Lives and forks23 November 2015

Reducing the number of incidents involving forklift trucks is all about encouraging a positive safety culture, as Ian Vallely discovers

“The day Martin was killed was the worst day of our lives, sending shock through the family. After five years we still feel the hurt every day and it doesn’t get any easier. Martin went to work that morning a fit and healthy, loving family man and didn't come home to us. Life without him is very different and very difficult.”

These are the heart-rending words of a wife who lost her husband to an incident involving a forklift truck. They bring home just how devastating work-related deaths are, and the shattering impact they have on the families and friends of victims.

Although a single death is one too many, fatalities involving forklift trucks are mercifully rare; in the UK, it has been estimated that, on average, around 10 people are killed by them each year.

However, lift truck incidents can cut deep in a variety of ways, even if they don’t involve death or injury. Smashed up trucks, damaged buildings, spoilt stock and wrecked racking are just some of the tangible outcomes of poor forklift operator practice.

But there are other costs too – among them disruption, lost working time, compensation claims and higher insurance premiums, as well as the negative impact on staff morale, recruitment and retention, productivity and company reputation.

As Stuart Taylor, MD of Mentor Training (, puts it: “Just because there’s no invoice, doesn’t mean there’s no cost.”

Mitigating losses starts with understanding your company’s approach to safety, says Taylor: “It isn’t just a matter of putting your operators on a training course and thinking that’s the end of the story. It’s recognising that your approach to safety needs input from everybody within the business. It’s critical to genuinely engage with your staff. However, it needs to be driven from the top.”

So, step one is encouraging a genuine desire among the senior management team and shopfloor to make safety improvements together. In fact, operators are concerned about safety most of the time, according to Taylor. “They know where things are going wrong and where the issues are within the business. And they know the pinch points and danger areas. This means, for example, they can make a valuable contribution in terms of practical ideas such as deciding on appropriate speeds for particular areas, or the best layout to create a safe working environment.”

The Fork Lift Truck Association is spearheading a nationwide drive to improve safety on forklift truck sites across the UK through the launch of its Safer Site Programme ( This is an online, step-by-step safety programme that contains advice, guidance, resources and a series of practical tasks to be completed to make a forklift truck site safer.

Meanwhile, one of the most important documents on the safe use of lift trucks is the HSE publication: L117 Rider-operated lift trucks: operator training and safe use (

This offers guidance on how to draw up an effective safety policy. It contains an outline of the main legal requirements relating to lift trucks. It also contains information on the lift truck features you need to consider; guidance on the safe use of trucks and how to protect pedestrians; and advice on the maintenance and examination of trucks.

L117 will help you put in place “safe systems of work”, says Taylor: “I hate that term because it sounds very formal and official, but it really just means creating a policy that says ‘this is how we work’.”

Importantly, he adds, it pays to discuss the implementation of this policy with your staff. “In our opinion, you need champions from the shopfloor and if the site is unionised that’s even better because you will always have representation.

“Meet regularly and have safety champions who can help with communication and implementing what you have talked about. Then discuss it: Did it work? What difference has it made? Are we happy with the results? Can we improve further? Then review the policy, but not just once. To be embedded in the culture, the policy has to become part of the day-to-day practice of the business so that it becomes the norm.”

Achieving this means implementing effective operator training in three stages:

  • Basic training: the fundamental skills and knowledge required to operate a lift truck safely and efficiently.
  • Specific job training: knowledge and understanding of the operating principles and controls of the lift truck to be used, and how it will be used in their workplace.
  • Familiarisation training: applying what has been learnt, under normal working conditions, on the job.

Laura Nelson, MD of workplace transport training accrediting body RTITB (, says forklift training should be delivered by a trained and qualified instructor: “It is true that a good forklift operator can make the best instructor and there are many benefits to training up an operator who is already familiar with your operation to become an instructor.

“But they do need to complete their instructor training to make that transition. Instructor training consists of more than just the forklift operating skills.”

However, warns Mentor’s Taylor, operator training isn’t enough on its own: “You should also train the management and supervisors because you can train and train and train, but if good practice is not encouraged and enforced, there’s a danger that operators will slip into bad habits.”

He that few of those attending Mentor Training’s course for managers and supervisors understand lift truck laws when they arrive: “Health and safety is based on regulation. That doesn’t mean managers and supervisors have to be experts in the law, but they do need to understand how it’s important for both their operators and others.

“Around 90% of the people who attend our one-day course don’t understand the basics [of the law], let alone how it relates to forklift operation. A lot of these are managers and supervisors from warehouses where the biggest single risk is vehicles, particularly lift trucks.”

Managers and supervisors also need to be able to recognise unsafe practice and behaviour, says Taylor: “Half of those who come on our managing forklift operations course have never operated a lift truck, so how can they know what is acceptable behaviour and what’s good and bad practice?

“Some of it they will know because it’s common sense, but a lot they won’t. To recognise unsafe practice and behaviour, they first need to understand what it is so they can stop potentially dangerous occurrences.”

The phrase ‘common sense’ is used a lot when it comes to health and safety, but it’s not always useful, points out Taylor: “I use this example: if you’ve never been trained in the operation of a lift truck, how can you know that you shouldn’t turn with a load in the air? After all, it’s possible that a truck could be designed to do this with enough counterbalance etc, yet it’s an absolute no-no. This isn’t a matter of common sense – it’s something that must be taught.”

Managers and supervisors also need to be able to communicate effectively with operators and line managers, another focus for effective training.

And, finally, they need to know what to look out for in order to carry out effective observation. Taylor concludes with this warning: “Obviously, that means being in a position to observe. However, there is potentially a growing issue of managers not being out on the shopfloor. They are stuck in their offices concentrating on KPIs, pick rates, stats. There is a lot of pressure on them to get goods out of the door and to do it efficiently.

“But you also need people walking the floor in order to observe.”

Pedestrian protection plan

Traditionally, there has been a big focus on training operators in lift truck safety. However, most injuries involving forklifts are not to drivers, but to people on foot. After all, pedestrians are not protected by seatbelts or steel cages. The HSE estimates that more than half (57%) of injuries involving lift trucks result from being struck by a moving vehicle.

Pedestrians can therefore make a massive contribution to the safety culture, but they need to be trained in the risks, says Mentor Training’s Taylor: “People on foot can then remove themselves from a dangerous situation because they have been given the knowledge to identify it. Also, if they know what bad practice is and how it occurs, they can warn the operator. So they start contributing towards a safe culture within the business where poor practice is not accepted because of peer pressure.”

Technology, in the form of collision avoidance systems, can also aid forklift truck safety, but be careful about the type you select, warns Charlie Brackley, sales manager at control systems supplier Harland Simon (

He says: “There are proximity sensors that sound audio or visual warnings when a pedestrian is close to a truck. The problem we see with these systems is that, although they are effective to an extent, they tend to cause a lot of false alarms.”

For example, a pedestrian might be on one side of a guard rail and a truck on the other. “In that scenario it isn’t very dangerous, but because the two might be close to each other, a traditional proximity system will sound an alarm.”

And, when alarms are sounding constantly, people become deaf to them. However, says Brackley, location sensor systems are available that contain a virtual map of the workplace and look at the position of the pedestrian and truck in real time using wifi signals. These systems indicate how fast the trucks are moving and in which direction. On top of this, he says, they can record incidents and near misses.

Five dangerous FLT situations

1 Turning with an elevated load – The lower the load, the lower the truck’s centre of gravity, explains Mentor’s Taylor: “The safest position of the load is at its lowest point. As the load gets higher, the parameters of safety reduce.

“Imagine you placed a ‘safety pyramid’ over the truck – the higher the load goes, the more likely it is to fall outside the pyramid and the higher the risk that the truck will topple over. That’s why it’s poor practice to turn with an elevated load. Besides, as you turn you may hit a small pothole or a piece of wood on the floor. If you are at the limit on the load height, these are the marginal differences that can create an issue.”

2 Lifting people – Marc Paxford, operator training manager, Toyota Material Handling, says: “The incidence of this is coming down as we see the widespread use of mobile elevated work platforms, but it does still happen and it shouldn’t.”

Taylor adds: “You imagine someone will fall off, but it’s not the most dramatic things you necessarily have to worry about. We know of situations where people have held on to the carriage, got their fingers caught as they came down and lost fingers. These won’t necessarily hit the headlines, but they still have a big impact on those affected.”

3 Obstructed view – Driving with an obstructed view is common and often an issue of complacency, particularly where there are few people around. Says Paxford: “We always recommend that the load travels forward unless it obscures the operator’s view in which case, on a counterbalance truck, it should travel in reverse.

“Some operators will continue to travel forwards, peeping over the top of the load with very limited vision. We’ve seen trucks with 20 pallets onboard where the operator is looking through the pallets like a Chieftain tank. This is really bad practice.”

4 Passengers – A forklift truck is not a taxi, says Paxford: “Some trucks come with a second seat, but they are typically very large. Generally, the rule is simple – one seat, one person.”

Taylor is unaware of recent examples of people being hurt as a result of riding as a passenger on a truck, although that’s not to say it doesn’t happen, he says: “Counterbalance trucks are fitted with a seatbelt which must be worn. If there is only one seat there will only be one seatbelt. The general rule is no passengers – it’s a one-person vehicle.”

5 Lack of segregation – Says Paxford: “In an ideal world we would want trucks on one side of the barrier and people on the other. However, in some areas it’s impossible to separate them. It is then down to carrying out a risk assessment and introducing different measures – warning signs, mirrors, lighting, hi-vis vests, proximity alarms, and so on. Barrier systems are the first line of defence.

“Training is key, from managers and supervisors through to operators, through to the rest of the staff.”

Ian Vallely

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