Nick Welch is Senior Technical Development Executive for RTITB, the largest forklift training accrediting body in the UK and Ireland, recognised by the HSE, HSA and HSENI.
It's easy to forget that operating materials handling equipment in today's fast-paced work environment requires an all-round approach to safety both on the part of the operator and the operator's managers and supervisors: it's not just about driving carefully, it's about segregation of vehicles and pedestrians; it's about load safety both on the vehicle and on the racking; it's about good all-round environmental awareness and guarding against the unexpected, not to mention how the machinery is maintained and checked.
Training is a great place to start - for both managers and operators - but the problem with human nature is that even though we start off with the best intentions, and although we put processes in place and comply with best practice, routine inevitably sets in. With routine comes confidence, both for management and operators. Confidence, in turn, often leads to complacency. And that's when things can start to go wrong.
Complacency has been described as self-satisfaction accompanied by unawareness of actual danger or deficiencies
. Roughly translated: patting ourselves on the back while being ignorant of danger and our own shortcomings.
This state exists in most workplaces in some form or another and can have devastating consequences. When, for example, was the last time you saw forklift operators turning their vehicle with a load raised high on the forks? Or how often do you see hydraulic controls being operated while a truck is in motion? We probably see these things quite often, but how often do we challenge the behaviour? The problem in many workplaces is that until these breaks from safe practice result in an accident, the behaviour goes unnoticed or unchallenged.
Take pre-use inspection as another example of a procedure that might get skipped. Statistically speaking, mechanical-related incidents are known to be responsible for around 23% of dangerous occurrences and contribute to a relatively low number of fatal incidents - only 2%. So if, statistically, actual fatal incidents are relatively low, why worry? Is it possible that there's an element of complacency or blind trust in the equipment? Do some operators get sucked into thinking that if a truck is regularly inspected and serviced, then daily inspection is something that can be skipped? Couple this with the modern workplace's extreme time pressures and deadlines and it's not difficult to see how some operators may feel it's OK to just jump on and get working at the beginning of their shift and simply trust that the business is maintaining the vehicle in tip-top working condition, blissfully unaware of the slack in the steering or the slightly unresponsive braking until it's too late. In this scenario, working practices and a whole lot of assumptions combine to create the perfect conditions for an incident.
Operators who undergo accredited Basic training will learn about the importance of vehicle inspection and maintenance and the operator safety code, as well as safe and correct operation of the machinery. But, over time, things get forgotten, bad habits form and general attitudes are inevitably shaped by everyday pressures and experience. So how do we ensure that bad habits are eliminated and important things that get forgotten are remembered? What happens beyond
Basic, Specific Job and Familiarisation training?
The Health and Safety Executive's Approved Code of Practice for rider-operated lift truck training, L117
states that an effective system of management and supervision of workplace transport operations should be put in place to ensure safe working practices as well as regular Refresher training for all operators.
A suitable process for supervising and managing operators will help ensure that standards of operation are kept at the right level. But this is only effective if those charged with the responsibility are knowledgeable enough and prepared to challenge poor practice, taking further action when necessary. This may mean removing an operator's authorisation until corrective training and assessment have taken place. Supervisors need not be qualified operators themselves, but they must have an understanding of the risks involved in operation and how they can be avoided.
Working alongside supervision, a program of Refresher training should also be put in place to ensure that operators are regularly retrained and assessed to sharpen their skills and bring their knowledge up to date. An effective program will ensure that, if necessary, operators are retrained before their regular refresher cycle if it is deemed necessary through monitoring and supervision.
The warehouse and logistics world used to experience seasonal peaks, but today, with demand for goods growing all the time, the industry is in a state of almost constant peak. Under such circumstances, it's easy to get caught up in meeting deadlines and customer expectations, but at what cost? In the rush to be the fastest or the greatest, are we losing sight of the dangers involved or our own deficiencies?