No two industrial truck operators are the same. In any one facility, operators will be different ages, come from different demographic backgrounds, and have varying degrees of experience. Yet forklift safety training is sometimes treated as a one-size-fits-all affair.
Fleet managers may need to reconsider that approach as warehouses and distribution centers (DCs) continue to grapple with acute labor shortages and unprecedented rates of employee turnover. At many facilities, 50% of the warehouse staff has fewer than 90 days on the job—“a statistic I’ve heard over and over” in conversations with customers, particularly those involved in cold storage or in densely populated areas where there is strong competition for labor, reports Jim Gaskell, director of global automation and emerging technologies for Crown Equipment Corp.
Many of those newer employees may be experienced forklift operators in search of higher pay and signing bonuses. But with facilities having to work harder to recruit labor, they’re also seeing more new hires who have never been on an industrial truck before. First-timers’ lack of familiarity with the equipment, potential misconceptions about what’s actually involved in operating industrial trucks, and short tenures can be detrimental to safety, so we asked safety training experts for tips on how to work most effectively with this growing population of operators. Here are some of their recommendations.
1. Keep their attention in the classroom. Classroom training is required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), in addition to hands-on work with equipment and “road test” practicums. But a lecture-only format is unlikely to hold trainees’ attention—especially if they’re young and were raised on multimedia. Interactive computer-based “e-learning” programs and training videos that keep learners engaged and “bring the forklift owner’s manual to life” are effective teaching tools, says Evelyn Velásquez-Cuevas, director, product sales and technical training for Yale Materials Handling.
Bob Bladel, vice president, training and sales enablement for Hyster Co., is also a fan of using visuals in safety training. Photos, illustrations, and videos dramatically increase retention of information compared to reading or listening alone, he says. Importantly, they enhance trainees’ understanding when equipment and environments they have never seen are introduced in class.
The experts agree: Multimedia, while valuable, is a supplement to—not a replacement for—a skilled trainer. Effective trainers guide learners as they progress through the curriculum, keeping them attentive by asking questions and building discussions off the answers. “Don’t just lecture—engage in two-way communication. That means you also have to listen,” says Tony Parsons, regional operator training manager for the regional dealer network Wolter Inc. (Multimedia is not a substitute for on-the-floor experience, either, he adds: “You can read a book and watch YouTube, but your butt has to be in the seat to really learn.”)
2. Test as you go. It’s incumbent on the trainer to make sure students are learning what they should, says Dave Norton, vice president, customer solutions and support for The Raymond Corp. One way to do that is to confirm their understanding by testing frequently as they learn, instead of testing them on the entire curriculum at the end of the class.
Gaskell, a former training manager, recommends a method called “performance-based training,” where instructors teach one task at a time and then test each student’s knowledge and hands-on competence after they have completed a module at their own pace. Students cannot move forward until they’ve mastered each task in a specified order. Because trainees are tested individually, the trainer has ample opportunity to assess each one’s understanding and proficiency. This individualized approach leads to more competent operators than “putting everybody in a room and risking not really interacting with them individually,” he says.
3. Start them on appropriate equipment. There’s no universal “starter model” for new operators. Mike Hance, technical support manager at Equipment Depot, which represents parent company Mitsubishi Logisnext America’s Cat lift trucks, Mitsubishi forklift trucks, and Jungheinrich and UniCarriers Forklift brands, has been training operators since 1987. He favors Class 4 and 5 (internal combustion engine) sit-down forklifts to start. In his experience, new operators generally pick up skills fairly quickly because the steering, foot brake, and accelerator operate much like those in an automobile.
All agreed that narrow-aisle, stand-up electrics are harder to master. Depending on the type of equipment, operators will have to learn multiple skills, including how to pick, place, and stack in addition to scanning and using radio-frequency (RF) terminals, all while elevated; or they may have to put away pallets at great heights while using a camera system. Furthermore, most people aren’t accustomed to controlling speed with their hands, or using controls like the emergency “dead man” pedal, which stops the truck when an operator picks up their left foot. Those are completely new skills that “may feel weird” for a while, Wolter’s Parsons says. (Hance and others note that younger operators who are used to joystick controls for gaming systems typically pick up the skills for controlling stand-up trucks more quickly than senior operators who are used to sit-downs.) As several experts suggested, sit-down counterbalanced trucks and stand-up models require operators to develop very different “muscle memory”—something that’s not easy to do quickly.
Norton, meanwhile, says that many of his customers start new operators on Class 3 pallet trucks and low-height stackers because “the first steps are more like driving a car—you just drive and turn, as opposed to lifting and maneuvering a load at a significant height.” But Parsons says there can be drawbacks to that approach. “Although they may seem simple, I teach electric rider pallet jacks at the end. They are heavier than people think, and operators may be around pedestrians, which can create hazards for both.”
4. Take advantage of technology. In Parsons’ view, training technology is “a great tool to assist the trainer and student to get to the destination faster with less risk,” but it is most effective when matched to an individual student’s knowledge gap and learning style. Our experts identified three types of technology they consider especially useful with first-time operators: telematics, simulation, and sensory alerts.
Bladel of Hyster believes that end-users who aren’t leveraging today’s training technology are shortchanging new operators and could potentially be exacerbating labor turnover. “If [operators] don’t see the company investing in technology that could help make their job safer, then it’s a contradictory message. They will want to know, why aren’t you trying to keep me safe?”
5. Help them feel confident—but not too confident. Brand-new operators may become nervous or even fearful when it’s time to take their practical test or they’re starting to work on their own. Often, they are timid with the controls and frequently ask whether they are doing something right, says Jason Moore, a training and development manager at Hyster. Being too timid can actually lead to more mistakes because “that’s not how the truck is designed to operate,” he says. In those cases, it helps to go back over a specific task until the operator feels comfortable with it.
It’s important to encourage new operators to ask questions and request more practice time, and companies should allow time for that, says Velásquez-Cuevas. “We have found that younger generations want a lot of feedback, and they will usually be open to coaching and mentoring,” she adds.
Some new operators may be overconfident, though, and that can be dangerous. “Certain operators will show confidence pretty quickly,” Crown’s Gaskell notes. “Yes, they can drive, but it may not be a true test of successful training. An overconfident operator can look skilled, but if they are too confident about their capabilities, then it’s possible they will not be using their best judgment.”
Often, this applies to young trainees who “feel like they’ve been given their wings and want to take off and fly,” as Hance of Equipment Depot puts it. That’s when it’s time for a reminder about risk, like the fact that a 5,000-pound-capacity forklift weighs as much as two cars, and with a load, is as heavy as three cars. “It’s critical for them to understand the weight and forces they are dealing with, and the injuries those forces can cause,” he says.
6. Take it slow. Hance recommends against immediately placing new operators in a high-speed environment. “They need to be monitored in a controlled environment until they’ve developed skills and are proficient in dealing with things like pedestrians and dock safety,” he explains. He suggests having new operators start out in slower-paced, comparatively simple jobs; as their skills progress, they can take on more complex work like delivering to loading docks, where travel paths are not as clearly defined as they are in the aisles.
Employers may want to consider setting a probationary period with a shorter-term license than the standard three years. During this period, Wolter’s Parsons advises, a supervisor should observe new operators and intervene if they see any unsafe behavior. If all is well or has been corrected by the end of the probationary period, they can go ahead and grant the full-term license.
7. Monitor and hold them accountable. Even classroom superstars may do everything correctly when a trainer is with them but fail to follow some basic rules when they’re on their own, says Hyster’s Bladel. Accordingly, a manager or supervisor should continue monitoring new operators for some time after they receive their licenses, he says.
Proper operating practices are critical, so even the newest associates must be held accountable if they don’t maintain safe practices, says Norton of Raymond. Supervisors are responsible for “policing” the work environment, but peer-to-peer supervision can also be very effective, especially for first-timers who have been mentored by a more experienced co-worker. And while there should be consequences if new operators do not follow the rules they’ve been taught, ultimately, our experts say, the point is not to punish, but to reinforce the safe and proper way of operating.
The forklift safety experts we spoke with for this article have many years of experience. Over the years, they’ve developed a portfolio of teaching techniques to help brand-new operators become competent and comfortable on an industrial truck. The following are a few of their “tricks of the trade”: