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Operator safety is one of the most important considerations when it comes to investing in a new forklift for your business. However, businesses can often become preoccupied with preventing major injuries to pedestrians and operators in the workplace, which is incredibly important in itself, but many business often overlook day-to-day injuries to forklift operators themselves that can have a long lasting impact on their workforce.
‘There are an average of 1500 injury accidents involving forklift trucks every year’ and it’s likely that the majority of these are caused due to lack of training or poor truck maintenance. Although serious and fatal injuries are relatively uncommon, the injuries that are more likely to have a bigger impact on your business are the injuries sustained through daily operational use.
Head and neck injuries, back pain and repetitive strain injury are the most common complaints in the materials handling industry, resulting in an increase in time taken off and overall staff turnover. So, how can businesses ensure that the risk of sustaining these injuries is reduced?
Operator comfort is one of the most important factors in ensuring overall efficiency, not just for your workforce, but for your forklift fleet too. At TCM, when it comes to the efficiency of the truck we invest in the operator, making them more comfortable, and therefore more efficient.
But, it’s not just about improving efficiency. Businesses should be looking to protect the long-term health of their employees, ensuring that they don’t sustain injuries that are likely to impact their lives outside of work. Unfortunately, lower back pain is a relatively common injury that is likely to affect the majority of forklift operators throughout their career and sometimes even after retirement or leaving the company.
According to the Office for National Statistics, musculoskeletal problems accounted for approximately 30.8 million working days lost in 2016, which suggests that there is some work that needs to be done to improve overall safety and comfort in the workplace. By ensuring that the workplace environment is fully optimised for human use we can greatly reduce the number of injuries sustained and therefore reduce the number of working days lost to injury.
So, how does this apply to the materials handling industry, and more specifically to forklift operators?
The effects of whole-body vibration on forklift operators
The driving of forklift trucks is one occupation that frequently exposes the operator to whole-body vibration - a key factor believed to increase the likelihood of injury to the lower back, so it is paramount that the cab itself is designed in such a way that impact caused through operational vibration and general knocks and bumps is reduced. For most forklift operators, the truck is where they spend the majority of their time during their working hours, so this is the first thing that should be optimised for safety and comfort.
One way that forklift manufacturers can do this is by evaluating the ergonomics of their cabs. The seat should be designed in such a way that it offers protection from shocks and jolts, but also absorbs most of the impact. As well as ensuring that the steering column and other key operational components are easily adjusted to better suit the operator.
Forklift trucks that aren’t designed with their handlers in mind may cease to become fit for purpose and will likely result in a much greater impact on the efficiency and productivity of your workforce as the risk of injury is so much greater. With this in mind, it may be useful to perform a risk assessment of your current fleet, as well as checking that your operators are aware of the cab adjustments they’ll need to make to ensure that they are as comfortable as possible whilst operating their trucks.
Another factor that can contribute to lower back pain is the way that forklift operators must turn to check behind them when reversing. This constant turning movement along with the truck vibrations can put a huge amount of strain on the muscles in the lower back, as well as higher up the vertebrae, resulting in a much greater likelihood of injury.
Excellent visibility is required here, so that the operator does not have to strain to be able to see clearly but the truck must also include features that support the handler when undertaking this movement. Handles and grips situated on the cage itself can provide extra stability, helping the operator to balance correctly and so reducing the need to twist unnecessarily.
However, lower back pain is not the only injury sustained through frequent forklift operation. Repetitive strain injury (RSI) can also be a huge contributing factor to missed days at work. The operation of forklift trucks is often a repetitive process so it is important to educate your handlers in the correct way to drive their trucks so as to reduce the risk of sustaining a repetitive injury.
Arm rests are supplied in the majority of forklift trucks to prevent fatigue and they should be used often. Another way you can reduce the chances of your workforce developing RSIs is to educate them on correct posture.
What forklift operators can do to reduce the risk of injuries at work
It is recommended that forklift operators follow these five steps before the start of every shift to keep the risk of injury at a minimum:
- Remove wallets from back pockets - this can contribute to discomfort in the lower back
- Slide the seat forward or backward until you’ve found a position that allows your feet to rest comfortably, while keeping the steering wheel and pedals within easy reach
- Lean forward and shift your hips to the back of the seat, allowing your lower back to touch the backrest. This ensures that the spine is positioned in the correct three-curve alignment
- Tilt the backrest slightly backward to allow ease of movement when turning to look behind you
- Ensure that a seatbelt is worn at all times
It is recommended that forklift handlers take the time to stretch regularly to alleviate the symptoms of muscular discomfort. Stretching often not only reduces the chance of injury, but also helps to improve posture and reduces muscle fatigue.
Forklift operators are also at risk of developing whiplash as trucks tend to be very responsive to changes in direction or speed. It’s likely that many forklift handlers will drive around quickly to get the job done, but this could be causing more harm than good.
Sharp increases in speed and sudden braking can both result in whiplash type injuries, but the increase in speed can also impact the intensity of operation vibrations and amplify the shock caused by sudden bumps and jolts, as well as greatly increasing the likelihood of an accident or collision.
Forklift operators should ensure that they stick to the speeds enforced in their working environments, and always slow down when performing complex maneuvers.
Reducing risks to hearing
Forklift operators aren’t just at risk of sustaining musculoskeletal injuries. They are also at risk of hearing loss or permanent damage if they operate in a particularly noisy environment. The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 states:
‘The level at which employers must provide hearing protection and hearing protection zones is now 85 decibels (daily or weekly average exposure) and the level at which employers must assess the risk to workers' health and provide them with information and training is now 80 decibels.’
The majority of forklifts operate below 70 dBA, however the biggest issue appears to be when the vehicle warning system sounds when reversing. These alerts tend to be around 90 dBA, suggesting that noise safety procedures must be put in place.
But hearing protection may also become a hazard in itself, as operators who have noise levels reduced through over or in ear protection may be unable to hear other people or warning signals, which could increase the chances of an accident occurring.
In this case, logistics companies should aim to provide all forklift operators with Class 2 hearing protection. But it is also important to ensure that your employees understand how to use these ear plugs correctly to make sure they receive the maximum hearing protection offered.
To conclude, forklift operators are most efficient when they have the correct equipment and procedures to do their jobs safely. This not only greatly reduces the risk of injury but also ensures that they are working as productively as possible, without compromising their health or putting others at risk.
Businesses in the materials handling industry should not only look to assess their forklift fleets to ensure that their machines are fully optimised for operator comfort and safety; but also regularly educate and train their employees in the best practices associated with correct posture, and preventing damage to hearing.
This year, TCM are compiling a 2017 Material Handling Industry report which will look at priorities and concerns for those working in this area and provide advice on improving those issues that are currently front of mind.
We are looking for industry experts to take part - please take 10 minutes to answer a few questions and receive a preview of the report before it’s published later this year.