New regulations stiffen training mandates for wholesalers' 191,000 fork lift operators.

Ihave heard stories from old-timers at our 120-year-old supply house about the early days when heavy cast-iron stove parts were hauled around only by hand. Material was shuttled up and down an old, multistoried warehouse on hand carts and the backs of strong men.

Nowadays, of course, much of the heavy lifting is done by fork lifts and conveyor belts. While handling material is considerably easier, there is a dark side. Every year, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, unsafe fork lift operation results in about 100 fatalities and 95,000 injuries. These vehicles harness a lot of power and carry heavy loads. Under the control of careless or poorly trained operators, they are accidents waiting to happen.

For many years, OSHA's regulations provided that only trained and authorized operators were permitted to operate these trucks, and that training methods were to be devised. Due to the vagueness of the regulations, disputes often arose. About 10 years ago, the Industrial Truck Association petitioned OSHA to revise its training requirements. After years of delay, debate and input from various parties, the new regulations were finally published this past December and became effective March 1.

Wholesale distributors employ an estimated 191,000 operators of fork lifts - more than any other industry. For this reason, the establishment of the new training guidelines is of particular importance to us.

Training by videotape or CD-ROM once might have been adequate, but the new rules require practical, hands-on vehicle operation. The trainer must know how to operate the forklift truck and be able to train others. The training must be geared to the specific truck and work site.

According to a January advisory published by the Northamerican Heating, Refrigeration and Air-conditioning Wholesalers Association, the following topics are part of what must be covered in fork lift training:

  • Operating instructions, warnings and precautions for the types of truck to be used;
  • Similarities to and differences from an automobile;
  • Location and function of controls and instruments;
  • Engine or motor operation;
  • Steering and maneuvering;
  • Restrictions to visibility during loading;
  • Fork and attachment adaptation, operation and use limitations;
  • Vehicle capacity and stability;
  • Inspection and maintenance;
  • Refueling and recharging batteries;
  • Operating limitations;
  • Special instructions, warnings and precautions;
  • Stacking, unstacking and load manipulation;
  • Pedestrian traffic; and
  • Operation in hazardous locations;

Current employees must be trained by Dec. 1, 1999. Thereafter, new hires must be trained before operating a fork lift. Furthermore, every three years a driver's performance must be evaluated. Refresher training may also be called for if an accident occurs, a driver is observed driving improperly or will use a different type of truck, or the workplace changes in any way that could affect safety. As always, the employer bears the burden of documenting that training has been provided and completed.

OSHA will inspect to see that the regulations are followed. First priority will be given to inspecting high-risk facilities or those that have experienced accidents.

While this may seem like just one more regulation for small businesses to comply with, it actually provides the guidance that has long been needed in facilities where materials handling is an integral part of the operation. You will want to check it out now to see if your warehouse people are in compliance. Contact Richard Sauger at OSHA, 202/693-2277, for more information.

Sidebar: Issues to Watch

  • House passes grace period for small businesses. A measure goes to the Senate that will give small businesses a grace period before fining them for first-time violations of federal paperwork rules. It would provide a six-month extension to file required paperwork.

  • Legislation to prevent "forum shopping" by plaintiffs' attorneys is important to wholesalers and small businesses in the 106th Congress. Currently many distributors are joined as defendents in lawsuits simply because plaintiffs' attorneys want to bring class actions in a state rather than federal court. The local distributor is sued just to get the case located in a particular venue.

  • Inside sales compensation reform continues to be a priority to correct the inequity in the present law, which does not exempt wholesaler inside salespeople from the wage and hour overtime provisions. Proponents believe the chances for passage are excellent this year.

  • Legislation to block OSHA from issuing ergonomics guidelines before a congressionally mandated two-year study on musculo-skeletal disorders is completed was introduced in the House by Rep. Roy Blount, R-Mo.

  • The Department of Labor is drafting legislation to give itself more power to force employers to rehire workers who are fired for filing federal job safety complaints, in some cases providing full back pay and damage awards. According to the draft bill, the labor secretary would be required to conduct an investigation of the employee's complaint within 90 days. If the agency rules in favor of the employee, the secretary could force the employer to address the original hazards that led to the complaint and to reinstate the employee to his former position.