Richard E. Fairfax, OSHA’s head of enforcement programs, still hasn't made a decision about whether to change the regulation concerning seat belts on lift trucks. Last we heard was that OSHA inspectors wouldn’t have to cite your company for a seat belt violation if certain conditions applied. And these were the kind of conditions it would be easy for a lawyer to argue about if, heaven forbid, your company were being sued because of a lift truck injury.
Meanwhile, lift truck users, trainers and OSHA inspectors have been left to twist in the regulatory wind.
This column has already speculated on who is putting the squeeze on Fairfax to muddy up the fairly new Powered Industrial Truck Operator Training standard (29 CFR 1910). Could it be managers who are fretting about productivity that has been lost because of seat belts? Or members of big unions, like automotive, who don’t want to be bothered by wearing seat belts?
Now Larry Wuench, executive vice president, Mitsubishi Caterpillar Forklift Trucks America, voices another possibility; he speculates that large users of lift trucks have concerns about worker’s compensation claims related to upper torso stress from having to turn around to drive backward. But that’s no reason not to wear a seat belt, says Wuench. One solution he points out is "what the Europeans are doing and that’s going more to a swivel operator’s compartment that provides mobility for all the controls so the operator can at least get to a modified 20 - 25 degree position when driving in reverse."
While manufacturers and users of lift trucks are waiting for Fairfax to make a decision about seat belts — and training and enforcement will suffer every day he procrastinates — it's not the only crisis looming on the horizon. For example, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) is proposing that all lift trucks be electric powered if they have a capacity of 8,000 pounds or less and are purchased after January 1, 2005; same goes for rental trucks from 2005 to 2010. This proposal is part of the South Coast Air Quality Management District State Implementation Plan, and it looks like California is trying to balance its air cleanup on the backs of lift truck users. The CARB scenario is even worse than Fairfax's proposed seat belt regulation!
Not that you're decision-free if you already have a fleet of electric-powered lift trucks. When it comes time to replace a vehicle, there are developments in batteries and AC drives to consider for both indoor and outdoor application. All the factors you used to use in a gas-versus-electric justification need to be revisited. (For more information, and a review of technology at ProMat, see chief editor Tom Andel’s Market Trends column in this issue.)
Automatic guided vehicles dominated exhibits at ProMat this year: tuggers, lift trucks, and walkies, as well as a range of guidance systems, prices, capacities and capabilities. So maybe your memory of hard-to-program, hard-to-maintain and hard-to-justify AGV systems needs to be updated. And even the comparison of a lift truck fleet with operators versus an automatic guided vehicle system should be looked at again.
When the seat belt controversy is solved — and it will be, no matter how much Fairfax stalls — problems for lift truck users involving safety, compliance and technology won't end.
Especially in California.