It might be said that lift trucks, so essential to distribution center operations, are only as safe and productive as their operators. But how can you ensure your drivers are competent to operate a forklift safely? What sort of training should you provide?
At a minimum, any training program has to meet federal requirements. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations specify what topics must be covered by a driver training program (essentially, a blend of "how-to" operating basics and safety information tailored to the specific site). They also touch on how that instruction should be provided and when employers must send drivers for refresher training.
As for who can provide that instruction, training is available from a variety of sources—packaged training programs, training from dealers and third-party consultants, and in-house instructional programs. But even if it hires an outside party, the employer itself is ultimately responsible for ensuring its drivers receive proper training. Lift truck training specialists say there are a number of steps companies can take to assure they're offering a sound program. Here are just a few pointers:
1. Check the credentials. Before bringing in an outside firm, make sure the trainer is qualified, both by experience and on paper. Jeff Fischer, owner of Florida Lift Systems (FLS), a Toyota dealer that has a full-time training specialist on staff, urges customers to check trainers' credentials to ensure that they are certified. (Most major lift truck manufacturers and a number of third-party training organizations offer to certify trainers who complete their programs.)
Be wary of a training firm that contends it can walk in the door with a one-size-fits-all training program, Fischer warns. Since OSHA rules require training to be both specific to the vehicle and to the application, it's unlikely any one-size-fits-all program would meet OSHA requirements, he says.
2. Start with site visit. Fischer emphasizes that the first step for any trainer developing a program for a specific client is a site visit. Because conditions can vary markedly from one operation to the next, it's important for the trainer to "talk to the customer, get an idea of the issues and obstacles—the danger points," he says.
Brad Halcom, a certified safety and operational trainer for FLS, adds that site visits offer an opportunity for the trainer to gather information on the composition of the fleet, what shifts it operates, and the qualifications of operators already working in the facility so it can design a program that addresses the customer's specific needs. "We have a different course for each [vehicle] classification," he says. (Industrial vehicles are divided into seven classes based on a number of operating criteria.) "We find out what they use. Each machine has own application and capacities. While they have some overlap, you have to be specifically trained for the manufacturer and the machine."
3. Ensure the program is thorough. Lift truck operator training is about far more than starting, driving, steering, and manipulating the forks. An effective program should also cover "off the truck" activities like pre-shift inspections and safe battery handling.
For example, the program offered by J.J. Keller Business Services, a consulting firm that specializes in regulatory and safety compliance and provides on-site training, includes an overview of OSHA regulations, daily inspections, training on inclines and ramps, operating in hazardous environments, loading and unloading, fuel handling and storage, battery safety, stacking and manipulating loads, safe storage of material, negotiating sharp turns, and pedestrian traffic.
4. Provide time for classroom instruction. Classroom instruction can vary from a few hours to a full day, depending on the specific requirements of an operation, the size of the class, and the experience of the operators. Classes typically contain both new operators and experienced drivers taking instruction for the mandated recertification, Halcom notes.
As for the classes themselves, Halcom says he uses a variety of media in his classroom sessions, including safety videos, PowerPoint presentations, lectures, and printed material. Topics covered in FLS's training classes include accident prevention, driving skills, fueling and charging, inspecting the truck, load handling, pedestrian hazards, dangers of complacency, and dock hazards.
Steve Cox, an instructional designer for Raymond Corp., says his company's classes begin with basic concepts that apply across a range of equipment—like the dangers of speeding, safe load handling, and awareness of pedestrians—then move on to site-specific information. "In the classroom, we address the ideas, concepts, and theories that affect a variety of vehicles," he says. "It gets more complex when we look at the operational side of it."
5. Provide the time, space, and vehicles for hands-on training. Although the basics can be covered in the classroom, there are some things that can only be learned on the equipment, says Cox, who has worked in lift truck training for 15 years. Safe load handling and maneuvering fall into this category, he says. "You give [trainees] the opportunity to observe an experienced person, then some time to operate and practice on their own."
While hands-on training can be conducted off site or after hours, many companies end up doing it in a relatively quiet portion of an active DC, Cox says. "Most customers don't have the luxury of doing something off site," he says. "You have to do it in the work environment."
As for the equipment used in the training, Cox emphasizes that it's not enough to simply train drivers to operate a specific class of vehicle. Because of variations in design from one make of vehicle to the next, it's important that they receive training on the specific brand of truck they'll be operating. "You cannot assume that if you can drive a Raymond truck, you can just get on a Crown," Cox says.
And it's not just the make and type of truck that matters; the model matters too. Even within brands, new or upgraded models of existing trucks may require some vehicle-specific training.
6. Evaluate and certify. "You need to have some kind of evaluation of the operator's skill," says Cox. That requires an evaluator who is not shy about stating that a would-be lift truck operator is not up to the job.
It's important to note that while professional trainers will offer all the components of a program, including a formal evaluation, the actual certification is up to the employer.
7. Train pedestrians, too. Lift truck operators aren't the only workers at risk in a busy DC. People working around these vehicles face hazards as well. To reduce the risk of accidents and pedestrian injuries, some programs, like the one offered through Raymond's dealers, include specific safety training for dockworkers and others who work around lift trucks but do not operate them.
Editor's note: For the full OSHA standards, view the document titled 1910.178 Powered Industrial Trucks. Training is specifically addressed in paragraph "l."