Seat Belts Prevent More Than Tipovers

Dec. 1, 2002
It's possible to train operators to use seat belts and then not require their use. But imagine wht the lawyers would say about that.

By now OSHA is probably mulling over the comments generated by its proposal to change Directive CPL 2-1.28A, which spells out enforcement of the Powered Industrial Truck Operator Training (PITOT) standard. The chief muller behind the change is Richard Fairfax, director of OSHA’s directorate of enforcement programs, and he has targeted the seat belt section of that directive.

Fairfax proposes that an OSHA enforcement officer doesn’t have to cite your company for not requiring seat belts on lift trucks if certain conditions apply. These conditions come under the headings of:

• Operating environment (floors, grades, other hazards);

• Characteristics of the truck (maintenance, speed controls);

• Truck operation (where and how it’s operated);

• Truck operators (training).

Thus, if the “possibility of tipover is remote, and in fact there is not a history of tipovers or near misses, a citation for failure to use an active protection device or system will not be issued.” That wraps it up, says Fairfax. Problem solved.

But seat belts do more than prevent tipovers. Jim Shephard, president of Shephard’s Industrial Training Systems Inc., recalls an accident in which the operator of a low-lift truck, driving forward, ran straight into a column. Shephard says that as training becomes more prevalent, “we’re seeing more impact accidents than tipovers. With impact, a seat belt helps — it’s going to hold the operator in the seat. It’s going to keep him from being catapulted forward.”

Even a trained operator can have an accident involving a collision. Complacency, not paying attention, not looking in the direction of travel. That’s one of the reasons to use seat belts.

It’s argued (by Fairfax and others, including some trainers) that PITOT does not require the use of seat belts. That’s true. But PITOT is a training standard; one of its requirements is that the operator be trained in “any other operating instructions, warnings or precautions listed in the operator’s manual for the types of vehicle that the employee is being trained to operate.”

So if your vehicles come equipped with seat belts, your operators have to be trained in their use. And training means more than showing a movie; you also need “practical training (demonstrations performed by the trainer and practical exercises performed by the trainee).” I guess it’s possible to train operators in seat belt use and then not require them. Imagine that one of your lift truck operators is involved in an accident that results in an injury. Imagine how you would defend that train-but-don’t-use policy on the witness stand. “There are too many arguments that favor a litigation attorney,” Shephard says.

It’s true that not every OSHA inspector or lift truck trainer is 100 percent in favor of seat belts. Their objections reflect the viewpoint of operators who drive facing backward — and that’s most of them. The belts themselves draw the complaints. “If I were to put my thumb on what I hear the most about seat belts, it is that a ratcheting belt grabs another notch when the operator pushes back in his seat,” Shephard says. “The operator continually has to readjust that belt.” Shephard recommends the old-style belt that the operator can adjust to his body so that it stays the way he set it.

“Let’s say that everybody agrees that seat belts should be worn,” an operator training professional concedes. “The best design, how they work, can be an issue. The real issue is training the operators to belt themselves in when they get on the truck.” Training and enforcing the compliance directive in train-the-trainer classes is the only answer, he says

Members of the Industrial Truck Association are leading the charge against weakening the seat belt requirement. ITA was invited to comment and given until December 1 to comment. Chances are we won’t see the results until after the first of the year.

Safety aside, a young standard like PITOT (1999) has just started building a body of litigation. The changes proposed for Directive CPL 2-1.28A will add to the confusion.

Bernie Knill, contributing editor, [email protected]

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