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Article | Managing Risk

Food and drink workplace transport safety: Managing forklift truck risks

Risk & Analytics|Risk Management Consulting
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By Chris Brown | June 23, 2022

Workplace transport accidents, including those involving forklift trucks, are a key area of risk concern for food and drink manufacturers.

The immediate appearance of a forklift truck (FLT) may suggest the nimbleness of a go-cart, but with these counterbalanced vehicles sometimes weighing three times that of a family car, any incident involving one could all too easily lead to a serious injury or death. It’s for good reason interim findings from a WTW survey of 250 senior executives in major food and beverage companies globally, showed 26%* of those surveyed ranked workplace transport safety in their top two health and safety risks. 1

Even if your business has never experienced a FLT incident, it’s worth pausing here to think about the potentially grim reality should it occur. Imagine a vehicle falls on a worker and the weight of the FLT causes a catastrophic injury that proves fatal. Colleagues who witnessed the accident are traumatised. Someone has to tell the deceased’s family. The site becomes a crime scene. Operations are halted.

Later, a criminal investigation leads to prosecution and a significant fine heading into seven-figures. The worker’s family pursues a civil claim leading to even greater damages.

Meanwhile, your staff have to live with the trauma of what they have witnessed and those responsible for the health and safety of staff must wrestle with the guilt they didn’t do more to prevent the loss of the worker.

Finally, the business’ brand is now associated with tragedy and a lack of care in the minds of customers, end consumers and potential workers.

In other words, FLT accidents may be low frequency but are all too often high severity, and there are moral, legal and financial imperatives for getting on top of workplace FLT risk.

Now, let’s imagine you’re walking round a food or drink manufacturer’s site, one where FLTs move pallets from inside a factory warehouse to external loading bays. What would you see here if the proper controls were not being enforced? What kind of site, driver and vehicle issues might you witness that could lead to incidents? How different would the site appear if the appropriate health and safety controls were in place?

Let’s think about a hypothetical factory warehouse, examine the site, watch how drivers are behaving and examine the vehicles themselves to understand where and how food and drink manufacturers can look to reduce workplace FLT risks.

FLTs in an unsafe site

In our hypothetical factory, there’s a speed limit of 5mph, but no signs remind FLT drivers of the limit. Even if there were signs, the drivers might not see them anyway, the place is so poorly lit.

The floor, meanwhile, is potholed, leaving vehicles dangerously unstable at times. There are no clearly marked or segregated pedestrian walkways, so when someone from the office arrives to chase the status of an order, they stumble into the path of a FLT and narrowly avoid being struck.

This type of scenario isn’t just the stuff of imagination: in 2021, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) fined a meat processing business £600,000 and ordered it to pay costs of £38,183 after a worker lost a leg after being hit by a FLT when he was walking along an internal roadway.2 The HSE found the company’s workplace transport risk assessment did not ensure that suitable and sufficient traffic management arrangements, including pedestrian and vehicle segregation, were in place.

It’s also worth noting here that HSE takes a dim view of near misses such as occurred at our imagined factory, being less concerned with the outcome of an accident than it is with the potential of the incident.

FLTs within safe-site design

After the near miss, our hypothetical factory warehouse undergoes something of a transformation. Lighting is improved, the floor is smoothed and clearly demarcated pedestrian walkways are added. One of the highest risk areas in any warehouse are locations where pedestrians interface with FLTs. Many incidents take place as a result of blind spots, so each safe-site design must be based on a site-specific risk assessment to identify potential accident hot spots in this respect.

Our imagined factory now has clear signage reminding drivers of the speed limit, as well as stop-and-check lines which, as the name suggests, encourage drivers to stop and check around them before proceeding.

FLT unsafe driver behaviour

Despite the improvements to the site, drivers in our hypothetical factory warehouse are still whizzing about at top speeds – it’s just what everyone does and always has.

One driver takes a corner at speed and their FLT almost topples, threatening to tip them out of their seat, which could happen with ease as they are not wearing their seatbelt. The driver sets their vehicle on a stable path once more and goes to load pallets onto the front of their FLT. To save time, they overload, meaning pallets block their front view. Nearby, a courier is looking for someone to sign for a parcel and, although they’re sticking to the marked walkway, because the FLT driver can’t see where they are going, the vehicle ends up nearly striking the courier anyway.

Another driver, meanwhile, has loaded pallets at the correct height, but on moving from the internal site to an external loading bay, their vision is impaired by the transition from the darker warehouse to the bright sunshine outside. The wraparound glasses they have been given to counter this glare remain tucked away in their shirt pocket. It’s only luck once more that means they are able to make it to the loading area without incident.

Now they reach the truck for loading, their vision settled, the driver jumps up onto the back of the truck to manually decurtain their FLT’s load. Unfortunately, one of the pallets is dislodged and material falls onto the driver, bringing them to the ground, leaving them with broken ribs and a dislocated arm.

Safer FLT driver behaviour

After the incident at our hypothetical warehouse, all drivers are required to take regular refresher courses on driving, loading and unloading safely. They are all reminded to wear their belts and use any special equipment they’ve been given such as wraparound glasses. They are also left in no doubt about the importance of driving within the speed limit, dismantling the ‘custom and practice’ that previously made unsafe driver behaviour the norm.

Because behaviour is being monitored and observed, drivers now participate in a culture of safety; they call it out when they see loose pallets that could easily fall and injure someone, and they mount, dismount and decurtain their vehicles using the ladders and poles provided.

This new safety culture amongst factory workers goes a long way in preventing those accidents previously waiting to happen, but what about visiting drivers?

HSE’s A guide to workplace transport safety3 suggests visiting drivers should report to the site operator for any relevant instructions such as the workplace layout, which route to follow, and where to park, load and unload. As they may not have visited the site before and may not be fluent in English, businesses might consider providing a plan of the workplace at the entrance with clear and concise instructions in several languages, possibly including pictures.

While it’s important to have the documentation evidencing you’ve carried out full risk assessments, workplace transport safety can sometimes be about keeping it simple.

Safe FLT vehicles

Let’s now think about maintenance and some specific features that make for FLT vehicle safety.

HSE’s workplace transport guidance states employers should give drivers a list of daily checks to be signed off before vehicles are driven and that drivers will need instruction or training in how to carry out these checks and should be monitored to ensure they are carrying them out properly.

In terms of safety features, key control systems can prevent dangerous incidents where vehicles being loaded by FLTs end up driving off mid-load, while presence-sensing reversing sensors may also play a part in your FLT safety regime.

However, there’s a reason why HSE’s guidance is less prescriptive and more ‘goal setting’ when it comes to safe vehicle, safe site and safe driver controls: every business and site is different and will need specific risk assessment and a tailored range of controls and means of implementing these effectively to address all workplace transport safety risks.

How can WTW help?

Every year, about 50 people are killed and more than 5000 people are injured in accidents involving workplace transport,4 with the most common causes being people falling from or being struck by a vehicle, objects falling from a vehicle, or vehicles overturning.

For support understanding your food and drink business’ workplace transport risk and how to mitigate it, get in touch.

* Data collected as part of the survey but not published in final report.

Footnotes

1 https://www.wtwco.com/en-GB/Insights/2022/04/global-food-and-beverage-survey-report

2 https://www.foodmanufacture.co.uk/Article/2021/05/28/Kepak-Group-fined-600k-after-forklift-accident

3 A guide to workplace transport safety

4 https://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/ and https://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg199.pdf

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Deputy Practice Leader | Health and Safety

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Food and Drink Practice Leader

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