There's an unsettling feeling in your stomach: a serious forklift-related injury is just waiting to happen. You've already addressed several close calls and have experienced costly losses to property and product. This is all the result of failures within the safety management system.

Yet what else can you do? You've nearly exhausted various engineering upgrades through state-of-the-art docking systems and other plant controls. You've made administrative changes to control where and when forklifts can be used. You've installed seatbelt harnesses, and you've taken formal disciplinary actions - but your ill feelings remain.

Well, maybe those feelings are telling you to make some changes.

According to OSHA, some 100 forklift-related fatalities occur each year, and more than 90,000 injures are reported annually. A NIOSH study of forklift-related deaths in the U.S. suggests that fatalities from 1980 to 1994 resulted in over 27,000 years of productive life lost - not to mention the emotional pain of family and friends.

More than training

Over the years you've conducted hands-on training and classroom work. But what's been taught and learned hasn't been reinforced very well on the floor. Forklift operators are often isolated and can't always be supervised. Plus, you're not sure what kinds of operator actions actually lead to serious injury or material damage.

If you've yet to implement a full-blown behavior-based process, it may be time to at least identify the kinds of behaviors that need to be addressed on a safety checklist. This will allow important actions to be observed and feedback to be given.

What's going on?

First, you'll need to gather more information from your incident reports to find out what's happening with forklift use. You'll also need to observe different parts of the operations firsthand and listen to your workers. They know what goes on and are often willing to support your cause if it's well presented and if they feel that overall work safety can be improved.

NIOSH and other researchers have shed a bit of light on forklift fatalities, but the information is sketchy. What has been found is that the most frequent deaths are associated with:

1) Overturn fatalities to the operator or pedestrians; 2) Workers (pedestrians) being run over or struck by the forklift; 3) Individuals being crushed by forklifts; 4) Workers falling from units; 5) Forklifts falling onto a person; 6) Loads falling onto someone; and 7) Forklifts falling from a loading dock, off a tractor trailer or from the side of a flatbed truck.

This limited information and classification of forklift incidents leaves a void in understanding exactly what happened and what specific measures can be used to limit future incidents, but it's a staring point.

Behavioral definitions

Operationalizing or "behaviorizing" actions helps to draw a mental picture of safe forklift operations. Begin by observing either specific areas of forklift use or general operations.

A specific category may be "shipping and receiving: docking activities." A sub-category of this category may be "off-loading." Break down the tasks of off-loading into the three or four critical actions or results of safe actions that you want accomplished. In this particular sub-category, you might include:

1) Trailer locked and/or chocked; 2) Transition plates secure/inspected; 3) Co-workers minimum of ten feet clear of unit; 4) Forklift moving at less than walking speed.

Each of these criteria is a part of a behavioral definition that helps to create a mental image of what to observe. They're the kinds of safe actions that can help reduce the risk of injury or physical losses.

Other categories that need to have behavioral terms developed may be "transporting and carrying loads" or "stacking." These definitions will help to guide objective observations and subsequent feedback so that safe actions can be reinforced and unsafe actions can be corrected and redirected.

Keeping score

Observers gathering data can score each of the component elements or behavioral terms as "safe" or "at-risk," or as "yes" or "no." Scoring methods can vary in sensitivity and respective outcomes, but generally the total number of tallies for safe (yes) actions is divided by the comprehensive tallies made (for both safe and at-risk). This number is then multiplied by 100 to give you a percent safe score.

Scoring of the behaviors will offer a rate of performance in terms of percent (%) safe actions observed. This can provide for a graphical depiction of progress or challenges that exist. In addition, progress in terms of goal-setting related to those numbers is both helpful and challenging.

In whatever way you move forward, behaviorizing certain forklift tasks can help initiate a positive coaching process between co-workers or from supervisors. A well developed checklist becomes a data-driven tool that can uncover issues that may relate to improvements that were already thought to be addressed - improvements to tools, equipment or materials that will make for safer forklift use.

SIDEBAR: Forklift factors

When creating behavioral terms, consider the following:

1. Use of seatbelts or restraining devices 2. Proximity of pedestrians 3. Keeping forklift work within designated areas 4. Keeping pedestrians clear from elevated loads 5. Eliminating operations with passengers riding on the forklift 6. Workers securing to approved platforms i.e. belts, lanyards, harnesses 7. Transporting heavy loads with forks six to eight inches from the work surface 8. Moving at a controlled speed (at or near walking pace)