Forklift trucks are potentially lethal. Apart from colliding with pedestrians, loads that are incorrectly lifted can crash to the ground and poor weight distribution can result in the truck keeling over. As a result, drivers are legally bound to take a test and are recommended to take regular refresher courses as well.
At confectioner Thorntons’ warehouse in Derbyshire, drivers need to pass accredited refresher courses delivered by NLT Training Services every five years.
Peter Dolman, NLT training operations manager, accepts the course has limitations. “Just like any other test, you are competent at the time of taking it you can’t say what will happen a couple of months down the road.”
But NLT trainers are regularly on site monitoring drivers’ day-to-day performance. “My guys see them at work after the refresher and can pick up faults just by watching,” says Dolman.
Thorntons training adviser Josée Flint says its line managers and safety representatives provide further back-up. “The accidents we see tend to be one-offs and we record everything in detail so we know what caused it. Accident statistics are reviewed weekly by managers.” She says that if drivers fail the refresher, their licence is suspended.
Shanks Waste Management calculates that its drivers climb in and out of their trucks 2.5 million times a year. Last year, four were off work for at least three days after slips or falls while doing this manoeuvre, at an average cost to the company of at least £10,000.
But the legal implications of such accidents could prove more expensive because, under the Work at Height Regulations 2005, a height is defined as any fall where a person could sustain injury. The regulations demonstrate how the need for health and safety training is intensifying. This month, under the Health & Safety Offences Act, the maximum fines that lower courts can impose for general non-compliance rose from £5,000 to £20,000. The range of offences carrying a prison sentence also increased.
Teresa Hitchcock, UK head of safety, health and environment in legal services giant DLA Piper, says giving suitable and sufficient training is a general obligation imposed on all employers. “For example, when carrying out a risk assessment for a particular task, you will need to assess whether the person carrying out that task is competent.”
But the importance of such training tends to be downplayed, particularly for routine tasks such as working at height. Roger Bibbings, occupational safety adviser for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), says it is inevitable that people become inured to the training messages. “They get a lot of information about health and safety and think they’ve heard it all before.”
He warns that if a company ends up in court, it may be penalised if its approach to training is found to be more tokenistic than professional.
Anne Gibbs, managing partner of health and safety training specialist OSTAS, agrees. “So many companies feel they have to go through the motions it’s not whether the course has been effective, it’s whether they’ve covered their legal responsibilities.”
This could prove particularly damaging under the Corporate Manslaughter and Homicide Act 2007 because there is no upper limit on fines for breaches that result in death.
Craig King, technical director of health and safety trainer Catalis, says this makes training vital at the top of the corporate hierarchy. “What we are trying to do through our courses is make executives and directors aware of this. The effects of non-compliance are serious people can be sentenced to jail or go out of business.”
How, therefore, can organisations be sure that their health and safety training is not merely a box-ticking exercise and actually complies with the law?
Adrian Vale, learner support manager at the British Safety Council (BSC), says the key to effective health and safety training is being clear about exactly what the learning objectives are. “A lot of companies provide awareness training with no thought about what people need to do at the end.”
Defining learning objectives boils down to specifying what exactly is to be performed, the standard of that performance and the condition under which it is done. Using juggling as an example, Vale says the performance might mean keeping four balls in the air and the standard might involve doing it for three minutes without dropping a ball. The condition could be the number of people watching the act.
“It goes back to asking why are you doing this training,” says Vale. “If you are very clear about the learning objectives at the front end then you will have a system at the end to test whether those objectives have been achieved.”
The training must engage the people who are receiving it and that usually means making it applicable to the particular work situations they face.
Andrew Christodoulou, managing director of West Anglia Training Association, which employs 10 health and safety training specialists, says: “The style of our delivery is interactive. We break people up into groups where they are confronted with lots of scenarios and do practical exercises on how to solve issues. Through interaction with the delegates, we get a feel for whether the information has been taken in and understood.”
Darren Grey, director of First Health & Safety, which relies on e-learning methods for most of its delivery, argues that classroom settings do not suit everybody, particularly if they have not done well at school. “E-learning gives people an opportunity to learn in their own time, perhaps asking questions by e-mail without having to draw attention to themselves.”
E-learning also avoids the problem of people being unable to attend courses for unexpected reasons.
Although Grey believes e-learning courses in health and safety have expanded significantly over the past two years, the BSC’s Vale says its use is generally confined to low-level knowledge training rather than to develop a particular skill.
Vale believes good training courses need a variety of learning styles. “The best you can do is design your training interventions to suit most people’s needs so there’s a little bit of everything for everyone.”
Once the training has been delivered, companies need to demonstrate they are keeping tabs on whether the learning is being applied in the workplace.
RoSPA’s Bibbings says: “The key people that make this happen are supervisors and line managers. They are the people you should train first because they can set the lead by example and explain to people that it is a positive benefit. You need to ensure line managers know what the expected learning outcomes are so they can refresh these during toolbox talks.”
He adds that to stay effective, health and safety training depends on good intelligence about what is going on in the workplace. “If you have done the training, you should continue to check that systems are working. If they’re not, ask why and see what you could do make them more effective.”
The experience of Shanks, with its drivers climbing in and out of their cabs, shows that effective health and safety training does not have to be sophisticated or expensive.
Shanks’ UK safety manager Geoff Smallwood says: “We inform drivers that it is a common form of accident and make clear what they can and can’t do.”
Trainers demonstrate the correct method of entry and exit and drivers are asked to show the trainers how to do it. If the drivers are subsequently caught doing the manoeuvre incorrectly at work, they could face disciplinary action.
Considering the ratio of accidents to the number of times Shanks’ drivers get in and out of their trucks yearly, Smallwood has a clear feel for how effective this approach is. “We must be doing a good job,” he concludes.