Overall, forklift operator training is the same, regardless of age or work experience. So how do we explain the significant differences in the rate by which younger, less experienced workers sustain occupational accidents?  

Meanwhile, experience and ‘maturity’ seem to come with their own set of risk amplifiers, because experienced forklift drivers somehow take up a sizeable part in accident statistics.

Understanding the challenges of both inexperience and experience in forklift operators is the first step towards a safer work environment. The second step is to address each of them in their own right. 

The ‘danger years’ for the average forklift operator

Workers between the ages of 18 and 24 have a more than 40 percent higher incidence of a non-fatal occupational injury than adult workers (EU-OSHA, 2007). In the US, the risk for young workers under 24 to suffer a non-fatal injury at work is twice as high as for workers aged 25 and older (CDC 2010). 

As said: a significant difference. One that can be explained by several factors. The UK’s Health and Safety Executive sums up the majority of these as: 

  • Insufficient experience or maturity, combined with a new and unfamiliar environment wherein they lack awareness of ‘obvious’ risks and the behavior that’s expected of them. 
  • Eagerness to impress or please their supervisors and coworkers. 
  • Unawareness of how to raise concerns

Experience needs to be accumulated and cannot be forced. Still, there are multiple ways to considerably mitigate the risks that come with young workers accumulating that experience on the job:  

  • By creating and maintaining a positive safety culture with a clear and orderly balance of responsibilities, rights, training and accountability. 
  • Ideally, the worker not only receives the proper practical training. He is also made to fully understand the safety system and the reasoning behind it. 
  • He is made and considered a part of this ever-evolving and improving system that keeps himself and his colleagues safe(r). He gets that the risks are real and that he can add value by avoiding them and abiding by the implemented safety programs and procedures. 

The vulnerabilities of experience

Focusing solely on young forklift operators and drivers may reduce the overall accident rate … but at the risk of neglecting consequential other avenues for safety improvement. 

An experienced forklift operator, completely comfortable in the job he knows inside out, runs the risk of becoming complacent of the dangers involved. If left unchecked, routine and repetition can lead to bad habits and unsafe practices. 

This makes for a completely distinct cause of forklift (worksite) accidents. These may score a lower frequency than those suffered by young and inexperienced operators. But the consequences are no less dire. To counter this you can: 

  • Provide refresher training and coaching on a relevant frequency. Also: anticipate changes in a work environment, material, site layout, etc. 
  • Confirm that training and coaching emphasize staying alert and the serious, potentially tragic consequences of an accident for everone involved. 
  • Monitor operations proactively to cut short unsafe practices before they can become the norm. 

So whether your forklift operator is 21 years old and in his second week on the job, or a veteran who can do this job backwards and forwards, a positive safety culture, consistent coaching and continuous monitoring play a vital role in preventing accidents.

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