Workplace transport

Driver safety special: Marginal notes

There is no magic way to protect forklift drivers and pedestrians when they share space but bolstering training with small interventions can help. 

Driver safety special: Marginal notes
Image credit: © iStock/tiero

A motivational speaker from the world of sport was at a conference I attended recently to explain the use of “marginal gains” for  competitive advantage. This brought to mind an article I had read on the success of the London Olympics and how, as well as meticulous planning and content review, porridge was used as a risk reduction tool. That, in turn, got me thinking about how the principles of marginal gains can be applied to hazard control on vehicles, specifically forklift trucks (FLTs).

The Olympics example was prompted by analysis by the organisers and main contractors that found a spike in injuries just before lunchtime during construction of the sports venues and athletes’ accommodation blocks. Looking into the eating habits of workers, they found that more than half routinely skipped breakfast. Come late morning workers were hungry and had their minds on lunch. Introducing bowls of porridge priced at £1 stopped the distracting mid-morning hunger and allowed the workers to concentrate on the job.

Porridge was not the sole reason for the safe construction of the Olympic venues but it was part of the puzzle and something sportspeople would call a marginal gain.

I see forklift safety in a similar way. There are myriad accessories that offer safety support by warning drivers of nearby trucks or pedestrians, alerting them when they lift too heavy a load or warning those near a vehicle of its presence.

But which is the right one for your fleet and what can you add to the ones already in place to lower the risk? What other marginal gains can you achieve?

No bullet

Driver-safety-workplace-transportAll FLTs are built to the same fundamental design but their application and working environments are varied, so challenges differ. There is no piece of equipment that is the silver bullet for safer FLTs. You have to take a blended approach to risk management.

By applying the concept of marginal gains – the porridge principle – to areas of risk we can gradually reduce the overall risk.

Take the counterbalance truck: at Travis Perkins, it is the workhorse of our fleet. We have thousands of these machines built to our specifications. There are also some small, effective and low-cost adaptations that help to reduce risk.

The main control in FLT safety is training but this is only the first stage in risk mitigation. Training gives the operatives the awareness and competence to look around themselves and to operate the trucks within their capabilities. But we can add features to the vehicle that will support this training.

First, think of the job that the FLT driver does in a builder’s merchant’s yard. There are a number of part-pallets and other loads that must be secured before they can be moved. Normally, a FLT driver has to walk around the yard collecting the right equipment to secure them. But on our trucks there is a small toolbox mounted behind the driver. This allows the driver access to load-securing equipment without having to search for it on foot. If there are fewer pedestrian movements, the likelihood of a collision with a vehicle is reduced. The toolbox is only a small change but it was brought about after consulting our operators.

Second is the perennial problem in many work environments of persuading drivers to wear their seatbelts. They argue, “I’m always off and on the truck”, and, “I’m only driving over there”, to justify why they do not need to use the most vital piece of safety equipment. So Travis Perkins has deployed technology to enforce seatbelt use. As well as interlocking the belt so the truck can’t operate when it is not fastened, we have gone a step further. Our seatbelts have to go through the inertia process before they are fastened, so an operator can’t just lock the belt in place and sit on it.

Lastly, the trucks have warning decals. These are just administrative controls and cannot be relied on to change behaviour significantly but they will add a little support. Even if they are effective at alerting 3-4% of pedestrians, they are a low-cost intervention.

These three controls, added to training, can reduce the risk of injury.

No substitute

A key point to remember with FLTs is that anything other than driver training should only be considered a “driver aid”. Ultimately, as in a car, it is the driver’s responsibility to operate the vehicle safely (under supervision) and adding the support equipment is intended to help them do so. It is all very well fitting an anti-lock braking system to a car but if the driver chooses to drive too close to the vehicle in front, they increase the risk of an incident occurring despite the safety aid.

When you introduce controls, they must be complementary, so they address total risk rather than adding various pieces of kit that tackle the same risk element. Reversing a FLT is one of the riskiest operations, given that pedestrians may be in the driver’s blind spot. Taking a blended approach, you could fit the truck with a reversing beacon and a blue light that shines a set distance behind the vehicle to indicate a safe working area. These audible and visible warnings provide two distinct methods to keep pedestrians safe.

However, it is important to consider that controls can also be contradictory. An attachment to make lifting a product easier might block the driver’s view, for example. It’s also worth noting that some controls can be ineffective in different environments; I have found that the blue light is less effective in bright sunlight.

FLTs are useful, adaptable pieces of equipment. They carry an inherent risk but a blended approach, even if some components produce only small gains, can make them far safer.


Barry Williams is group health and safety support services manager at Travis Perkins


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