the training process in their minds and possibly help things go a little more smoothly for you.
* Don't skip over anything in the classroom or in the field because of their experience. Cover everything and if you must assume anything, assume they know nothing. You may not have to go as deep into a given topic with an experienced driver as you would with a beginner, but you still have to cover it. For example, you will want both experienced and novice operators to raise the mast during a pre-use inspection but you (probably) won't have to tell the experienced person that they have to pull back on the lift control lever to do that.
* In the field, focus on their ability to demonstrate the right safety habits and operational techniques. Once again, this is where they are likely to be weak as a result of little or no initial training leading to years of poor practice.
* Be patient, approachable and above all - assume nothing!
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