Seatbelt use: Must, should or ought to?

Wayne Chornohus -
Safety First
- 1 Sep 2016 ( #785 )
5 min read
Wayne Chornohus started repairing forklifts in Canada about 50 years ago and since then has held various managerial positions with independents and dealerships alike. Eventually, he started a unique operator training company, unique in technical depth and accuracy. A decade later, he formally retired and now teaches English in foreign climes and does some technical consulting.
Shakespeare once wrote: "I would challenge you to a battle of wits, but I see you are unarmed!" It seems to me the entire forklift industry is unarmed in regards to seatbelt use.

I have 50 years of forklift experience: first, as an operator; second, as a mechanic; thirdly, in management; and lastly, as an operator/instructor trainer. I have trained women and men, experienced and beginners, in just about every environment and industry imaginable. I've trained thousands of operators and many instructors all over the world. In all that time and in all those industries, not one person or organisation has articulated the correct use of a seatbelt on a forklift.

For this article, I will be discussing seatbelts on sit-down counterbalance trucks.

Let me be clear on my "opinion": seatbelts should be worn at all times except when their use compromises an operator's or others' physical safety. Most, if not all, forklift manufacturers insist seatbelts be worn at all times. Most, if not all, forklift regulatory bodies insist seatbelts be worn at all times. Most, if not all, forklift trainers insist seatbelts be worn at all times. If we assume that the three aforementioned groups really understand how to operate a forklift, but on the seatbelt issue, they are misguided. As far as manufacturers go, they will always use the verb "must" due to our inhibiting liability laws. Regulatory bodies also must concern themselves with possible lawsuits, although I know from personal experience that these well-meaning organisations simply have no idea of what a forklift actually is and the environment it works in. It is sad that quite possibly all trainers don't really understand the reality of forklift use and their limitations. I am sure every trainer does the best he or she can, but I have never met one who understands "must" versus "should" in this context. Not one.

There have been some well-meaning attempts to force an operator to fasten their seatbelt. The most laughable one is the seatbelt that must be fastened for the truck to move. Of course, any operator will quickly learn to sit on his fastened seatbelt. Another one that defies sense has some mechanism in the seat that will not allow the forklift to move unless the operator is sitting squarely in his seat, so every time he leans out to see, the forklift cuts out. Lateral passive restraints are pretty good protection if the operator is in good physical health, but are punishing for the operator with a bad back or older, less agile operators. One company in Australia has developed a seatbelt that addresses why an operator cannot operate safely with a standard seatbelt. It's not perfect, but pretty good.

Another problem an operator faces is the lack of knowledge by supervisory personnel who wear intellectual blinkers and will discipline an operator for not wearing a seatbelt even if the situation diminishes safety.

I often hear about the numbers of people killed on forklifts, but we will never completely stop the deaths - even if a seatbelt is worn. And think about this: we can increase deaths with improper use of a seatbelt.

Understanding our forklifts and with in-depth, appropriate training, we can make a real difference. In automobile accidents, about 115 people are killed every day and that's with mandatory seatbelts and airbags. With forklifts, we lose one operator about every three days. Yes, I know there are other factors to think about when comparing automobile accidents and forklift accidents, so ... why do we think we should always wear a seatbelt on a forklift simply because we should/must on a car. A forklift is not a car, not even close.

So when is it unsafe to wear a seatbelt?
1. Virtually all operators have times where they may be required to mount and dismount the forklift multiple times in a very short space of time. For example: if you have to adjust your forks, you may be on/off the vehicle several times a minute or you may have job-related tasks that require frequent dismounts with minimal travel. In these situations, it is beyond foolish to be fastening and unfastening your seatbelt. Why is it mechanics don't wear the seatbelt every time they are on the seat of a forklift?
2. If your forklift is carrying a load that obstructs your forward view, you should be driving in reverse where possible. Wearing a standard seatbelt makes it impossible to swivel in your seat enough to see where you are going. It is even more onerous for an overweight person or a person with a bad neck or back.
3. If you are going up a ramp, you should be driving forward with the load in front of you which will require you to lean way over to see where you are going. A standard seatbelt seriously restricts your ability to lean out.
4. If you are placing a load on a rack or on the floor, you must drive forward which severely limits your view. You simply cannot lean out enough for optimum vision with a standard seatbelt.
5. If you are loading a trailer, situation #4 applies.
6. If you are unloading a trailer, you must drive in reverse when exiting and swivel in your seat to see where you are going. Do not use mirrors. (another subject)

There are other situations where wearing a seatbelt can be onerous and if anybody has any other suggestions as to when wearing a seatbelt can compromise safety, I would be happy to hear about them.
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Blog articles provide perspectives and opinions and therefore may contain inaccurate or incomplete information. Forkliftaction Media accepts no responsibility for errors or omissions. If you feel that significant facts are overlooked, or have a different viewpoint on a topic addressed, we invite you to open a conversation in our Discussion Forums.

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