Alberta to put pressure on forklift safety

The Alberta government's move to scrutinize forklift safety on work sites in a provincewide blitz starting Tuesday is long overdue, says the mother of a young man who was crushed to death in a workplace accident linked to the equipment.

On Saturday, Employment Minister Thomas Lukaszuk said the province will begin extra inspections at workplaces cross Alberta that use forklifts. The decision was prompted by the high number of forkliftrelated injuries and deaths in recent years, Lukaszuk said.

"It's about time for someone to get out there and check these things and see what's going on," said Carol Gillard.

In 2005, her son, Sean O'Keefe, was killed when 680-kilogram steel frames he was helping move in his job with a Nisku company dislodged from a forklift and fell on him. The company pleaded guilty to failing to ensure safety at work and agreed in court that the operator of the forklift didn't have specific training for the machine.

"They are a dangerous piece of equipment, and, in some places, they're just like a play toy," Gillard said.

"The proper training -they need to check that."

According to the employment minister, the blitz is intended to reduce the number of fatalities and injuries due to the equipment.

Last year, Alberta recorded 219 injuries and 116 lost-time claims due to forklift accidents, Lukaszuk said. There were four fatalities in 2008 and one in 2009, he added.

"Today, we're giving Alberta employers a fair warning that we will be visiting their job sites where forklifts and similar equipment will be used and inspecting them, and we expect them to be properly trained and operating the equipment safely and appropriately," he said.

Under provincial legislation, workers must be trained to safely operate powered mobile equipment such as forklifts. The law, however, doesn't specify the types of training required and it's ultimately up to the discretion of inspectors and, in serious cases, Crown prosecutors and a judge, to determine whether employers ensured workers were competent enough to operate the equipment.

Alberta's requirements lag when it comes to this type of machinery training and certification, contended Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan on Saturday.

Other provinces, such as Manitoba, have a much more rigorous system for driver education and licensing, he said.

"Forklifts are not toys. They're serious pieces of industrial equipment and as a result, they need to be treated with much greater respect than has been the case here in Alberta," McGowan said. "That means we need to follow the Manitoba example and institute a formal system for operator education and certification."

Bob Reid, owner of Bugle Forklift Sales and Rentals in Calgary, said the number of incidents related to the equipment is "astounding."

His company also provides Alberta Safety Codes Council certified safety training classes for drivers who have some experience with forklifts.

"It's knowing what can go wrong. Centre of gravity is huge," said Reid, who noted that the ranges of equipment can carry loads from 450 kilograms to 36,000 kilograms.

Many employers are conscientious about ensuring training and safety, he said.

It's important drivers learn the intricacies of the equipment and know how to operate it properly, he added.

The province's workplace safety record has come under fire recently from opposition politicians and labour leaders who contend Alberta must do a better job of taking violators to court and hire more inspectors. Alberta workers regularly face one of the highest fatality rates in the country.

A blitz on Alberta construction sites last fall uncovered more than 200 safety infractions. A quarter of the violations led the government officers to issue orders to halt work on the site because employees faced imminent dangers.

On Saturday, Lukaszuk said the current blitz is part of a larger plan focusing on improving safety.

The forklift inspections will look at hundreds of sites and may result in fines, stop-work orders and charges. The minister said he'll make the findings public following the blitz.

Occupational Health and Safety officers will be examining training and equipment.

Additional inspections focusing on young workers and residential construction are also in the works for 2011, Lukaszuk said.

Calgary Herald, Tues Feb 22 2011
Byline: Jamie Komarnicki

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