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Believe It or Not

By Brian Colburn, Contributor

Not long ago, I heard an amazing story. A small air transport company was found to be training their pilots in some very unconventional ways. This particular company was in a vicious competition with their competitors to stay afloat, and every dollar was counted carefully. They were also under tremendous pressure to satisfy very demanding schedules, with insufficient people and resources. The director of training for the company, under constant pressure from top management and in fear for his job, finally gave in and compromised on his long-held safety beliefs about thorough training.

The traditional route of training their pilots had always been formal, time-consuming and costly. The training involved many months of classroom and hands-on work to obtain pilots who were both competent and qualified to fly in their demanding application.

The new training program consisted of a brief “how-to-fly” video watched online; observing other pilots fly from the jump-seat; a short orientation to the flight controls; and then a single takeoff and landing as the final gauge of competency. As long as each trainee completed this sequence without an accident, they were given their wings and a permanent spot as a “junior level pilot,” at well below normal industry wages.

At first, the airline started to show some impressive profits, due to the fact they were turning out pilots faster and cheaper than ever before—and, as a result, their competitors were sitting up and taking notice. Unbelievably, this practice went undiscovered for a period of time, until finally a serious accident occurred in which a new pilot crashed—killing himself, his flight crew, all passengers and even several people on the ground. This terrible accident brought their questionable training and safety practices into the light of day, and the public outrage was intense.

Look in the Mirror

Forklift training should be both site- and equipment-specific; those who don’t take the time to customize their programs do so to their own peril. (photo courtesy Adobe Stock)

Take a minute and think about the above story. What if that were your family flying on the plane or killed on the ground? How angry would you be, if it was your family member? Why were they sacrificed: to save the company a bit of time and make some extra money? I think we all know that would be totally unacceptable. Now, it’s time to look in the mirror, which can be a hard thing to do.

Substitute a warehouse or manufacturing plant for the air transport company; a forklift operator for the airline pilot; and a forklift for the plane. With unemployment at an all-time low, forklift operators are hard to come by. Creating your own “from scratch” is a costly and time-consuming proposition, if it is done right. Google “forklift training,” and the top ads you will likely see are “get your forklift training in one hour.” If you think that’s a good idea, I have some ocean front property here in Ohio I’d like to sell you.

Is your company honestly spending the time needed to ensure forklift operators have the knowledge and hands-on competency to do the jobs they will be required to do; at the pace they will need to perform them? OSHA does not require a certain number of hours on the knowledge part. However, I can tell you, from nearly 25 years in the forklift safety business, that if you’re not doing three to four hours of classroom, you are likely shorting the process. In fact, some applications, with several different forklift types, might need five-six hours.

Are you letting the internet train your operators or just showing them a generic video or presentation? If so, you are shorting the process; training should be both site- and equipment-specific; those who don’t take the time to customize their programs do so to their own peril.

Practice, Practice, Practice

How much directly supervised, safe-area practice time do you provide new operators before turning them loose on their own? Would you provide your 16-year old son or daughter the same amount of practice and turn them loose on the highway?

Building skills takes time. If practice time is short cut, then the operator and everyone around them is put at risk. Companies would never put a person on an expensive piece of production equipment with little to no instruction. Why? Because it could be very costly to the company; they could damage the machine or run a lot of bad product.

The same thing is true with a forklift, but companies do it all the time. How about your final hands on evaluation of forklift operators: Is it challenging? Is it related to what they do in the real job? Do they have to keep a certain pace? Is it done pass/fail, or does everyone always pass? If you have never had to send an operator back for more practice or deny one of them the right to use a forklift, and you have a decent sized facility, then something is very wrong. Not everyone is cut out to be a doctor, a lawyer or an airline pilot—and not everyone will be qualified to run a forklift.

No, the airline story is not true, but hopefully it helped open your eyes to how some companies in the industry do the same exact thing with regard to forklift training, as scary as that might be.

Brian Colburn is with Forklift Training Systems, a leader in forklift safety training and products. (

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