April 18, 2018
National Forklift Safety Day Special Section | Lift Trucks

Master class

If anyone understands how to safely operate lift trucks, it's the companies that design and manufacture the equipment. A look at how they train their own employees reveals best practices any forklift fleet can adopt.

By Toby Gooley

Suppose you've just bought a new lawn tractor or snow blower. If you've never used one of these machines before, the logical place to turn for instruction is the manufacturer. Even if you do have experience with these types of equipment, there are enough differences among makes and models that you'll still need guidance on how to use a particular machine safely and correctly.

The same principle applies to industrial trucks. Drivers must know how to safely operate specific types of forklifts in the particular environment where they will be working. And, since nobody knows their products better than the companies that designed and built them, it stands to reason that the manufacturers' own factories, warehouses, and distribution centers would have exemplary forklift safety records. That's why we asked several OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) how they train their own employees and what they think are the most effective ways to deliver that training. Here's what they had to say.


Above all else, the OEMs emphasized the importance of creating a safety-focused culture. That means ensuring that everyone makes safety a top priority and understands his or her responsibility to provide a safe workplace for forklift operators and pedestrians alike. That begins with the employer, who has to provide the necessary training and support employees need to help prevent accidents and injuries, says Pat O'Connor, lead service trainer in UniCarriers Americas' training department.

Forklift operators have a responsibility to comply with safety standards and follow the rules and safe practices they learn during their training, of course. "Operators have to understand that these are powerful machines, and they can't check out during the training," says Tom Lego, national manager of training and customer center for Toyota Material Handling U.S.A. (TMHU). "They must take training seriously, and they need to understand and respect the equipment. Operating safely is a responsibility, not an option."

As for the training itself, OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) rule 1910.178 (Powered Industrial Truck Standard) mandates that all lift truck operators receive specialized training by certified instructors. This instruction should include, but not be limited to, classroom instruction and hands-on training that is site-specific and is followed by an exam, says Marty Boyd, vice president, product planning and solutions for Greenville, N.C.-based Hyster Co.

OSHA recommends that new operators undergo a one-day eight-hour operator-training course, O'Connor says. At its Marengo, Ill., manufacturing plant and parts distribution center, UniCarriers uses traditional lectures with PowerPoint slides as well as videos that cover specific points of the training. Instructors then demonstrate the activities they've just discussed on a lift truck, and the students perform that same activity as the instructor guides them through it and points out where they need improvement.

In its facilities, Hyster uses the same safety training and awareness materials it offers to customers, including its OSHA-compliant "Best In Class" operator-training program for lift truck classes I through V, Boyd says. The program allows trainers to customize the instruction for the specific facility, environment, and equipment operators will use, as required by OSHA. (See sidebar for more about the training resources offered by forklift manufacturers.)

Because training must be site-specific, employers are the ones who certify that the operator has been properly trained. That's true even for temporary workers, says J. Scott Bicksler, lead safety manager for Aerotek Inc., a global recruiting and staffing agency. "It's important to remember that forklift certification is NOT portable. The policies, procedures, and processes may be totally different from company to company, and they may have totally different forklifts," he says.

One example of site-specific instruction for people and applications can be found in Columbus, Ind., where Toyota Industrial Equipment Manufacturing (TIEM) produces Toyota forklifts for the North American market. Like other OEMs, the company must train not only operators who move parts and materials within those facilities, but also employees who move trucks from one production stage to another, those who conduct quality tests after each truck comes off the assembly line, and sales representatives who will be demonstrating models for dealers and customers. All of them must train on every model they will be operating, regardless of how briefly that might be, Lego says.

Within Toyota's plant is a safety training dojo, a Japanese term that will be familiar to martial arts students and literally means "exercise hall." TIEM's dojo is a dedicated area where a safety trainer conducts classroom and hands-on instruction and documents trainees' certification in compliance with OSHA standards. The dojo also simulates the operating environment, with an obstacle course, marking and signage forklift operators will encounter out on the floor, and different types of racks and loads for practicing pickup and putaway. A life-sized representation of the back end of a trailer allows operators to practice maneuvering in a tight space.


OSHA requires that operators be tested and recertified in the mandated trainings every three years. But that's just the baseline, and experts we consulted agreed that refresher training shouldn't be limited to the minimum.

UniCarriers' safety training team conducts a half-day to full-day forklift safety refresher, depending on the material that needs to be covered, O'Connor says. But, he adds, refresher training can take less time, provided that an appropriately experienced instructor communicates the material properly, and that the operator is sufficiently re-familiarized with the material to pass the required tests and be certified.

Some employers schedule refresher training as often as once a year. That's the case at Toyota, which annually recertifies employees who make heavy daily use of lift trucks. Average users and sales staff go through recertification every two years and every three years, respectively, Lego says.

There are circumstances when training outside the planned schedule is both appropriate and wise—for example, whenever new equipment is introduced to the facility or when the facility layout or flow changes, Hyster's Boyd says. Furthermore, OSHA requires remedial training for operators involved in accidents or near-accidents, he adds.

Sometimes, an individual needs additional training for other reasons. For instance, lift truck operators can easily fall into bad habits, like taking shortcuts that cause safety, quality, or productivity problems, Lego notes. In those cases, he says, instructors should help operators refocus on doing things the right way, so their actions don't have adverse effects on standard procedures and safety.

Experienced operators, though, may question the need for remedial training. One way to respond is to acknowledge that they are undoubtedly good at what they do and then explain the critical importance of safe procedures and why they need a refresher in a particular area or procedure. "They are skilled workers, and it's important to treat them with respect," O'Connor says.


Because OSHA requires classroom and hands-on training, there is definitely still a role for "old-fashioned" instructional methods like classroom lectures, Hyster's Boyd points out. And there is simply no substitute for hands-on training on the truck itself. But there's no need for safety managers to limit training to those methods, nor should they, he says. Instead, trainers are free to use other methods to supplement—not replace—what's mandated by the regulation.

One common way to do that is through videos. This allows trainees to view and learn from situations that can't be replicated at their facility. O'Connor cites the example of forklift accidents. "A lot of workers have never seen accidents," which is a good thing, he says. But it's critical that they understand how they happen and what the consequences are. Showing them accidents in a video or photos "wakes them up" and reinforces the seriousness of the lesson, he says.

Another way to use videos is to show safe operation in different work environments and situations. "Each environment is different, and they all come with their own safety requirements, hazards, and cautions," O'Connor says. "A video can demonstrate that without physically going there. But of course you always reinforce that information with hands-on practice."

A fast-growing trend in supplemental instruction that's quickly gaining fans is virtual reality for operator training. In the past few years, several companies, including Yale Materials Handling Corp., Hyster Co., The Raymond Corp., FL-Simulators, NextWave Safety Solutions Inc., and Tactus Technologies, have developed products that simulate forklift operation using virtual reality (VR). The trainee dons the VR headset while seated in either an actual stationary forklift or a console that replicates a forklift's controls. The student then proceeds through a series of exercises under the close watch of a trainer. Depending on the vendor, the simulation may apply to specific forklift models or types of trucks, and the "scenery" will be either standard images or images customized to mimic the user's actual warehouse environment.

Learning to operate a lift truck in a virtual environment does not replace the valuable experience a student gets from operating a truck in an actual warehouse or DC, says Dave Norton, Raymond's vice president of corporate quality and customer care. But a VR instructional tool still offers many advantages, he says. For one thing, new operators can become comfortable with the lift truck before operating it in a warehouse, without risk to people, products, or equipment. For another, operators using VR can be more confident and practiced in handling different warehouse scenarios, including incident avoidance and emergency maneuvers. VR can also provide a safe way to evaluate job candidates' skills before they take a "road test." And it can help instructors identify employees' strengths and weaknesses so instruction can be tailored to individual students, Norton says. In Raymond's product, he adds, instructors can view exactly what the trainee is seeing in the headset, which allows the instructor to give real-time feedback to the student.

With so many practices, strategies, and protocols to teach, forklift safety training may seem daunting. It is complex, but if you do as the forklift manufacturers do for their own employees—create a safety-focused culture, comply with the applicable regulations, conduct refresher training when needed, and use a variety of methods to provide additional instruction beyond what the regulations require—you'll have a safer work environment.

About the Author

Toby Gooley
Contributing Editor
Contributing Editor Toby Gooley is a freelance writer and editor specializing in supply chain, logistics, material handling, and international trade. She previously was Senior Editor at DC VELOCITY and Editor of DCV's sister publication, CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly. Prior to joining AGiLE Business Media in 2007, she spent 20 years at Logistics Management magazine as Managing Editor and Senior Editor covering international trade and transportation. Prior to that she was an export traffic manager for 10 years. She holds a B.A. in Asian Studies from Cornell University.

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