Safety can be compared to almost any other intangible commodity -- there may be plenty of it available, but the effectiveness of the solution often depends on how much time and money companies are prepared to spend.
The safe operation of forklifts remains among the most pressing issues to be addressed in the material handing industry and is poised to enter a new and dynamic era of regulation and enforcement worldwide.
All players in the forklift sector, from the manufacturers and suppliers to the dealers, buyers, users, operators and private- and public-sector regulators, are involved in what could be described as a "new wave" in forklift safety promotion, monitoring and regulation.
After a decade of change, during which much-needed basic reforms were introduced, the key players say it's time for the entire issue to be taken another step forward -- to be given new momentum and immediacy in much the same way as smart companies reinvent their image and products periodically to stay competitive.
On both sides of the Atlantic and throughout the rest of the world, there's a renewed urgency to develop and adopt even more effective safety standards.
Against a backdrop of falling pallets crushing people in warehouse aisles and forklift drivers and pedestrians being killed or seriously injured in crashes, tipovers, falls and a myriad of other accidents, the imperative for improvement is strong.
President of Forklift Training System Inc in Newark, Ohio, David Hoover believes the best way forward is to bring the big companies together to share their experiences of safety best practice.
"This can be difficult to achieve because these companies are in such fierce competition," he said.
However, the forklift industry would do well to take the example of the pulp and paper sector, which put aside competitive considerations and committed itself to becoming the safest industry in the USA.
"The Pulp & Paper Safety Association has brought all the key players together in a proactive way at a series of regular meetings to improve safety right across their industry," Hoover said.
"They share best practice, common problems and a comprehensive range of issues designed to keep everybody in their industry up to date on how to improve safety.
"I've never seen anything like it and I'd love to see a similar trend emerging in the forklift industry."
New safety products
Hoover said another benefit of conferences and seminars was that they exposed industry professionals to a whole range of new safety products.
"There are a lot of smart people around the world who have great ideas and are producing new safety techniques and devices that most people don't get to see," he said.
"As an industry, we share the problem of death and injury. The question is how do we get them all on one page."
Hoover said forklift safety as a whole had improved in the U.S. since 1998 when the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) lifted the requirements and standards for operator training.
But after six years, things were "getting a bit stale" and there was a need to find ways to keep training courses fresh and exciting.
"Most companies know that if they don't improve their products, they'll go out of business -- and it's the same with us in terms of improving our training courses,” he said.
"The question is how do we keep pushing the envelope to make our industry safer and safer in a way that keeps people focused and interested."
Virtual reality training
Hoover said the key to better training involved adopting new styles and techniques, which acknowledged that not all people learned in the same way.
"We need training systems that are site- and equipment-specific and that are more interactive," he said.
"Computer-type presentations allow you to project on-location video images of the facility and equipment that are familiar to the operator being trained.
"For pedestrian training, for example, a good technique is to tie a video camera to an operator's helmet to show what the forklift driver sees. This stimulates the trainee to think about what happens when you step in front of a forklift. It's also site-specific, so it has greater impact."
Virtual reality training would also be valuable -- much like the simulator technologies used to train airline pilots, crane operators and army tank drivers.”
Hoover said that on average in the U.S., there were about 100 deaths and between 65,000 and 100,000 injuries per year from forklift accidents.
"Compared with the U.S. population of 250 million, these figures may seem miniscule, but once you see the human tragedy of these accidents, they are far more than just statistics," he said.
“You have Moms and Dads who are not going home to their families; you have victims of serious accidents and their families whose lives are changed forever, so there are very real social impacts from forklift accidents."
Hoover said it was fortunate that, increasingly, people in the forklift industry were acknowledging there were better reasons for complying with safety regulations than simply meeting the law.
"These include the savings achieved in reducing the damage to stock, equipment, facilities and product -- not to mention the huge financial outlays associated with injuries, including compensation for medical expenses and the cost of litigation, which inevitably occurs when there's an accident in the U.S.," he said.
Wayne Chornohus, president of Hunter Industries, an international forklift training company based in Vancouver, Canada, agreed there had been a significant shift in perceptions about the value of quality operator training.
"But in far too many cases, while companies are willing to pay their forklift operators tens of thousands of dollars a year and put them in charge of vehicles worth between $50,000 and $100,000, they balk at paying a few hundred dollars extra to train them properly," he said.
"The old assumption that 'anyone can drive' has long been disproved but, unfortunately, there's a lingering resistance to investing in quality forklift training."
Chornohus said that while many dealerships had their own training courses, these were often boring, video-based and presented by a person who may have only basic training knowledge and skills.
"In these circumstances, you have the trainees literally falling asleep while the instruction video is being shown, hence you have very low retention rates for important safety information," he said.
"Any manager who regards training as an expense is not a manager at all and is clearly ignorant of what safety in the workplace is all about.
"If, for example, a company can prevent even one injury, they are saving the cost of losing those productive hours of work, the cost of hiring a replacement worker, as well as paying any compensation that may arise.
"Additionally, not only do they reduce the incidence of death and injury through better quality training, they are guaranteed greater productivity from a more highly skilled operator, so it's a win-win situation all round," he said.
At all levels of government in the U.S., from Congress and the federal bureaucracy to state governments and departments of labor and industry, the drive to improve safety standards continues to gain momentum.
For example, in a pre-emptive move to lift material handling workplace safety levels in the U.S., the Government Accounting Office (GAO) has urged OSHA to ensure more accurate information is collected from individuals who file complaints about workplace hazards.
An investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, the GAO also has urged OSHA to conduct outreach programs for employees regarding hazards and to encourage employers to form safety committees that could initially address complaints to ensure more accurate reporting of hazards.
OSHA recently announced it had committed itself to a four-step approach to ergonomics, designed to quickly and effectively address musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), which affect a significant percentage of material handling equipment operators, including forklift drivers.
The four steps include:
• Developing industry- or task-specific guidelines for a range of industries based on the present incidence of MSDs and available information about effective and feasible solutions;
• Conducting inspections for ergonomic hazards and issuing alert letters;
• Providing assistance to businesses, particularly small businesses, to help them proactively address ergonomic issues in the workplace;
• Establishing an advisory committee authorized to identify gaps in research into the application of ergonomic principles and practices in the workplace.
For more information on safety issues, visit www.forkliftaction.com.