Alberta government starts forklift safety blitz

SHERWOOD PARK - The Alberta government's new inspection blitz of forklift operations is a good initiative, but on its own won't be enough to protect workers from accidents, said the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

Employment and Immigration Minister Thomas Lukaszuk announced the inspection campaign Saturday at a safety training office in Sherwood Park.

But AFL president Gil McGowan said Alberta needs to follow Manitoba's example of instituting a mandatory system for training and certification of forklift operators.

This was the message McGowan said he brought to a committee that was set up by the government following the death of Mitchell Tanner, a 16-year-old who was crushed by a forklift at a Rona store in St. Albert in 2008.

The fatality report of the accident said Tanner was riding on the right side of the forklift at the time of the incident. He was fatally injured when the forklift operator turned sharply to the left and the forklift tipped over. The province did not lay charges in the death because prosecutors believed they had no reasonable chance of earning a conviction.

McGowan, who joined the government and industry safety committee, said the final draft of their recommendations was delivered to the government before Christmas. He did not agree with the draft report's recommendation that employers, as a best practice only, should train all staff who will operate a forklift up to a certain standard and test them to make sure they have necessary skills. If the training isn't required by law, the government has no way to make sure it happens, he said.

"If a training course had been offered, one of the first things Mitch would have learned is how top-heavy and unstable forklifts really are," McGowan said. "So I'm convinced that if more rigorous standards for education and certification had been in place, Mitch would be alive today."

The fatality report said one of the accident's contributing factors was that although the forklift driver was aware riders were not allowed, he had limited experience to fully understand how a forklift might react with the combination of speed, sudden movements and additional riders. As well, forklift training had not been made part of the new employee orientation before the time of the incident.

McGowan said drivers of cars, trucks, cranes, bulldozers and other pieces of heavy equipment are required to undergo equipment-specific training and prove their competency through testing. Forklifts are an exception and this helps explain why there are so many more injuries and fatalities with forklifts rather than other pieces of heavy equipment, he said.

Each year, there are hundreds of injuries related to forklifts. In 2008, there were three fatalities, as well as 310 disabling injuries and 182 lost-time claims, according to the government. In 2009, there was one fatality, 219 disabling injuries and 116 lost-time claims.

Barrie Harrison, a ministry spokesman, said in an e-mail that not just anyone can hop on a forklift. "Our legislation says workers must be trained and be proven competent."

The Occupational Health and Safety Code does require workers to be trained if they're going to operate "powered mobile equipment," but it does not call for specific courses. The Occupational Health and Safety Regulation also requires a worker to be trained in the safe operation of the equipment they're required to operate, but again, it does not require specific courses to be taken.

McGowan and Lukaszuk certainly agreed that forklifts require careful operation.

"This equipment looks fairly innocuous ... but it can be a lethal weapon if not used properly," Lukaszuk said.

Beginning Tuesday, inspections officers will be sent to sites throughout Alberta where forklifts and similar equipment are typically used, he said. "Any type of accident is a problem, but forklifts have been identified as one piece of equipment that have been very contributory to injuries or fatalities."

During this inspection blitz, officers will focus on hazards related to such things as worker training, competency and supervision, safe operation of equipment, as well as modification and maintenance of equipment.

Tanner's mother, Angela Church, declined to comment on the inspection campaign.

Roger Ethier, the owner and operator of Liftruck Training Institute of Canada, said a vital part of forklift safety is performing "circle checks." A walk around the machine looking for low tires and cracked forks is key to avoiding a lot of accidents, he said.

Ethier said when he conducts his training he emphasizes that forklifts can weigh five to seven times as much as a car and they need to be taken seriously.

It's not clear how many businesses in Alberta use forklifts, though Lukaszuk said they're very common, as they're used in everything from warehouses to major industrial sites. He could not say what proportion of forklift-equipped businesses would be inspected.

There are two other inspection campaigns planned for this year. One will focus on young workers, the other on residential construction.

Last fall, the province conducted 298 initial and followup inspections of 146 commercial construction employers in Alberta. A total of 214 orders, including 39 stop-work orders, were issued. There were no fines or charges laid.

Edmonton Journal, Sat Feb 19 2011
Byline: Hanneke Brooymans

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