Special report by Bernard Levy, Forkliftaction.com.
For decades, workplace safety regulators and industry bodies around the world have been initiating improvements in their own regional and national jurisdictions. Now, they're expanding their horizons and spreading the message through closer international alliances
Forklift safety standards, like those in most other industry sectors, are gradually becoming more universal and homogenous, in an increasingly borderless world created by the forces of economic and political globalization.
Throughout the developed world, the push is on to develop uniform safety standards that can be applied irrespective of geographical location -- hemisphere, continent, region or country.
The ultimate goals are to stimulate business growth by lowering prices through greater competition, and to reduce the levels of death and injury caused by forklift accidents.
The prime movers in this process are the European standards and safety agencies, with the cooperation of industry associations and their equivalents in the other major industrialized nations of North America and Asia.
Amid signs of a recovering European economy in the form of rising forklift sales and strong demand for forklift drivers to service fleet managers and distribution networks, workplace safety, as it relates to both company profitability and the welfare of employees, remains a high-priority issue.
VDMA world view
One of the most powerful groups behind the push for globalized forklift safety standards is the VDMA (Verband Deutscher Maschinen-und Anlagenbau), which believes universal standards lead to lower prices for machines and parts, benefiting the industry specifically, and the economy as a whole.
Part of the Federation of Germany Industry (BDI) and the Federation of European Materials Handling (FEM), the VDMA represents 2,900 engineering companies in Germany, with 36 separate divisions, including material handling and logistics.
"Our focus in the past couple of years has been to transport the European safety regulations as laid down in the EU standards to the rest of the world," industrial trucks technical manager of the VDMA's material handling and technology division, Konrad Kasper, said.
"This means applying the respective International Standards Organization [ISO] benchmarks to all kinds of trucks, including forklift trucks, in safety areas such as stability, visibility, noise limits, vibration, electromagnetic compatibility and others."
Kasper said the VDMA's approach to safety standards was largely driven by the big industrial truck manufacturers and suppliers, supported by working groups in Japan, Australia, the U.S., Canada, Sweden, the UK, France and others.
"The big manufacturers need globalized standards and documents to enable them to sell their products at more competitive prices," he said. "Logically, everything that is done on a standardized basis affects the price of a product and our aim is to ensure that we set a standard at a 'sufficient level' from the safety point of view.
"The 'sufficient level' can be described as a compromise between the ideal situation in a perfect world, the legislation and the commercial realities facing the manufacturer."
Kasper said the VDMA's goal was to finalize global safety standards for industrial trucks and forklifts by the end of 2005 or early 2006. Any new international safety standards for industrial trucks would be subject to revision every five years.
Across the Atlantic, Dirk von Holt, U.S. Industrial Truck Association (ITA) president and head of Jungheinrich Lift Truck Corp,, said the ITA was actively involved in promoting the worldwide development of improved forklift safety standards.
"The ITA has strong alliances with the European industry associations and regulators and with the Japan Industrial Vehicle Association [JIVA] and we work closely with these groups on forklift safety issues," he said.
"We have also, for example, developed white papers and discussion topics with organizations such as the Propane Education & Research Council and the Propane Vehicle Council, which have helped stimulate debate on forklift safety issues."
Von Holt said the ITA was determined to become the leading standards development organization in the U.S. forklift industry, feeding into American National Standards Institute (ANSI) processes.
"It's up to our industry to make forklift trucks safer and we are stepping right up to the plate to take this on. But before you can start sharing, you need to get together and talk," he said.
"So, for the first time, we have invited our Chinese equivalent to the ITA annual meeting in Florida in October this year.
"Growth in Chinese forklift production has been in double digits for the past four years, about 11 percent to 12 percent like the U.S., meaning it is producing around 80,000 trucks per year, compared to the U.S. with 160,000.
Von Holt said the ITA's long-standing alliance with the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) was continuing to produce results in the development of forklift safety tools.
New safety CD
The ITA was also developing with OSHA a new CD-ROM that would cover significant forklift safety issues at the end-user level.
"The CD will be free to our 26 core members and our associate members, who will be encouraged to use it through their distributors and customers," he said.
The CD should be ready for release by the October meeting in Florida, where OSHA secretary John Henshaw has been invited to speak.
Henshaw's speech will be widely regarded as a demonstration of solidarity with the ITA in the drive for improved industrial truck and forklift safety standards.
In the UK, the British Industrial Truck Association (BITA) and the Fork Lift Truck Association (FLTA) have formed an alliance to develop new national forklift safety initiatives.
In recent years, much of the BITA's forklift safety policy has been based on an exhaustive report, entitled "Safety of Industrial Lift Trucks: A Survey of Investigated Accidents & Incidents, April 1997 to March 2001."
The report was written by the UK Health & Safety Executive's head of engineering plant group, Gil Male, a specialist in forklift safety who also advises on European and international safety standards.
Male's research revealed a disturbingly high incidence of death and injury caused by forklift accidents in the UK -- a situation made worse by the transient nature of the forklift driver workforce, many of them illegal immigrants or refugees without clear national identity or status.
"There's always been a problem in the UK with small companies not checking properly whether a forklift driver has the correct license and just letting them get behind the wheel of a machine they're not really qualified to operate," FLTA chief executive David Ellison said.
"We now accept that a standard forklift safety plan is not enough and no one should be let loose in a new environment, or operate new equipment, without the appropriate additional training."
"Our joint forklift truck certification initiative, which involves relatively inexpensive tests carried out by our newly formed company, Consolidated Fork Truck Services [CFTS], attempts to address the problem," Ellison said.
"The initiative is particularly effective where a company has been using a forklift but has not considered it a major part of its overall business operation, and hence has not given the safe operation of the forklift the sort of priority it requires.
"There's still a lot of ignorance among small-to-medium enterprises [SMEs] about what the forklift safety requirements are," Ellison said.
Director of the European Agency for Safety & Health at Work, Hans-Horst Konkolewsky, told Forkliftaction.com News that the way ahead for health and safety in the workplace involved integrating the issue into education and vocational training systems at the earliest possible stage -- starting at grammar or high school and continuing as 'lifelong learning.'
"This way, we can ensure that when young people start working, they are better prepared to meet the health risks of the workplace," he said. "Keep in mind that among young people, there is a 40 percent higher accident rate than among more mature workers."
Konkolewsky said a significant contributing factor in forklift death and injury in the EU was that many smaller companies simply did not have sufficient financial or human resources to manage or maintain workplace health and safety standards effectively.
"The EU Parliament has responded by providing funding to SMEs through programs with a total annual budget of about EUR4 million (USD4.8 million)," he said.
On average, about 500,000 SMEs per year received funding through 40-50 programs designed to distribute grants to companies that had demonstrated a commitment to developing improved health and safety practices.
Speak to any forklift industry leader and he will confirm that the rewards of well-drafted and applied safety standards are many -- not just humanitarian, in terms of fewer deaths and injuries, but also commercial, in terms of maintaining worker productivity, minimizing stock and product damage and reducing costly medical and legal expenses.
But among smaller operators, many of them with shallow pockets and a rapid turnover in daily labor and earnings, the money to support altruistic notions of health and safety in the workplace simply does not exist -- particularly in developing or Third World countries.
Even in the industrialized nations, resistance to improved workplace health and safety standards still exists among many smaller or less progressively minded companies -- a lingering attitude that “anyone can drive a forklift;” that quality training for forklift operators is a waste of time and money.
But given the powerful forces for change now in motion worldwide, improvements in the safe operation of forklifts is inevitable at all levels of industry -- anywhere, everywhere.
It's simply a question of time.
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