The world has changed dramatically in the nine years since the Industrial Truck Association (ITA) launched the annual National Forklift Safety Day program to educate customers, policymakers, and government officials about the safe use of forklifts and the importance of proper operator training. The Covid-19 pandemic has deeply impacted businesses, including those that use forklifts, in myriad ways. One of the biggest changes has been in the labor market, where every industry is challenged not just to hire but also to retain trained workers. The high rate of turnover has directly affected forklift safety. “The unique, transitory environment for employees we’re in requires us to be on our game all the time” when it comes to operator and pedestrian safety, says 2022 National Forklift Safety Day Chair Jonathan Dawley.
Dawley is president and CEO of Summerville, South Carolina-based Kion North America Corp., which provides the Linde Material Handling and Baoli brands of lift trucks. He has spent his career in manufacturing industries like material handling, automotive, and infrastructure and heavy construction equipment. He joined the Kion Group in 2020 from Putzmeister Holding GmbH, where he had been president and CEO of the Americas region. Prior to that, he was responsible for the global aftermarket business at JLG Industries Corp., a subsidiary of Oshkosh Corp. He gained extensive experience in intralogistics as well as in the material handling business in senior management roles at Hyster-Yale Materials Handling Inc. from 2005 to 2014, most recently as president of Hyster Co. distribution.
Described by peers and colleagues as a strategic thinker with vision and deep technical knowledge, Dawley has long experience in manufacturing, developing international markets, financial management, and industrial technology and automation. He is active as a board member in the German American Chamber of Commerce (Southeast), the Charleston (South Carolina) Metro Chamber, and the president’s industry board at College of Charleston.
DC Velocity recently spoke with Dawley about the labor-related conditions that are challenging forklift safety today, his thoughts on training technology, and his priorities for National Forklift Safety Day 2022.
Q: What are your current job responsibilities?
A: As president and CEO of Kion North America, I am responsible for sales and marketing; operations, including production, supply chain, and procurement; engineering and product strategy functions; and administrative functions such as human resources and finance. Ultimately, though, my job is to lead the company to success. I am a growth-stage CEO, which means I am changing the culture of the company to manage and support our growth. One thing about our culture that won’t change, though, is our commitment to caring for and developing our people. I put building a sustainable culture at the center of all of my actions.
Q: How did you get into material handling originally?
A: My first exposure came while I was working and getting my college degree. Through that job, I met the COO of a large forklift dealer. He became a customer and later asked me what I was doing with my life. I explained that I was finishing my degree, and he said, “Come talk to me as soon as you finish.” I did, and he hired me as an aftermarket sales rep at the dealership.
I ended up going on to work for automotive OEMs and suppliers for the following 10 years, but material handling really did get in my blood, as I enjoyed the diversity of applications. Eventually, I came back into this business in 2005, when I was hired by one of the leading lift truck manufacturers in North America. I was there for nearly 10 years, holding numerous senior leadership roles. I left the industry for six years but am now back, with the privilege of leading Kion North America.
Q: Is there anything you especially like or find exceptionally interesting about the industrial truck industry?
A: I enjoy the diversity of applications and the opportunity to problem solve in many different industries. As a young person entering the industry, I was able to experience many different market sectors, from automotive manufacturing to warehousing to food and beverage applications. Learning about different industries, processes, and business models, and solving diverse problems for these customers were attractors early on. Plus, the industrial truck industry is the backbone of logistics. It’s exciting to be in an industry that has a direct impact on every supply chain around the world.
Currently, there is so much going on in the area of technology. Customers worry about finding good employees and about employee turnover, and this demographic change is driving more automation. In the past, automation was seen as a disruptive technology that was a threat to jobs, but today it’s clear that with a very tight labor market for the foreseeable future, we have to apply automation as a support for businesses and the economy. At the same time, customers want to ensure their employees’ safety, and they also want to be more efficient and competitive. So, in addition to automation, we are looking at technologies that can help them in areas like energy efficiency and safety.
The technology opportunities are very interesting, but at the end of the day, success comes back around to people. In this industry, you have to get on the ground with people to understand their needs and build relationships.
Q: You have a lot of experience that is timely and relevant today, such as international business development, Industry 4.0, and automation. How will your background contribute to ITA’s efforts to promote forklift safety?
A: Having a background in product strategy and technology is especially relevant in leading a material handling company right now. Manufacturers and warehouse companies are dealing with not being able to get enough employees or are experiencing high rates of employee turnover. When you have high turnover, that means many new employees, so it’s important to keep up with basic levels of training. At the same time, business opportunities are growing and businesses that use forklifts are expanding, so businesses are working at a very fast pace.
In times like these, we can use technology to our benefit. We in the forklift industry can supply systems that enable another layer of safety management on top of the core safety training. For example, collision-avoidance systems can help with operator awareness of safe practices. But technology-based systems are not replacements for training and education—they are supplemental, or supportive of training.
Q: What are your personal priorities as National Forklift Safety Day chair?
A: First, I want to get the industry aligned, from the manufacturer to the dealer, to maximize awareness at the end-user level of the need for training and the basic tool kits and training the industry provides. I would like the industry to create one harmonized message to send to forklift end-users. Second, I’d like to look at how we can leverage technology to support operator training. While technology is not a replacement for basic training and good culture, technologies such as automation and collision-avoidance systems are a good supplement and can reinforce good safety principles. And third, I want to find a way to get dealer networks more engaged with National Forklift Safety Day. Every manufacturer and its dealers should consider holding open houses to drive safety awareness—for example, by holding operator training classes on site during that time.
Q: Are there specific topics this year’s National Forklift Safety Day program will focus on?
A: As always, we will emphasize that forklift safety is not a one-time issue and that it is as important for pedestrians as it is for operators. We will also be looking at the safety-related challenges warehouses and manufacturers are facing as we start to come out of the Covid-19 pandemic and the economy improves. For example, some businesses have grown dramatically, and in some cases that has meant higher levels of inventory. As a result, there may be material in new places in the DC or the factory where there wasn’t anything before. Perhaps that forces a pedestrian to walk outside of the normal marked path, which puts them in the way of equipment, or an operator has to drive around something that wasn’t there yesterday and pedestrians aren’t expecting a forklift to be there. These changing situations can compromise safety and put employees at risk.
Q: The pandemic has had a huge impact on forklift operations and labor. Has this “new normal” affected how end-users approach forklift safety?
A: It has. We need an additional 3.2 million workers in the United States to cover current job openings. As facilities search for employees in a very constrained labor environment, they may end up hiring people who may not have the same capabilities and experience as the previous employee base. That, together with the high rates of turnover that businesses everywhere are seeing, is making safety training more difficult, creating risk for end-users.
There are also two employee-related dynamics many businesses are seeing. One is that some employees do not feel a long-term commitment to the company that hires them, which means you have to engage them and help them feel connected so they will want to stay with the company. Another is that if someone does have a laissez faire attitude about coming to work, then they likely do not have a sense of urgency about safety. So, you have to aim for daily engagement, and supervisors on the line have to constantly be reinforcing the importance of safety. And if we as business leaders don’t establish a culture of accountability, then the safety system falls apart.
Q: What’s the main message you would like DC Velocity’s readers to take away from National Forklift Safety Day?
A: The main message is that safety is a culture. To make safety a priority in companies, that message has to come from the top, and we have to live it ourselves, day in and day out. We can leverage advanced technology to help limit risks, but we also have to ensure people practice the basics of safe operation every day and that training is maintained.