IF YOU ASK THEM, most forklift operators, fleet managers, and warehouse workers will say that safety is their number-one priority. They’ll probably also say that they continually think about safety while they’re at work. More often than not, though, such assertions are closer to aspiration than reality.
Yet it is possible to develop an environment where every employee and contractor actually does consider safety to be his or her responsibility and does think about it throughout the workday. That describes a “safety culture,” which Don Buckman, Hyster Co.’s environmental health and safety manager, defines as “a set of beliefs, attitudes, and actions consistently adopted by everyone in the organization to make the right decisions that value safety.”
The word “everyone” is key: A successful safety culture requires each individual to value and prioritize safety, regardless of his or her position on the organization chart. “We want every person who comes to work, including not just forklift drivers but also office staff, to have a ‘zero injury mindset,’” says Ed Johannesen, director of manufacturing for UniCarriers Americas (UCA).
It’s neither quick nor easy to ensure that everyone is safety-focused and compliant at all times. Rather, it’s a long-term initiative that requires sustained attention. “Safety culture is something that must be cultivated over time,” says Brian Duffy, director of corporate environmental and manufacturing safety for Crown Equipment Corp. “It’s not something that can be created or forced.”
Though it requires time and effort, there are plenty of reasons why developing a safety culture is worthwhile. In addition to fewer injuries, they include higher productivity, lower costs, reduced product and equipment damage, and better compliance with regulations. Here’s one more: A safety culture encourages co-workers to look out for each other’s well-being. “If we truly are treating each other like family, then we care enough to make sure others don’t put themselves in dangerous positions,” says Toyota Material Handling Brand Ambassador Tom Lego.
The consequences of failing to develop and maintain a safety culture can be dire. In a May 2019 blog post, Thelma Marshall of TotalTrax, a provider of forklift telematics systems, cites the example of a forklift operator who backed over a pedestrian; after numerous surgeries, the accident victim’s leg was amputated, and the resulting lawsuit was settled for $9 million. Such mishaps occur when “workers get complacent with repetitive work and ignore safety measures,” Marshall wrote. Indeed, during the trial, the operator admitted to being careless about basic safety protocols.
As the above example suggests, developing a safety culture among forklift operators and other warehouse and DC personnel requires employees to change both their mindset and their behavior. The baseline for accomplishing that: clear, consistent communication and collaboration across the facility.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) “Safe and Sound” initiative helps companies of all sizes improve safety in the workplace. OSHA suggests completing the following steps to provide a foundation for a more comprehensive health and safety program. Many of these steps involve soliciting and incorporating recommendations from workers; for example, during inspections, managers should ask workers to identify any activity, piece of equipment, or material that concerns them. The steps include:
DOES EVERYONE GET THE MESSAGE?
Clear, effective communication by and for everyone—not just forklift operators but pedestrians too—is vital. Even nonverbal communication can lead to big improvements when everyone adopts them. Hyster Co., for example, asks pedestrians to “wait for the wave.” Whether employees or visitors, pedestrians do not proceed until the forklift operator waves to them. This conveys the message that “I see you, I value your safety, and I will wait and wave you on,” Buckman explains.
More broadly, safety communications should be shared through multiple channels—horizontal, vertical, and peer-to-peer. UCA, for example, always starts major meetings with a safety-related topic; this reinforces the idea that safety is the first priority, Johannesen says. Because informal discussions can also be effective, UCA makes sure line supervisors and managers are “fluent in safety” and know how to communicate guidance to their direct reports and others in a facility. Regardless of who is delivering the safety messages, Johannesen adds, they must be aligned and consistent across the organization.
Training, of course, is a fundamental element of safety communication. Facilities with a forklift safety culture typically go above and beyond the minimum safety training requirements set by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). And because a safety culture by definition encompasses everyone in a facility, their programs generally include pedestrians too. Anyone who enters a facility should receive a safety orientation and periodic refresher training on how to be safe in an environment where forklifts are operating, Lego says.
An essential element of any operator-training program is hands-on safety demonstrations and instruction, says Joe Tomkiewicz, director, consumer trades and durable goods for Yale Materials Handling Corp. He also recommends assigning an experienced mentor to work with new employees during training sessions. “This practice helps ensure that important legacy knowledge is passed on to new hires, enabling them to meet demanding performance standards while respecting safety protocols,” he says.
A different approach may be more effective for experienced employees who have been doing things their own way for years. They might be resistant to new expectations associated with a safety-focused culture. For them, Johannesen says, “this is really about implementing and managing change, just like in any other business or industry.”
Strong safety programs also use a variety of methods to deliver training and guide operators to follow best practices. Advancements such as virtual reality-based instruction, which allows operators to practice safe operating techniques using a simulator on a stationary lift truck, and e-learning are effective when used in addition to traditional safety lectures and in-person instruction, says Dave Norton, vice president, customer solutions and support, for The Raymond Corp. Outside the classroom, technologies like warehouse and labor management systems and forklift telematics enhance safety by allowing organizations to connect and communicate directly with an operation’s fleet management, assets, and workforce, he notes. Forklift telematics, for example, use sensors and wireless transmission to direct, track, and measure some of the lift truck’s and the operator’s activities and performance. This capability makes it possible to identify operators who require additional training. On the flip side, reports, alerts, and remote controls can help to reinforce desired behaviors.
The safest facilities are those where employees take to heart their responsibility for each other’s safety. For mutual responsibility to become a way of life, people must take a collaborative approach to fixing problems. When a mistake, an accident, or a near-miss occurs, it’s important that a working group of employees from different levels, not just managers, come together to understand what happened and take corrective measures right away, Lego says. A safety culture will give similar weight to developing a long-term action plan to prevent similar problems from occurring in the future. Information about the incident as well as the short- and long-term solutions should be shared across the organization so people can learn from each other and work with accurate information, not hearsay, he adds.
Among the most important ways co-workers can help each other be safe is to speak up when they see a hazard or unsafe behavior. But most people are reluctant to approach a co-worker—especially someone they may not know well—with what may be perceived as a criticism.
Behavior-based safety programs leverage human psychology to overcome that obstacle and encourage collaboration. These voluntary programs empower employees to speak to each other about risky behavior and provide positive reinforcement when they see safe behavior. A key success factor for this type of program is that employees both understand and are accountable for the consequences of their behavior.
Crown has had an employee-run behavior-based program, called SafeSteps, in place for about 10 years. When they speak with co-workers, the volunteer observers (many of Crown’s warehouse and factory employees currently participate) use positive language to express concerns about people’s safety, Duffy says. This includes discussing the consequences of unsafe actions and their potential impact on co-workers. Peers also recognize and thank each other for what they did right. Observers note on scorecards whether or not their peers performed specified tasks safely and whether the observer gave verbal feedback. Importantly, participants are coached on how to give feedback so that recipients will be receptive to it.
Companies that have adopted these programs say that over time, they lead to safer workplaces and fewer injuries. Behavior-based safety programs offer other benefits as well. Duffy, for one, cites stronger, more positive relationships among peers, while Johannesen, whose company adopted a behavior-based safety program about two years ago, has seen a positive impact on injury rates, product quality, and, in some cases, operating costs. Employees are more engaged too: “In some departments, everyone is thinking and talking about safety now,” he says.
SIGNS OF SUCCESS
No matter how committed to achieving a safety culture a facility may be, there are bound to be some roadblocks along the way. Oftentimes, says Toyota’s Lego, the root cause is an imbalance among the three pillars of industrial performance—safety, quality, and productivity. He uses the analogy of juggling. All three “balls” have to keep moving at the same pace; they are so interrelated that if there’s too much emphasis on one, then one or both of the others will suffer in some way. If the facility puts too much emphasis on hitting productivity targets, for instance, “that sets a poor precedent, because you’re communicating to your people that numbers are more important than their safety,” he says. Importantly, he adds, nothing should ever allow the safety “ball” to be dropped.
If the entire organization—from top management to the shop floor to the back office—is not aligned, then efforts to develop a safety culture will be undermined. When that’s the case, says Johannesen of UniCarriers, it’s important to help the resisters overcome their objections. “If you can see that some people don’t quite buy into [a safety initiative], have early adopters and safety champions work with them in advance or on the side,” he suggests. “If you can get some quick wins and generate some buzz, that can also help to bring those people on board.”
How do you know when you’ve successfully implemented a safety culture among forklift operators, pedestrians, and others in your warehouse or DC? From a quantitative standpoint, effective preventive measures will result in more streamlined processes, fewer work disruptions, and greater productivity, says Raymond’s Norton, adding that continuous monitoring of data generated by telematics and labor management systems will reflect improvements and shed light on new opportunities for optimization.
Duffy of Crown Equipment points to “leading indicators” that suggest whether a safety culture has not only been achieved but is also likely to continue. In a 2019 National Forklift Safety Day presentation, he characterized the development of a safety culture as a “journey.” In the early stages, employees believe safety and plant or DC managers are responsible for safety, and the focus is on compliance and injury investigations. Later, when all employees consider themselves to be responsible for safety and push each other to improve, that’s an indicator that safety has become part of the company’s culture and that it will continue over the long term. Ultimately, Duffy says, “the core of the program is worker engagement and ownership, not just ‘participation.’ You have to get to a higher level than that.”