Avoiding an Accident Excuse Pile-Up

Sept. 1, 2008
The latest forklift-monitoring technology lets you know what happens in the warehouse and on the docks when no one's looking.

Last week, his leg fell asleep. Just the other day, a bug flew in his eye and caused temporary disorientation. And today, his newest excuse was that he had a sneezing spell and couldn’t keep his eyes open long enough to see the wall.

As a facility manager, you stand, arms crossed, staring at a 7-foot-wide “window,” freshly created for the break room, while the employees enjoying their lunch brush debris from their table. Now, it’s your turn to make a few excuses of your own.

You could try and explain to your employer that the architectural renderings of the break room were absent of a window, and you thought the employees might enjoy a view of the warehouse floor. How about that the operator saw a family of ducks wandering through the warehouse and he swerved to avoid them? Either way, someone has to answer for the accident and all eyes are pointed at you. You could have used that many eyes before the accident to help monitor the warehouse floor and the particular driving habits of each operator.

“Accidents happen” is an common excuse, but it is the facility manager’s responsibility to make sure that while accidents may happen, they aren’t welcome in the warehouse or on the loading docks. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that one person is killed every 3.5 days by forklifts in the United States, with 20,000 additional workers seriously injured each year. OSHA has identified forklifts as the sixth-leading cause of safety violations.

Like any vehicle, operators must be trained to handle the machine with a sense of responsibility, accountability and sensibility. Too often, operators become void of one or all of these key traits.

Without 24/7 supervision, some operators have a tendency to exhibit poor driving habits when behind the wheel of a forklift. To combat these incidents and avoid becoming a warehouse statistic, facilities managers across the nation are looking toward certain forklift technologies to help foster operator accountability and achieve OSHA compliance while reducing damage-related costs, such as damaged loading dock doors and racking systems or new drywall for the break room.

Creating a Safer Environment

When the boss is around, the average worker can quickly morph into employee-of-the-month material. But once the boss leaves, those accident-inducing habits can return. Accountability plays a strong part in improving driving habits. In a 2005 ShockWatch study, a major American warehouse retailer outfitted a store’s seven-lift truck fleet with equipment-monitoring capabilities. The 5-month study used a phased approach to determine if an employee’s driving habits improve once exposed to increased accountability. The results are just about what you’d expect.

In the first phase, the operators performed their daily tasks unaware they were being monitored. The operators averaged 54 daily impacts exceeding a force threshold of 0.75 G – the measurement in which a forklift can cause building or equipment damage. In the second phase, the operators verbally were reminded to avoid impacts and notified that a 5-second alarm would sound from the forklift in the case of an impact exceeding the pre-determined threshold. While the average daily impacts were reduced to 20 per day, the amount was still too high.

Enter accountability. In the third phase, the operators were assigned personal keys that allowed them access to the forklifts. The facilities managers also were issued keys. This time, when the impact threshold was exceeded, the vehicle slowed to a creep, the lift was interrupted and an alarm continuously sounded, inhibiting further dangerous driving habits until a manager came and restored the vehicle performance. The threat of having to face responsibility for improper driving was enough to reduce daily impacts to 2.2 per day. As a whole, the equipment monitors instilled an accountability that helped reduce impacts by 94 percent. The around-the-clock supervision provided by the equipment monitors allowed managers to perform their daily tasks, helped restore operator responsibility through accountability and created a safer working environment.

Gotcha Covered

There are more than 1 million forklifts currently in operation across the United States, and many forklift owners are adding monitoring devices to their lift truck fleet to help create an accident-free workplace. In response to the increased need for around-the-clock, on-site supervision, facilities managers are installing equipment-monitoring devices onto their new and existing forklifts. This monitoring technology can help manage the operation while re-establishing a safe environment for the operator and fellow employees.

With an equipment monitor, there are two main parts to the data-collecting equation: hardware and software. The hardware mounts directly to the equipment and is used to measure impact, track maintenance and usage data, limit forklift functionality for a period after impact and allow only authorized access to the forklift. By utilizing an additional built-in, pre-shift safety checklist that allows management to set criteria for vehicle access and usage by the operator, OSHA compliance can be reached before the forklift even starts.

For the facility manager with a lot on his or her plate, management software packages compile all the impact data pertaining to each individual user. Additionally, certain programs enable the managers to receive text messages or e-mails instantly when an accident exceeding the impact threshold has occurred. Some of the newest software allows managers to send text messages to specific machines or the entire fleet, which provides greater efficiency in a busy warehouse environment and can be helpful during emergency situations. Equipment locating technology can help the manager find a missing forklift or be directed to where the operator is on the warehouse floor. All of these forklift technologies have the ability to be customized in a single offering to meet a facility’s unique needs.

Cruise Control

On top of the long list of expectations you have for your operators, OSHA has its own operator expectations. In 1999, OSHA created a standard that requires operator training and licensing as well as periodic evaluations of operator performance. The standard, Final Rule for Powered Industrial Truck Operator Training, also addresses specific training requirements for lift truck operation. Additionally, OSHA requires refresher training for operators who are observed operating in an unsafe manner, in an accident or using a different type of forklift.

Training an operator or getting a poor-performing operator back on track can be demanding. A facility manager could delegate the task off to someone else, but there’s always the concern that the proper training might not be passed along. Equipment-monitoring technologies can help start new operators off on the right foot or point current operators back in the right direction.

For operators, whether new or being retrained, the forklift’s performance can be monitored and reported to help instill safe operating habits. System managers can apply the parameters to the training levels so that an operator-in-training will not exceed certain speeds or perform in an unsafe manner. The equipment monitor can log the progress of each driver and enables the manager to evaluate the operator’s driving performance. Once the operator successfully completes the training, the manager can grant full user functionality.

Safe or Sorry

While all facilities managers want to believe that their operators are models of integrity, we must avoid being naïve. Head on over to YouTube.com and search, “forklifts.” There you will find a smorgasbord of forklifts racing, being surfed, overturning, playing tag, smashing walls and even being used in the occasional forklift rodeo. Armed with a camera phone, employees are posting video of wild accidents and making coworkers instant Internet stars. It’s not the kind of media exposure any company wants. It forces facilities managers to search for stronger ways to increase accountability before it’s too late and the excuses start piling up.

With more than $5.2 trillion being paid out in workers’ compensation accidents in 2005, companies are working to integrate a better daily approach to safety. It is an approach where employee safety is at the top of the priority list, where managers bring increased accountability to the employees operating the machinery and where OSHA compliance is what the entire company works toward. It’s also an approach with fewer break room “windows.”

Kerri Lusk-Barnes is the vice president of marketing and product management for ShockWatch. She oversees all marketing and product management initiatives – including new products and services – across the complete ShockWatch product line.

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