Don't Tamper with the Seat Belt Regs

Trainers, both in-house and independent, are telling OSHA: “Don’t mess with the lift truck seat belt regulation. We have enough trouble as it is.” (Richard E. Fairfax, OSHA’s head of the enforcement programs, has proposed modifying the seat belt portion of Compliance Directive CPL. 2-1.28A. See Compliance, November and December 2002.)

Fairfax’s proposal says that an OSHA enforcement officer doesn’t have to cite your company for not requiring seat belts on lift trucks if certain conditions apply, and these get kind of complicated. One of the trainers wondered about the unfortunate OSHA enforcement officer who had to argue with a plant manager about, say, whether a truck is overloaded or used for “a variety of unexpected or unplanned tasks.” Previously the officer merely had to point out that the plant manager’s lift trucks came equipped with seat belts and the operator’s manual said to use them. End of conversation.

The Fairfax proposal focuses on tipover, and how remote is the possibility. However, trainers note that impact — the lift truck hits something — is a factor, and a seat belt can protect against serious injury.

In fact, just by questioning the seat belt part of the standard, Fairfax has weakened the whole thing. Making training stick has always been a tough chore; trainers would rather not split hairs about whether seat belts might be required.

Seat belts themselves are a nuisance to operators, say the trainers, although most favor the kind that automatically ratchet down. However, being in shape is a consideration: a fat operator is going to have trouble turning around in the seat.

Seat belts aren’t the only thing that an operator’s manual sometimes mandates, a trainer reminded me. Sometimes an operator is supposed to inspect the truck before he or she uses it. “Operators don’t realize that the inspection sheet is a protection against somebody saying that the truck was defective when they got on,” was the way one trainer put it.

Trainers agree that supervisors have a live-and-let-live attitude toward lift truck operation. Too often a supervisor came up from the operator ranks, and is reluctant to enforce the rules — especially the need for seat belts. One trainer said that he’ll teach about using seat belts, then come back to the company a couple of weeks later and find that nobody’s using them.

Fairfax and OSHA are being pushed by automotive, say the trainers. Depending on who’s talking, you can hear different versions of automotive:

• The automobile companies looking for more output from lift truck operators;

• The automotive union members don’t like to be encumbered by seat belts. And since auto companies are big and have safety departments, their accident rate is OK, so they don’t see the need for seat belts.

On the same subject, a reader questioned my statement (in the December issue) that “seat belts prevent tipovers.” It’s more likely, he said, that seat belts were designed to protect the operator in case of accidents like tipover.

Gotcha! I had to admit to using the wrong phrase. But that wasn’t all. The reader, being Canadian, wondered if lift truck users in the U.S. really believe that seat belts do protect against tipover.

Good question. Thinking about the Fairfax initiative, the answer has to be a weak maybe.

Lift truck users and trainers are sweating out OSHA’s final decision on the use of seat belts because it affects the way they teach. But Richard Fairfax doesn’t seem to be in any hurry. Maybe he realizes the dilemma: on one hand, buck the pressure from the automotive industry; on the other hand, undercut a safety standard that needs all the help it can get.

Bernie Knill, contributing editor, [email protected]

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