Lift Truck Tips: The long view on operator training

In the face of automation, operators should strive for safety and ignore “Old Fred.”

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Effective lift truck operator training can produce efficiencies and safety, whereas poor training can significantly compromise both. According to Spencer Ecklund, director of safety services for Toyota Forklift in Atlanta, Ga., too many companies get comfortable with the latter.

“People don’t take it seriously,” says Ecklund. “They think, ‘But that’s the way we’ve always done it. If it hasn’t happened yet, it’s not going to. We’re not going to tear up any product, nobody’s going to get hurt, and the trucks are going to run forever.’ Sadly, they are mistaken.”

In the absence of proper training, most operators learn by watching an experienced but otherwise unqualified instructor of the type Ecklund calls “Old Fred.”

“You know Old Fred. The guy who knows everything about everything but knows nothing about anything,” Ecklund says. He adds that it’s instructors like Old Fred who have helped perpetuate the most common safety violation: Driving, turning and moving with a load in the air.

OSHA is cracking down on Old Fred, says Ecklund, who pointed to requirements that instructors be “knowledgeable, experienced and trained.” He says failing to train or re-train is a usual suspect on OSHA’s Top 10 list of common violations.

But Ecklund says he appreciates that the art of operator training is filled with gray areas. It can be hard to translate good habits from videos, workbooks and laps around road cones to the warehouse floor, where coworkers’ practices, inadequate oversight, and the pressures of incentive picking can quickly corrode those habits. Unfortunately, bad habits aren’t found only in the aisles.

“Managers call me up looking to get training done in an hour or so,” laughs Ecklund. “It blows my mind. They’ll have operators tearing up product and say, ‘Well, 1% loss is acceptable.’ There is no such thing as an acceptable loss for me.”

Ecklund says about 10% of managers stay in the room during training. The rest claim they are too busy. But Ecklund emphasizes that managers are accountable not only to OSHA, but to an employee who might file suit for negligent oversight.

It’s also important to remember OSHA standard 1910.178 states that training must include not only formal instruction and practical training, but also an “evaluation of the operator’s performance in the workplace.”

“Training is the most important aid for preventing accidents and as an operator, it’s important to be as well trained as possible,” says Ecklund. With the emergence of automated vehicle technology competing for jobs, he says, human operators are on notice to perform at optimal levels of safety and efficiency.

“The technology is knocking on the door,” says Ecklund. “You’re working for your job. You gotta fight for what you want.” 

Equipment 101: Lift truck basics
Lift trucks have come a long way since their introduction in the materials handling arena in the 1920s. Today, they are smarter and stronger, and still the indispensable workhorses in our warehouses and distribution centers.

About the Author

Josh Bond, Contributing Editor
Josh Bond is Senior Editor for Modern, and was formerly Modern’s lift truck columnist and associate editor. He has a degree in Journalism from Keene State College and has studied business management at Franklin Pierce University.

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