To this day, I can still remember the look of panic on the warehouse manager’s face.
It was back when I was in college, when during semester breaks I worked in various MRO and logistics capacities for a manufacturing plant in my home town (and by MRO and logistics, what I really mean is I did a lot of maintenance work in a warehouse, as well as loading and unloading trucks, stocking pallets, that kind of stuff). I’d been working there, off and on, for a few years, and got to be on very close and familiar terms with every pallet jack in the facility. The manual hand-crank types, that is, not the electric ones, which the regular warehousing staff hoarded for themselves (though once in a blue moon I’d borrow one “just for a minute,” with that minute lasting as long as I could get away with it).
So one day during the holidays, when things were pretty slow on the loading dock and a lot of the staff had opted to use for time off, I was talking to one of the forklift drivers, kind of kidding around about how my job of moving pallets around would be a whole lot easier if they let me drive a lift truck.
“You ever driven one before?” he asked me.
“No, never,” I said, and with the rashness of youth added, “but how hard could it be?”
“It’s not hard at all,” he said. “Let me show you.”
So right then and there, he got me up on the forklift and showed me the basics of going forward and back, and how the forks go up and down. Really basic stuff. There were no trucks in the bay and nobody else on the dock. I had managed to get the forks underneath an empty pallet, and I was slowly lifting it up from the ground. My first lesson on forklift driving was going very well.
The lesson only lasted 10 minutes.
“Hey hey hey!” I heard a voice yelling from behind me. Keep in mind, the distance that I had traveled in my first lesson was well under 100 yards. The voice rapidly closed that distance, and I turned behind me to see the warehouse manager, out of breath, face beet-red. “You’ve gotta get down from there!”
“Why?” I asked, in that same tone that every young kid doing something fun that maybe they shouldn’t be doing uses.
“You have to be certified to drive a lift truck! And you have to be part of the union!” He wasn’t mad… more like spooked that somebody might come by and see me and report me to the authorities.
“So you don’t want me learning how to use the forklift, is what you’re saying?”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying,” he said, shaking his head half in exasperation and half in relief that he’d stopped me before the lesson had gotten very far.
Was it irony then or synchronicity when, many years later, I was invited to Washington to cover National Forklift Safety Day, an event organized by the Industrial Truck Association (ITA) to highlight the safe use of forklifts, the importance of operator training and the need for daily equipment checks? If nothing else, I had learned first-hand exactly how safety violations can happen at a facility. I wasn’t out to do anything reckless or get anybody in trouble, and I certainly wasn’t looking to violate any rules or regulations. I was on that forklift for one reason and one reason only: It looked like a cool thing to do. Luckily, nobody from OSHA was paying a call that day, and I never gave the warehouse manager reason to panic like that ever again.
So I get it why young people (and that goes for not-so-young people, too) attempt to do things that aren’t very safe, even though at the time the situation seems benign enough. I also certainly understand the need for vigilance for all concerned—not just managers and supervisors, but everybody in or around a facility or workplace. It has been my good fortune to serve as the chief editor of several leading industry publications—Logistics Today, IndustryWeek, Material Handling & Logistics, and now EHS Today—and when it comes to safety, no matter what the industry, one thing is always constant: We’re all in this together.