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Forklift Certification & Enforcement: Take It Seriously

By: Brian Colburn, Contributor

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If you look at things worth achieving in life, most require work, patience, time and some level of competency. I once watched a show about U.S. Navy Seal training; it stated that about 75% of the trainees would not successfully complete the training due to its demanding requirements. Other programs, such as obtaining an airline pilot’s license or a commercial driver’s license, also require substantial work and knowledge, and not everyone can meet the requirements to obtain them.

Even with updates to forklift training requirements here in the U.S., I still question whether everyone who is charged with training forklift operators really takes the job as seriously as they should. Periodically, we audit other training programs and see people with little to no forklift experience successfully completing programs and being turned loose to operate a forklift with zero supervision. Many times, the driving test amounts to moving some empty pallets around in a parking lot. Many written tests we review consist of 15 or less questions which an average 10-year-old could pass. Would we turn our children loose in an automobile with no practice, or allow someone to fly a plane by simply spending some time in a simulator? We all know how dangerous those things would be.

Companies should put together tougher pass/fail criteria that weed out weak and inexperienced operators for more training prior to certification. When our company conducts final, hands-on evaluations, we expect the trainees to be able to handle real-life loads and to be able to stack as high and tight as they would in their regular jobs. We always tell our trainers that when in doubt we would rather have someone held back that might be ready vs. certifying someone that might not be ready. Third-party trainers, such as safety consultants and forklift dealers, also have additional pressures. Many end-users expect that paying for a person to be trained ensures they will pass the course. We tell customers up front that some operators may not pass and or will need additional supervised practice before certification. 

Enforcing Compliance 

If you have a great training program, with excellent materials and instructors, is that enough? There is another ingredient to safe forklift operations that is equally important, which is enforcement. A famous verse from the Bible states, “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him,” Proverbs 13:24. You might ask, “What in the world does that have to do with forklift safety?” and my response would be “everything.” There are many potential factors in forklift accidents, and I have seen most of them during my time in the industry. 

When I first started training, I felt that if a company saw one of its forklift operators violating forklift safety policies, someone should stop them and discuss why to work safely. The conversation might have gone like this, “Hey John, I noticed you are not wearing your seatbelt. We would appreciate it if you wore the belt to protect yourself and your family; it is very important. Have a good day.” 

While there is nothing wrong with that approach, the years have hardened me a bit, as have working with people and families torn apart by forklift accidents. 

These may sound callous, but consider the following:

  • We are dealing with adults, not children. When you tell a child something they might not understand the consequences of non-compliance, or they may choose not to follow them. Adults, on the other hand, do typically understand what they are being told. If training is done correctly, they will fully understand the potential consequences of non-compliance. Not following the rules should not be an option for your employees. If they expect to collect their paycheck, they should expect to “toe the line” from a safety standpoint. 
  • There is no need to “dance around” the issue of confronting people for violating safety policies. As supervisors and trainers, that is our job. Like it or not, confronting safety violations and fixing problems is part of the job, maybe not a pleasant part, but one of the most important parts. When parents don’t address problems with their kids, we know what can happen. They can end up on drugs, in trouble with the law or with no respect for authority. When companies do the same, we also know what happens, things like non-compliance, accidents, injuries, unsafe situations and no accountability.
  • Although we should not be disrespectful or rude when dealing with anyone, we need to cut to the chase and be sure people are getting our message. A few paragraphs ago, I talked about how I thought a conversation should go, now let me define how I would do it today on a first offense, “Hey John, I see you are not wearing your seatbelt. You know we covered this in training and that it is a rule at our company to wear it. I need to have you put it on now and we expect you to wear it each and every time you are operating the forklift. It is the number one killer of operators, and we don’t want something to happen to you or to your family. I will write you up a warning this time and put it in your file, but if it happens again, it will involve time off from work. Are we clear on what needs to happen from here on out?”

One customer of ours repeatedly warned operators for a set period of time about seatbelt use. They had experienced a fatal accident at a sister plant during a forklift tip-over and made seatbelt use a cardinal safety rule. Violation of this rule would result in immediate termination of employment for offenders. Not long after the warning period ended, a 20-year veteran was caught violating the policy and was let go. This company runs 24/7 operations with large numbers of forklifts, and I have not seen seatbelt non-compliance again for many years. No matter how hard the lesson was, the message got across and their facility is much safer as a result. 

In summary, put some “teeth and muscle” behind your enforcement of forklift safety issues. Set the rules and then enforce them with a vengeance. You are protecting workers and their families by doing so. WMHS

Written by Brian Colburn of Forklift Training Systems, a leader in forklift safety training and products (www.forklifttrainingsystems.com).

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