Northgate Markets used the InfoLink® Fleet Management System to ensure operators were properly completing and documenting shift inspections and also to monitor lift truck impacts. (Crown Equipment photo)

Fleet and Operator Management Systems: A Valuable Tool in Your Forklift Safety Toolkit

It's not just about the quality of the training, but also the accessibility of the training.

One of the many things I've learned throughout my career in the material handling industry and discussions with customers is just how important a safety culture is to the productivity, vitality, and growth of the supply chain. It certainly takes a lead role when heavy machinery, such as forklifts, is being utilized in any environment, whether that be outdoors or in a manufacturing facility or distribution center.

While training at various levels of an organization remains the core foundation of a safety culture, it is only one part of a multi-faceted approach to forklift safety. As the Internet of Things (IoT) enables the forklift to become more connected, a forklift fleet and operator management system can give you the information and control you need to tackle the complex issue of safety and give it the consistent attention it deserves.

A Strong Safety Culture
Industry data shows that training, when done properly, can be very effective in helping to create a safer environment. According to the Industrial Truck Association (ITA) website, OSHA reports that approximately 70 percent of all forklift accidents in the United States could be avoided with proper safety training and policy.

For many forklift operators, the forklift is their office. Outside of personal breaks and maintenance stops, they spend the majority of their day on a truck, and the way they interact with that equipment has a big impact on overall warehouse productivity and safety. All forklift operators are required to go through training where they learn the proper and safe behavior needed to successfully use the forklift. Upon finishing that training, it is the operators’ responsibility to put everything they learned into practice. Unfortunately, accidents do happen and safety issues do arise.

While operators should rightly be a big focus of safety efforts in the industry—current figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics places the number of U.S. operators at 539,810—there are literally millions of people impacted by forklift safety every day; for instance, pedestrians who work within environments where forklifts are used. That is why it’s not just about the quality of the training, but also the accessibility of the training. A strong safety culture is one that encourages and provides training not only for operators, but also for trainers, supervisors, and even pedestrians.

The Connected Forklift
The forklift is no longer just a vehicle used to move products from point A to point B. It has become an intelligent mobile information technology hub. In a sense, today’s forklift operators are driving industrial-strength computers capable of carrying full pallet loads as they collect valuable data throughout their environment.

Forklifts are already doing much of the data collection through on-board computer systems. They collect and process information from their own internal systems as well as from their environment and other material handling systems and can then transmit the data via fleet and operator management systems to executives and supervisors for analysis and decision making. Because of the increase in embedded processing power, decrease in the cost of sensors, and growing interest among customers to leverage Big Data and IoT, the forklift is expanding its current functionality.

The data and visibility provided by this new level of connectivity is empowering operators and managers to make informed decisions that help reduce costs and improve operator and forklift productivity. It can also be used to help increase workplace and operator safety.

A Data-Driven Approach to Safety
A good forklift fleet and operator management system can leverage the increased connectivity to help managers implement a data-driven, proactive approach to safety. Following are four ways a forklift fleet and operator management system can help improve overall safety of the environment.

Reduce Impacts
It can be a little shocking when you analyze the number of forklift impacts in a typical facility. In some operations, 50 or more impacts a day are common and considered part of the cost of doing business. Typically, it has been difficult for managers to understand enough about the impacts to take steps to reduce them.

Forklift fleet and operator management systems provide that visibility by collecting the data that help create an accurate picture of how and when the impacts are occurring. Using the data, warehouse managers can identify areas of the facility where impacts are most likely to occur and operators who are most likely to be involved. By dealing with these root causes, organizations can potentially achieve a significant reduction in facility and product damage that is caused by often avoidable impact events.

Streamline Compliance
Every organization has processes in place to ensure compliance, but how well are those processes working and being documented? The data collected as part of a forklift fleet and operator management system can bring increased rigor and oversight to compliance processes. In fact, compliance with OSHA inspections, training, and licensing requirements is often one of the primary goals of forklift fleet management implementation.

Some systems allow managers to control access to the forklift to ensure that only certified operators use the equipment. Managers can limit access to operators with the required certification and training. An electronic inspection checklist can be customized with unique questions to ensure that operators have appropriately inspected the truck to ensure that it is safe to operate. The electronic system documents that the inspection checklist has been completed and the amount of time it took to complete. It then saves this information to provide evidence of compliance to OSHA.

Identify Safe/Unsafe Behavior
Most operators strive to be safe operators and champions of best safety practices. They apply what they have learned to help ensure a safe working environment. However, as with every profession, there are always going to be those who either willfully disregard the rules of safety or need additional safety reminders or training. Part of creating a strong safety culture is being able to help determine and identify the behavior of each operator.

The information provided by a fleet and operator management system, if utilized properly, should provide a window into operator behavior and an instrument for modifying that behavior. For instance, monitoring forklift impacts allows organizations to set goals for specific operators and the entire team. Highlighting and rewarding the behavior of the operators with the fewest impacts while setting and communicating team goals can increase safety awareness and motivate operators to strive for continuous improvement. Operators who do not improve can then be targeted with additional training or incentives.

Implement Real-Time Operator Coaching
As the forklift becomes more connected, managers can offer active, real-time operator coaching. Currently, forklift fleet management systems focus primarily on monitoring operator behavior as exhibited through the forklift. Real-time coaching will assist operators in planning routes, including knowing the location of other forklifts to minimize congestion and reduce the chance of impacts. Voice and visual alerts could even be used to reinforce safe operating behavior, as well as notify operators of unsafe conditions, such as a spill or fallen product, when they occur within the warehouse.

A Case In Point
Northgate Markets, located in Anaheim, Calif., is a family-owned and -operated business that distributes fresh produce, meats, and grocery items to 47 stores in the San Diego, Los Angeles, and Orange County markets. Their 385,000-square-foot distribution center includes more than 100 pieces of material handling equipment, including reach trucks and pallet trucks with specific tasks.

Although the company had processes in place for gathering pre-shift safety inspection data, it struggled to get its operators to document inspections and avoid impacts on a consistent basis. With a stated goal to minimize workplace injuries and expenses, Northgate Markets used our InfoLink® Fleet Management System to ensure operators were properly completing and documenting shift inspections. The company also uses the system to monitor lift truck impacts to help modify operator behaviors.

Taking this approach, Northgate Markets was able to boost inspection report compliance rate from approximately 40 percent to virtually 100 percent, ensuring every lift truck is operated only when it is safe to do so. Management established individual impact thresholds for each truck and application and used the impact notifications to help modify operator behavior.

Creating a safer work environment for forklift operators and other personnel doesn't happen without effort and participation of all stakeholders. As forklift connectivity continues to increase, leveraging a forklift fleet and operator management system will equip managers with a more robust toolbox to create and/or enhance a data-driven, proactive approach to safety.

This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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