October 1, 2007
equipment & applications | Lift Trucks

Who's overseeing the trainers?

who's overseeing the trainers?

Nobody, it turns out. In the absence of federal regulations, anyone can hang out a sign, print up business cards, and call himself a forklift driver trainer.

By James A. Cooke

By any standard, Joe Monaco is well qualified to train drivers in the safe operation of forklift trucks. Not only does he boast more than 20 years of experience, but he also runs the Monaco Group Inc., a Martinville, N.J.-based training company that has created a voluntary national licensing system and registry. He's earned a national reputation for his research into the effectiveness of various driver training methods— research that helped influence the government's driver training standards.

But Monaco may be more the exception than the rule. Though he brings impressive credentials to the job, there's nothing in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations that requires other trainers to bring similar qualifications to their work. In fact, the agency has no licensing or certification requirements whatsoever. Anyone can hang out a sign, print up business cards, and call himself (or herself) a forklift driver trainer.

"All the standard requires is that the trainer has some practical knowledge to train and evaluate an employee on the safe operation of a truck," says Patrick Kapust, a safety specialist with OSHA. "We have no specific requirements."

That has some shaking their heads. "OSHA should definitely regulate trainers," says Joseph Lurie, a senior partner in the Philadelphia law firm of Galfand Berger LLP, which handles forklift injury cases. "If you need a license to drive a car, you would think something as important as training someone in operating a lift truck should have the same type of requirement."

Yes, we have standards
Up until the '90s, the government's position on what constituted adequate driver training was even hazier. Companies were supposed to make sure that forklift drivers were trained in the safe operation of their vehicles, but the government didn't dictate how they did it, much less who did it.

By 1995, forklift accidents had become a leading cause of workplace fatalities, killing more than 100 workers and injuring 38,000 each year. OSHA began formulating standards for training employees in the safe operation of industrial trucks. Three years later, in December 1998, it finally issued guidelines that spell out an employer's training obligations and outline detailed requirements for training workers on the proper use of powered industrial trucks. Those standards took effect in March 1999.

The regulations specify what topics must be covered by a driver training program—a blend of basic "how-to" operational instructions and safety information tailored to the specific site. They also specify how that instruction should be provided and when employers must send drivers for refresher training. And they outline how—and how often—trainers should evaluate drivers (see the accompanying sidebar).

What they don't do, however, is provide much guidance on who can provide the training. The regulations state only that the training should be done "under the direct supervision of persons who have the knowledge, training and experience to train operators and evaluate their competence." Trainers are not required to be certified or licensed.Nor are they required to master a specific body of knowledge regarding lift truck safety.

As for why, the agency says that it lacks the legal authority to regulate trainers and would need that authority from Congress. It should be noted, however, that other federal agencies provide oversight of training and certify workers in specific occupations. The Federal Aviation Administration, for example, regulates flight instruction schools in the United States and certifies airline mechanics.

The buck stops here …
With little in the way of guidance from OSHA, many DCs have opted to handle driver training themselves, developing inhouse training programs that typically rely on veteran drivers to show rookies the basics of lift truck operation. Others have chosen to outsource their driver training— either to a company that specializes in such instruction or to a local forklift dealer that offers training as an ancillary service.

Still others take a hybrid approach. In order to save money, they hire a forklift training firm to educate one of their employees, who then acts as an in-house trainer. "A lot of companies train an inhouse trainer," says Kenneth Hutchins, owner of Industrial Truck Safety, a training firm located in Houston. "Once they are taught by us, they can certify other operators. They come to us with basic skills and we train them on OSHA standards."

But hiring an outside specialist is no guarantee that the job will be done right, says Jim Shephard, president of Shephard's Industrial Training Systems Inc., a Bartlett, Tenn.-based company that provides site-specific operator training programs for all types of powered industrial equipment, including lift trucks. Shephard notes, for example, that many trainers don't offer refresher training, which he considers essential to safe forklift operation.He also worries that in many cases, employers are more interested in the time and cost of an operator training program than in the trainer's qualifications.

It's important to note that hiring an outside specialist does not absolve the employer of responsibility if a forklift operator is killed or injured. Regardless of who actually conducts the training, the employer is ultimately accountable for seeing that workers receive the proper instruction. If an accident occurs, one of the first things OSHA does is conduct an inquiry to determine whether appropriate training was provided. If it concludes that the employer failed to comply with its regulations, it's the employer—not the trainer—who is fined.

"In terms of our standard, an employer can use a third-party trainer, but we would cite the employer," says Kapust. "We (OSHA) have no jurisdiction over the trainer.

You'd have to change the [law]. Employers have a duty to provide a workplace free of recognized hazards, and that's who OSHA issues citations to."

Since the regulations took effect in 1999, OSHA has followed up on all forklift accidents and levied fines on employers found to be in violation of its standards. From fiscal year 2005 through July 2007, the agency issued 5,256 citations to employers. An OSHA spokesperson reports that the average fine imposed for those violations was $1,000.

Courting lawsuits
Beyond the prospect of OSHA fines and citations, there are other potential consequences for employers who fail to ensure that their workers receive proper training. If a worker is killed or seriously injured, employers may also face civil suits. (It should be noted that in some states, the employer cannot be sued if an injured employee receives workers' compensation benefits.)

And it's not just employers who have to worry about the possibility of being sued. Although third-party trainers have not typically been the targets of civil suits, they should not assume they're immune, warns one lawyer. "Anyone that undertakes training has to do so with the proper degree of care, and if they don't, they're liable for negligence," says George W. Keeley, a principal in the Chicago law firm of Keeley, Keene and Reid. "If you train somebody, and if you don't do it correctly, and some poorly trained person hurts somebody, then certainly you can include the trainer in any … legal action."

But some observers say there's no need to let things get to the litigation stage. By regulating trainers, the federal government could help prevent problems caused by inadequate training from developing in the first place. If Washington is serious about promoting workplace safety, they argue, Congress should give OSHA jurisdiction over forklift trainers. That means granting OSHA the authority (and the additional staff) to oversee forklift trainers, with the goal of assuring that every trainer (or training firm) has the qualifications and experience to coach others in the safe operation of powered industrial trucks.

About the Author

James A. Cooke
James Cooke is a principal analyst with Nucleus Research in Boston, covering supply chain planning software. He was previously the editor of CSCMP’s Supply Chain Quarterly and a staff writer for DC Velocity.

More articles by James A. Cooke

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