A very costly forklift accident

Forklift trucks are central to logistics operations, but the associated risks are high – particularly for those working alongside them.

Every working day, five lives are changed – in an instant – because of injuries resulting from accidents involving forklift trucks. You only need to take a cursory look over the HSE’s forklift accident figures to see how serious the problem is.

The most recent accident statistics show forklifts are officially the most dangerous form of workplace transport in the country: injuring more people than Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGV) or Large Goods Vehicle (LGV). In fact, 25% of workplace transport injuries are a direct result of forklift truck accidents.

Around 1,300 UK employees are hospitalised each year with serious injuries following forklift accidents, and that number is rising. That’s five UK workers each workday suffering debilitating and life-changing injuries, including complex fractures, dislocations, deglovings and amputations.

Insufficient segregation between forklifts and pedestrians is a common problem. Photograph: FLTA

Pedestrians are particularly at risk – accounting for 57% of those injured or killed in forklift accidents. This highlights the need for better segregation between vehicle and pedestrian areas of the workplace. This is a particularly pressing issue in high-traffic areas like loading bays, where pedestrians and forklifts are regularly in close proximity.

The human cost

The size and nature of forklift trucks means that accidents are often life-changing or even fatal. With a forklift, there are no minor injuries. In short, you don’t walk away from a forklift accident.

The resulting injuries can devastate the lives of not just the injured, but their colleagues, friends and families. All those lives can be changed in an instant.

The danger doesn’t just come from the trucks themselves. Operator error means that pedestrians working around counterbalance and reach trucks run the risk of crush injuries from falling loads.

Even smaller mastless vehicles like power pallet trucks (PPT) can cause serious injuries. Every year, hundreds of workers suffer lower body injuries as a result of accidents. Their smaller size can make employers complacent about the need to provide operators proper training. This complacent attitude often extends to operators and pedestrians too.

Your responsibilities

The number of company directors and senior managers prosecuted under health and safety law has risen significantly in recent years – reaching a six-year high in 2015/16.

With three in four of these directors successfully prosecuted, the message from HSE is strong and clear: health and safety violations will be taken very seriously and no one is above the law.

Those in charge are responsible for their workforce and are being held accountable when violations occur.

Even if those ‘at the top’ are unaware of issues they are legally obligated to address, there’s a legal precedent in place that would declare directors liable.

The responsibility breaks down like this: even if a forklift driver is directly responsible for a violation, there’s a good chance that there was something their supervisor could have and should have spotted beforehand. But, if that supervisor hadn’t received adequate training on what to look out for, then there’s a strong argument for the liability going up the chain of command.

Case study: Lisa Ramos

In 2006 Lisa Ramos was an administrator at a logistics firm in Derby. It was the day of her son’s 13th birthday and she was ending her shift, finishing up paperwork and expecting to go home soon to celebrate.

Lisa Ramos rehabilitating after her accident in 2006

The warehouse did not have sufficient segregation between forklifts and pedestrians as there were just taped areas marking the separation — an all too common sight in workplaces up and down the country.

She was on a walkway in the warehouse when a 2.5-tonne forklift was reversed into the pedestrian area, knocking her down and driving over her left leg. Her leg was crushed and as the operator inched the truck forward and off the leg Lisa suffered severe degloving. In Lisa’s own words: “My foot was hanging off… and my skin was hanging like a sheet on the back
of my thigh.”

She was rushed to hospital where surgeons battled to save her leg but her foot had to be amputated. Over the next few months Lisa required further operations on her leg – five in all – eventually having it amputated to above the knee.

Now, more than 10 years later, Lisa still experiences constant phantom-limb pain as a result of the accident and relies on a number of painkillers to cope.

Lisa now works with the Fork Lift Truck Association (FLTA) as a safety ambassador and was guest speaker at the 2016 FLTA Safety Conference. A powerful video of her ordeal, Lisa’s Story, was premiered at this year’s conference.

Incidents like Lisa’s are all too common and it’s from stories like hers that we must learn.

Lisa Ramos in her role as safety ambassador for the FLTA

Responsibility and training

As those leading the operation, managers need to take ownership of site safety.

While you don’t need to be able to operate a forklift yourself, it’s important that managers and supervisors understand the operation and the associated hazards the workforce is facing.

Stuart Taylor, managing director of the UK training organisation, Mentor FLT Training, explains: “It is essential that supervisors have the relevant training to be able to recognise safe and unsafe practices.

“Operator training is vital, but if your managers and supervisors haven’t got the skills and knowledge to ensure best practice is being followed, there’s a dangerous flaw in your operations.

“Proper training can save lives, but it’s no good if only part of your workforce has received training — everyone needs to be on the same page... and that includes colleagues working alongside forklift trucks.”

Mentor FLT Training has set up courses that bring operators and pedestrians together, allowing them to see the safety issues from both sides. Understanding the hazards that each face and understanding scenarios from the others’ point of view better prepares both sets of workers and allows them to root out bad behaviour and bad practice.

Awareness training for non-operators can really open their eyes to the dangers of working around forklift trucks.

Ensuring that everyone in an operation is trained is the aim of the accredited course on Managing Forklift Operations, by Mentor. It outlines the legal requirements and key safety principles, and equips managers and supervisors with the ability to spot unsafe behaviour and the confidence to actively encourage best practice and stop poor practice in its tracks.

Formal training is a legal requirement. In fact, it’s so important for managers and supervisors to have the key skills and knowledge that  HSE make specific reference to this requirement within L117, the industry’s ACoP.

Stuart continues: “As a manager, you play a huge role in influencing site culture. Where risk is so high, it’s important that your staff feel able to speak out when they see unsafe practice. A culture of silence is dangerous. By empowering your workers to take ownership and speak up when they see bad practice, you can create a safer site.”

Safety is a collective responsibility. If you look out for your employees then they’ll be better placed to look out for you, and look out for each other.

Peter Harvey is Chief executive at the Fork Lift Truck Association

Read Lisa Ramos’ story here 

Information on rider-operated lift trucks on HSE's website here