Safety First

Rob Vetter: Knowledge and Skill: The Yin and Yang of Operator Training

Tuesday, 1 March 2011 ( #503 )
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.
I remember way back when I was introduced to a forklift as an operator. My training consisted of my boss telling me: "Here's the gas, here's the brake, up and down lever over here ... hurry up and don't hit anything". And off I went, apparently now an operator. I used two basic methods of learning that I came to rely on heavily - the watch and mimic and the ever-popular trial and error. In short, I learned two things: what not to do and how to not get it done ... fast! Today, things are very different, as employers are held to more stringent regulations and are typically subject to more swift and severe consequences where training, or more specifically the lack of it, is a factor in injury and/or damage-producing incidents. One annoying remnant from the dark ages is the perception of how much training is necessary, particularly classroom, or what I call\ theory training. Now, I'll be the first to admit that the most important thing that forklift operators must demonstrate on a consistent basis is the ability to operate the equipment safely and competently. But there are some who would argue that this is all they must do. In short, an operator's knowledge of the equipment does not seem to be perceived as having the same importance as their skill. I couldn't disagree more and here's why. In my humble opinion, knowledge is not merely the ability to memorise and regurgitate information as needed. Knowledge is commensurate with understanding, which means that an operator must not only know what to do and how to do it, but why. An operator with a complete understanding of the workings of a forklift is far and away a better operator than one who does not for two big reasons: 1) Since they understand the rationale behind safety rules and procedures, they are more likely to comply with and follow them. 2) Their level of understanding gives them the ability to think on their feet and make educated decisions on the fly, even on issues that may not have been covered during training. There are some who prefer to support training with a rationale like "because I/the boss/the regulations say so", but logic like that is just a veiled threat. Although fear can be a motivator, we do not want to promote safety by scaring operators away from poor behaviour rather than motivating them toward proper behaviour. It has been my experience that heavy-handed tactics only work while the one with the heavy hand is present; the instant they're not, things tend to return to "normal." Getting back to forklifts, let's look at just a few items that are (or should be) involved in any operator training program and why they should be understood and not just memorised by operator trainees. * Forklifts are heavy and when they get moving, a tremendous amount of energy builds up that can have a negative effect on its ability to change speed and/or direction. * Forklifts have stability issues due to the fact(s) that: * They are built on a relatively narrow triangular or trapezoidal support frame ratherthan the typically wider, rectangular frame of a car. * They have a high centre of gravity (CG), meaning that most of a forklift's weight is situated higher up than it is on a car, and that makes them easier to tip over than a car.. * They can elevate. If you think stability was poor before because of the high CG, imagine what happens when you raise the mast/load up another 15 or 20 feet as well. * They steer from the rear. The only similarity between a forklift's steering and a car's is that the front end of both moves in the same direction that the steering wheel is turned. For reasons such as those discussed above, a forklift operator must always be aware of the travel speed of the unit, particularly in the corners. Although it is very easy for a trainer to tell operators to keep their speed down for no other reason than it is dangerous to do otherwise, it makes a world of difference in the understanding and behaviour of the operator if the reasons behind the action are also offered. A good trainer is capable of conveying safety concepts as well as procedures and ,in so doing, ensures that information is digested and understood. This maximises the probability that understanding of these concepts is demonstrated in the operator's actions, because at some point, theory has to become practice.