Let’s face it: the phrase, “’Tis the season” applies to certain holidays but not certain topics. Forklift safety is a year-around, worldwide concern in any industrial setting, but that’s especially true in private and public cold storage warehouses where workers contend with the rigors of a harsh environment all year.

Speaking of year-round issues, safety is a particular focus in June when many U.S. industries observe “National Safety Month.” In September, then, Britain’s Fork Lift Truck Association promotes its own “National Forklift Safety Week.” Yet why wait until summer and fall? Two major supply chain organizations already have kicked off 2009 with a focus on forklift safety.

This January found the International Association of Refrigerated Warehouses (IARW), Alexandria, Va., still sharing results of a late fall safety survey involving as many as 75 public refrigerated warehouse (PRW) members throughout North America.

Forklift safety also was a featured topic at a cold storage training school sponsored in February by the World Food Logistics Institute (WFLO), an IARW affiliate dedicated to industry research and education. This year’s event at Atlanta’s Georgia Institute of Technology featured more than 40 classes and drew as many as 325 up-and-coming professionals from IARW member companies.

Bill Vargo is director of risk management for Nordic Cold Storage LLC, an Atlanta-based company with 13 warehouses in the Southeast. A 26-year industry veteran, Vargo taught WFLO’s course on forklift safety at Georgia Tech.

“Proper powered industrial truck (PIT) training is known to reduce injuries, cut equipment operating and maintenance costs and reduce employee turnover,” he says. “Meanwhile, you increase morale, productivity, storage utilization and capacity, and boost your bottom line. For these reasons, why would you not train your people?”

Forklift safety literally is a big deal for another IARW member, Americold Logistics. A national cold storage and logistics services provider, this Atlanta-based organization operates approximately 100 PRW locations nationwide.

“We have sit-down, stand-up and high-reach forklifts as well as every type of pallet truck,” says Ryan Burr, ASP, Americold director of safety. “We become alarmed when we see repeat injuries involving material handling equipment. We worked with IARW to generate some data and see just how widespread these issues are.”

And the survey says...

A six-question survey began by asking PRW operators about the time they use to train employees on each piece of equipment. Interestingly, the lead response was “one to three hours” while the second highest response was at the other extreme of “more than 13 hours.”

The most common and serious forklift injuries? Not surprisingly, most warehouse operators said feet, legs and hands are most often pinched and/or crushed when forklifts either run into objects (pallets, racks, etc.) or when they run over pedestrians. Still others talked not so much about operator injuries – as about damage to property including the building or products.

“Our main concern involves injuries to limbs. I have seen foot and leg injuries that leave men and women with life-changing injuries. We’ve also seen hand injuries from pallet jacks,” notes Burr. “We continually stress that operators keep body parts inside the safety confines of the equipment. With a large fleet of stand-up trucks and pallet jacks, this is a continuous message. We are tackling this issue by identifying and changing unsafe behaviors.”

The most popular approach to forklift operator protection is a dead man pedal, a safety device that automatically stops a vehicle when the mechanism is not depressed; followed by barriers (ridges to keep body parts inside a vehicle compartment). The next most common survey responses talked about the use of shields, “other” safety technologies and light curtains (whereby unsafe practices trigger an optical sensing technology to stop vehicle operation).

Asked about forklift travel patterns, nearly all respondents said they have vehicles traveling both directions – with forks first (leading the vehicle) and/or with forks trailing. The second most prevalent traffic pattern involves those vehicles moving with forks trailing behind.

One open-ended question simply probed about equipment safety features as a purchase influence. Although it ranked low for a handful of companies (whose owners simply hold employees responsible or who dictate a certain price or brand), a majority of operators say they do consider safety features in equipment purchases. In doing so, several respondents talked about the importance of visibility and ergonomically designed operator compartments and controls.

Sixty-five percent of those surveyed also commented on trend lines and patterns involving forklift injuries. Not surprisingly, these comments pointed to most injuries occurring late in a shift (when people are tired) and during peak volume or pre-break periods (when employees are rushing). A few owners noted that more injuries occur with new operators as well as those working graveyard / night shifts. In the latter case, the assertion is that operators aren’t as careful in a more relaxed atmosphere.

Notes Vargo, “My experience has been that operators who are observed and counseled on poor practices become better equipment operators. To do this, managers and supervisors need to be on the floor and in the freezers. Management on the floor has the best opportunity to observe a poor practice and then offer immediate education and counseling. If management does not immediately address the issue, other employees will think that the poor practice is now acceptable.”  

Forklift safety 101

How should managers communicate company expectations and standards? Vargo notes that managers first must recognize that employee communication is important – and that the process itself may look different.

“Younger people – already in the workforce or who are about to join it – have a different attitude toward work and how they want to accomplish their tasks,” he notes. “They have a different set of values and needs than the previous generation.

“Today’s managers and supervisors will have to adapt their skills to motivate this group.  Their ability to attract, motivate and retain quality individuals will be dependent upon how much they understand this group’s behaviors, wants and needs.”

Vargo says last year’s WFLO forklift safety class (with a different instructor) focused on forklift operating principles and applications. Assuming most participants (employees with an average of five years’ experience) already would know the basics, Vargo chose to emphasize forklift safety awareness and enforcement. He says he used video clips and photos to drive home both (1) what unsafe practices look like and (2) the consequences of accidents and injuries.

It’s all about becoming aware of the issue.

“I want the participants to hear and understand the message that ‘we’ are there on the dock and in the freezers to help keep our people safe,” says Vargo. “If we can creatively and effectively train and manage associates, the risk of forklift incidents and other incidents will decrease.”

He concludes, “I think awareness by the associate is key to safety, whether dealing with forklift, chemicals, electricity or other types of energy. At Nordic, we discuss safety in our pre-shift meetings, we develop a weekly safety topic, and we also discuss safety in our weekly staff conference calls.  We also use weekly emails with photos to promote safety.  Anything we can do to put safety in front of our associates to help them recognize a situation before it turns into an injury.”


Q: Any observations or opinions about suppliers’ offerings? Where do you see opportunities for improvement?

Ryan Burr:I think the Industrial Truck Standards Development Foundation’s committee on B56 (for propelled high lift industrial trucks) needs to take a hard look at safety devices and then standardize how they work. We see forklifts with so many different options – such as models with just one dead-man pedal, two dead-man pedals and/or light curtains.

One thing about dead-man pedals: some are positioned for the left foot, while others are for the right foot. In a stand-up lift environment, the left foot or leg is normally the injured side of the body because it is the closest to the open part of the truck.

Bill Vargo:Powered industrial truck (PIT) suppliers can make the warehousing industry safer by not allowing safety equipment to be optional. I think that all PITs should come “standard” with strobes, back-up alarms, and forward-looking lights. In addition, I think that PIT suppliers need to work with radio frequency (RF) suppliers to design equipment that can be integrated with operator safety in mind. Too many times, I have seen facilities install RF equipment that blocked the operator’s vision or caused some type of an ergonomics issue. I also think rack manufacturers could be a great partner to PIT manufacturers as well.