Forklifts, excavators, aerial lifts, dump trucks – many of us work around these machines on a daily basis, whether it be as an order picker in a warehouse, a flagger on a construction site, or an inspector. After a while, if we’re not careful, the equipment could begin to blend into the background. When that happens, people get careless. While there need to be safety precautions in place that make the operators of mobile equipment responsible for the well-being of people on the ground, the pedestrians themselves need to adhere to rules as well, in the interest of self-preservation.
The first thing needed to keep pedestrians safe is a simple “rule-of-thumb”: never assume an operator knows you are there. Whether the operator actually knows or not is irrelevant if you don’t know that they know. It would not take much for one of these machines to end your life, so why take the chance? Even if you think an operator is aware of your presence, make sure they know. Wave them down. Make eye contact. Indicate where you are going. Let them know when you are clear. We all know the old saying about assuming, but I assure you, if you assume wrong in this instance, it’s going to be a whole lot worse than just looking silly.
Operators can’t look out for us if we aren’t visible. Street clothes, muted colors, or colors that blend into the background all cause dangerous situations. Anybody that needs to be on the ground near mobile equipment should be wearing high-visibility clothing. Whether that means reflective vests or brightly-colored T-shirts really depends on a hazard assessment of your operation. Once you determine what you need, however, enforce it. Ensure your management personnel adhere to it, too. They’re no more immune to being run over by a 5,000 lb. machine than is a member of the labor workforce. Finally, have extras. People are going to show up and need to get around your facility. Some of them will not bring their own high-visibility gear. Make sure you are prepared to offer them something you’ve got ready to go.
Limited Personnel and Dedicated Walkways
One of the best ways to protect pedestrians on your site is to keep the number of pedestrians there are to an absolute minimum. An operator can’t run over somebody that isn’t there. Ensure that work areas are only being accessed by the necessary personnel. Ensure that anybody else accessing your work area is escorted by somebody who is used to your operations. And, where possible, limit the places they can travel. This may be easier in a warehouse than it is on a construction site, for example, but if you can delineate areas that are acceptable for pedestrians, then do so and enforce it. If possible, a permanent barrier like railing and safety gates may be a good option. Make sure your delineations are easily recognizable and maintained. A painted line on the floor is no good if it’s been worn away. A flagged off area is no good if the rope has snapped and the flags have blown away.
Where operators have limited visibility, use spotters who can stand somewhere that gives them a better vantage point on what’s going on around the equipment. Train your spotters on hand signals so that your equipment operators can quickly communicate with them even if you have electronic communication. Remember, electronics can fail and words can be misheard. In an emergency situation, you may not have time to account for that. One issue with spotters, though, is that they, too, are pedestrians. Your operator needs to be trained that if they are working with a spotter and they lose sight of that person, they stop the equipment immediately.
I put backup alarms low on this list for a reason. First, they only operate when a piece of equipment is backing up. They are there because the operator cannot see clearly (if at all) behind their machine, but it is assumed that they can see just fine moving forward. Obviously, this isn’t always the case. Second, on a construction site or in a warehouse these can be so prolific that people just start ignoring them. These are great to have, but you cannot be dependent on them.
This one is going to pop up on just about every list we make. None of the things we’ve listed do any good if the people involved are not properly trained. In this case, that could apply to somebody who is just making one quick stop to your site or facility. It isn’t necessary to have a 2-hour long training, but talk to the person, make sure they’re wearing what they need to be wearing, and make sure they know about your walkways or controlled areas. Do not allow anybody to walk out onto your site blindly.
Remember, in the battle of man vs machine, when it comes to a matter of brute force, the machine is always going to win. People may need to be reminded of this. There is a reason why “struck by” is one of OSHA’s Focus Four – because these terrible accidents occur. Don’t allow your people to be careless around mobile equipment.
With the number of transient workers that come through warehouses, the hustle and bustle of getting orders shipped out and deliveries onto the racks, and a variety of other concerns, having a strong forklift safety program is essential. A quick walk through many warehouses will show machines being driven faster than they should be, unsecured or uneven loads, forks being raised and lowered as lifts are turning, and random foot-traffic. Remember, you, as a pedestrian, will not win against a machine that weighs thousands of pounds! So, where can we focus our attention?
No article can substitute for forklift operator training, which you know, all of your operators MUST have, right? AND that they must be reevaluated at least every three years, right? OK, good. Just checking. Too often, I have seen new warehouse workers put in a situation where they are just expected to figure it out. Train your employees properly. Observe them while they’re working. Are they constantly going too fast, coming around corners or into intersections without slowing down or beeping, driving with their view obstructed, or raising/lowering loads while they’re moving? That employee may need to be retrained. If you don’t have somebody who is able to do that ongoing evaluation, you need to properly prepare somebody to fill that role.
So, what should training and evaluation of safe forklift operation focus on? Speed (no faster than a person walking quickly), following distance (three forklift lengths), knowing the capacity of your lift and checking the load to ensure its within that capacity, stability of loads, stability of the lift and how it changes as the center of gravity changes, not raising or lowering forks while moving or turning, lift inspections, traveling backward and/or spotters, unattended lifts, use of lifts on slopes, lifting and setting of material, and fuel safety precautions. After reading that list, are you still comfortable telling an untrained person to “just do it”?
It’s hard to operate a forklift safely if you have to constantly dodge unexpected pedestrians. People randomly wandering the floor of your warehouse pose both a threat to themselves and a threat to the men and women on your forklifts. In order to avoid this, you should have designated walkways and a restriction on who can be on the warehouse floor. Sure, they will not be able to stay within these walkways 100% of the time, but if you have a restricted group that is allowed to be there, you can train them to take extra precautions when they have to leave the area. Railing and safety gates may also be a viable option, restricting foot traffic to the designated walkways in certain high traffic areas. Meanwhile, forklift operators know to take extra precautions around the walkways. Also, make your pedestrians visible; require reflective vests or high visibility shirts for anybody who needs to be on foot.
Pallet Racks and Shelving
The ends of pallet racks are often damaged when a driver attempts to turn down an aisle and accidently clips or runs into a rack, resulting in significant damage to the rack and potential damage to the goods being stored on the rack.
Making sure your aisles are wide enough is a helpful first step when trying to avoid these types of accidents. Your driver may simply not have enough space to perform the maneuvers he needs to get around the warehouse.
Enforcing the speed limit we talked about earlier is also important. If the driver is going a reasonable speed, he is more likely to be able to correct a miscalculation before he actually collides with the rack.
Bollards and impact barriers are also a good way to protect the corners of your racks. Not only by providing a barrier between the forklift and the rack, but also providing higher visibility.
Some of the biggest hazards associated with forklift usage aren’t necessarily always from the forklifts themselves. How are the forklifts in your warehouse powered? Propane? Electric? Diesel? You’ll have a variety of reasons behind your choice, but be aware that each one poses a hazard that you must consider. Diesel, gasoline, or any other internal combustion is probably a bad choice for most indoor uses. We all know the byproduct of incomplete combustion, right? Carbon Monoxide. And while open overhead doors, ventilation, and large spaces may help mitigate the amount of carbon monoxide your employees are exposed to, what about the employee who takes that forklift into the back of a truck and leaves it running while they secure the load? If you need to use this type of forklift, you’ll probably want to ensure you have the proper scrubbers on the exhaust, train your employees to recognize signs of carbon monoxide exposure, and prohibit running the engine in trailers or other confined areas.
LPG or propane burn cleaner, but pose their own hazards, flammability and skin exposure among them. Propane and LPG are flammable and, being heavier than air, will seep along the floor until possibly finding an ignition source, rather than disperse up into the air. Precautions need to be taken not just during their use, but also in the area in which you’re storing them to ensure you have proper firefighting methods available.
So with all the hazards that those fuels create, why not just go electric? Keep it simple, right? No fumes to worry about. But, the reality is, of course, that electric forklifts have their own set of issues. Now you have to worry about charging stations, ventilation of those stations, eye wash stations, training your people to properly handle the batteries and more.
Unless you’re using manual lifts, you’re going to have fuel-related hazards and you’re going to have to train your people on those hazards and how to work safely.
If you have areas in your warehouse that are classified as hazardous locations, you need to ensure that your forklift is designed to be operated in that area. 29 CFR 1910.178(b) and (c) designate 11 forklift classifications and a listing of classified locations in which each type of lift can be used.
Inspect, Inspect, Inspect
Just like any other piece of equipment, forklifts need to be inspected prior to use. How are the tires? Is there a properly charged fire extinguisher? Do all of the controls work properly? Do your blinkers and horn function properly? Are your mirrors in place? Are there any leaks?
But inspections are not just limited to the equipment itself. What about the conditions of the warehouse you’re working in? Is the floor level? Are there any overhead obstacles you need to be concerned with? Are there any ramps you will have to traverse? Pipe leaks, leaks from other machines, or any other spill that could cause a problem for you?
And don’t forget trailers. If you’re about to load or unload a truck, you have more inspections to do. Is the floor of the trailer capable of supporting the weight of the lift and load? Is it in good condition? Are the wheels chocked or is the trailer otherwise secured?
Never take for granted that somebody else has checked the things that your safety and well-being depend on. Inspect, inspect, inspect.
There is no lack of danger in a warehouse. Forklifts will always pose some danger to warehouse workers, but that danger can be exponentially increased if the lift isn’t being operated properly. Train your operators how to safely handle the machines and train your people on the floor how to behave around lifts. If everyone works together, everyone goes home safe at the end of the shift.
Toolbox talks, tailgate meetings, pre-work safety meetings – whatever you want to call them, these brief safety sessions can be a valuable opportunity. They help focus your workforce on safety, prior to the beginning of their work shift, and they are an opportunity for you to ensure that all of your employees are fit for duty.
Or, they can be dreadfully boring, disorganized, snooze-fests.
Meetings for the sake of meetings are inefficient and often serve no purpose other than giving the workforce something to complain about. Your toolbox talks need to be run properly to ensure that your workers are not just paying attention, but benefitting from the time spent. They need to be run in a way that will remind your employees what they should be concentrating on or to impart brand new knowledge on them. If your workforce is bored, distracted, or otherwise disengaged, you will achieve nothing other than keeping your people from working.
So, how do you do it right?
Don't Read to Them
If you think grabbing the safety write-up that gets emailed to you weekly and reading it to the workforce is going to get the job done, think again. Nothing is easier to tune out than somebody reading words off a page. Unless you’re planning on doing impressions and cartoon voices, your employees will see this as nap time. Doing it this way makes it harder for you to put any feeling into what you’re saying, difficult to make eye contact with the people you are addressing, and it puts the idea in the mind of your audience that maybe you don’t know anything about the material you’re trying to present to them. Read those weekly mailings (if that’s what you’re using) ahead of time. Familiarize yourself with the topic. I know we’ve all got a love/hate relationship with the internet, but here’s an opportunity to take advantage of the “love” part of it. Do some research. Find news stories relevant to what you’re discussing and other supplemental information. Show your workers how your topic applies in the real world. If you need inspiration or ideas on what to discuss with your team, subscribe to the Simplified Safety newsletter. Just don’t read right off the page!
Engage your Audience
So, once you’re armed with all the information the internet can provide (from reputable sources, please!), what’s next?
Have a conversation.
Talk with your employees about the chosen safety topic, not at them. Think back to your school days. Which classes did you find more entertaining: the ones where your teachers engaged you and got you to participate, or the ones where the teacher stood in the front of the class and lectured at you…on and on and on? I’m guessing the former. And, make no mistake, entertainment is important. No, you don’t have to tell jokes and juggle (though juggling would be cool…just not knives…or fire…these are safety meetings for Pete’s sake!), but you do need to give your audience a reason to want to pay attention. Don’t speak in a monotone voice unless you want to lull your employees off to La-La-Land. DO tell related stories from personal experience, ask questions of your audience, and have them tell their own personal anecdotes (but don’t let this run wildly off topic or take an inordinate amount of time - you still need to control the meeting). Do all this and watch their attention grow. The more they pay attention, the more they’ll learn.
Does most of your work involve digging excavations? Then don’t do a toolbox talk on steel erection. Do you do a vast majority of your work at heights? Then why are you discussing forklift safety? If your topic doesn’t apply to the work you do, then why teach it? Now, there are topics that don’t apply as much as other topics do or as frequently, but still apply. You don’t need to eliminate those, though they may only serve more as backup topics once your main topics are exhausted. However, if the topic has nothing to do with what your people do then toss it. Find a replacement. Try and have a backlog of topics. The Simplified Safety blog archive is a great place to find inspiration.
There's a Time and Place
If my parents told me this once they told me a thousand times, “There’s a time and a place for everything.” I’m sure many of you are nodding your heads in agreement. And, most of the time it was followed by, “And this is neither the time nor the place!” Well, luckily my judgment has improved over the years. And you know what? Mom and Dad were on to something. When and where you hold your toolbox talks play a big part in how successful or unsuccessful they will be. Holding a toolbox talk in the work area is a good idea because it may be easier to demonstrate something you’re teaching or it may just mean people are already focused on their work. It can also be a terrible idea if the work place is loud, uncomfortable, or offers other distractions. Immediately following lunch can be a great time to hold a meeting because you can find everybody in one place, but it could also be a terrible idea as everyone struggles to fight off their food-comas. Make sure that the time and place you choose to hold your meeting is conducive to learning because that’s the ultimate goal.
Toolbox talks don’t have to be tricky. Sure you might be a Pinterest-level demonstrator who’s got all kinds of fancy, outside the box ideas and visual aids, but you can hold a great toolbox talk without all that. Just remember though, while it can be simple to have a great toolbox talk, it’s also fairly easy to turn a topic that had potential into a poor use of company time. As the Boy Scouts say, “Be Prepared.” Know your material, know your audience, know your environment, and make sure everything you plan works within those parameters. If not, change it up. Better to delay a toolbox talk and get it right, than to have your workers walk away from your meeting with nothing to show for it.