Welcome to My Nightmare

Feb. 6, 2013
Poorly operated industrial vehicles are dangerous. Mindlessly operated, they’re deadly. And we have smart phones to thank.

I received a nightmare in my e-mail the other day. The video clip attached to the message actually drove me to distraction—to such a point that I’ll never be able to remove it from my memory.  

The message was one I’ve heard before and actually wrote about many times. It was about the dangers and responsibilities associated with working in and around industrial vehicles. The consequences of not doing so are easy to describe and not pleasant to read. Last year I told you about a worker who was killed by an AGV that pinned him against a rack. I called it a “tragic surprise.” But after I posted that blog I went on about my day and didn’t give it a second thought. This e-mail I received the other day changed me from a disinterested third party to an eyewitness.

Imagine starting your day as you do any other. You work in a warehouse where lift trucks and their operators are constantly driving past with their four-ton loads. You don’t give them a second thought—until it’s too late, and that thought is gone the instant one of those vehicles comes up from behind and crushes you flat.

That’s what this e-mail showed me. I saw the operator of this huge forklift, his vision obscured by the massive, awkwardly horizontal  load he was jockeying around a corner, come upon a co-worker who had just entered his path. The victim was as unaware of what was about to hit him as was the unknowing operator of his fate. In a second that operator’s colleague was a stain on the floor. The operator would have continued on his way had an eyewitness on the scene not run up to the vehicle, reflexively slammed his own hard hat down on the floor and screamed for him to stop.

Occupational hazard is too sanitary a word for what I witnessed. But multi-tasking's growth as a phenomenon on the roads and interstates outside thousands of warehouses like this one has given it a label that’s not only sanitary but bland: “distracted driving.”

The growing use of smart phones on the job as well as in private life has given journalists like me a new cause against which to rally. Coincidentally, the day I received that nightmare e-mail I was proofing a feature we’re running in our February issue on distracted over-the-road truck drivers. After giving the feature a final edit I posted a blog on the folly of OSHA’s misclassifying the failure of a company to adequately train its forklift operators as an “other-than-serious” violation. That hit a nerve with someone from this blog’s audience. And he sent me an e-mail too.

David Hoover, president of Forklift Training Systems, told me in his e-mail that OSHA’s misclassification did indeed seem like an oversight. Then he raised the issue of distracted driving as a phenomenon that he thinks will throw another challenge at inspectors as they try to make sense of accident aftermaths.

“OSHA likes things that fit into nice little boxes, such as ‘truck was defective,’ ‘seatbelt was not worn,’ etc.,” he wrote. “[Distracted driving] does not fit into that box and is very hard to track and study.  Lots of organizations study things in cars, no one to my knowledge spends much time on stuff like this on powered industrial trucks.”

He likened scanners to smart phones in their potential to distract if not used properly.

“Multi-tasking, tight schedules, phones, radios, talking to people around you, looking at pick sheets and many other things cause it,” he added. “It is still legal in many states to talk and drive and do other things, and that behavior for young and old trying to keep up is getting into forklifts. When we train the rule is no talking or looking at the phone EVER on a lift and we tell employers to ban them from employees using lifts, but not all follow our advice.  Phones should be in lockers not on a forklift operator’s belt.  When you are using a 10,000-pound-plus piece of equipment that runs a few feet from people, the consequences of not paying attention even for a second are very severe.”

I followed up with a phone call to him and told him about this video I received--addressing the very thing he was writing about. He said he has seen videos like that and sometimes uses them in his training.

I’ve included the video in this blog—not to frighten you, but because you’re in a position to prevent what it depicts from happening at your site. You can bet most of the people out there have a smart phone. They may even be using it for the job. If they’re not, they’re using something to help them turn data into information. That process shouldn’t happen while they’re operating any kind of industrial vehicle. Now go out there and tell them. And tell the pedestrians who work around them, too.

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