Two industry experts weigh in on how to best ensure heavy equipment operator safety.
By Mindi Zissman
When heavy equipment is present, it immediately creates one of the largest and most serious sources of potential safety concerns. However, as long as operators are properly trained, exercise caution at all times, and equipment is properly maintained, those risks are minimized.
When it comes to training and maintenance, common questions are: what training tips are universal to all heavy equipment operation, how often is operator training necessary, and how often should you have routine maintenance?
These important questions were addressed by industry experts with many years of experience on this topic.
When new hires come on board at your company, no matter the capacity, training on the front end is always key. Nobody would place a new employee into an office environment they know nothing about without training, no matter how deep their experience, and heavy equipment operators are certainly no different.
“Many times, we hire someone whose résumé and application says they’ve had past experience with heavy equipment, so we hand them keys to the equipment and say, ‘Go to work,’” said Troy Clark, president of MSC Safety Solutions, a Colorado-based training and consultative safety solutions provider. “We need to be doing more than that.”
Clark advocates classroom training coupled with hands-on field training prior to allowing all new hires – regardless of previous experience – to operate heavy equipment. Each company policy should dictate specific rules for heavy equipment operation, based on the type and age of the equipment in their fleet, and the project. In addition, these policies need to be retaught on an ongoing basis.
He said these rules may not always be communicated to employees outside of official training. For example, OSHA requires equipment back-up alarms to work, or the operator must have a spotter. Some companies will not allow a truck without a back-up alarm to run, while others may use a spotter. Training new employees at onboarding and annually thereafter will ensure safety policies and procedures such as these are upheld across the organization.
Ensure the essentials
There are a lot of components to training employees who use heavy equipment, and it varies based on the equipment they use. However, heavy equipment training should always teach operators to follow six steps each time they handle heavy equipment:
1. Conduct a pre-shift inspection. Equipment should be inspected at beginning of each shift. This includes the machine’s brakes, fluids, windshields and every vehicle safety feature to ensure it’s working properly.
2. Clear the cab. A cluttered cab can lead to injury. For example, hardhats left underneath the operator seat can prohibit the seat’s suspension system from flexing properly, causing back injuries to the operator.
3. Wear a seatbelt.
4. Maintain three points of contact at all times. Two feet and one hand, or two hands and one foot should always maintain in contact with the equipment when entering and exiting the cab and during pre-shift inspection. Adhering to this rule requires the operator to face the equipment, which is another best practice. Operators who climb in and out of a cab like they do a car commonly face ankle, knee and back injuries. When steps are muddy or icy, or there are large rocks below the equipment, these injuries are even more common.
5. Survey the ground. Hearing back-up alarms all day means they can easily become background noise. Operators should make eye contact with those on the ground while inside the heavy equipment. Train ground personnel – and, more importantly, site visitors who aren’t familiar with the equipment – to make eye contact with heavy equipment operators at all times.
6. Lower raisable implements. Heavy equipment operators must remember to lower all raiseable implements to the ground and set parking brakes before exiting equipment. This is a commonly overlooked OSHA requirement that when not adhered to can cause serious injuries or death.
Regular equipment maintenance is key to safe operations
Maintaining heavy equipment, the way the manufacturer intended, will ensure optimal operation long term and provide a greater ROI on a company’s capital investments. Dan Reinholtz, director of industrial sales at ShuttleLift, said the most common concern he sees in the industry is failure to maintain equipment properly.
“Maintaining proper tire pressure, for example, is critical for making a proper lift,” Reinholtz said. “Tire failure can create major issues and safety concerns.”
Reinholtz also mentioned heavy equipment will come with a manual and inspection checklist with a maintenance schedule based on machine use. Daily, weekly, monthly, biannual and annual manufacturer-recommended inspections are designed to alert business owners and operators of equipment issues prior to them becoming a danger in the field.
Knowing the warranties for each piece of equipment means when something does go wrong on a regular inspection, you’ll know what to do. Catching a defect or abnormal wear and tear early on when it’s still covered by the manufacturer’s warranty will not only prevent a potential accident but can also protect your bottom line.
Engaging in service agreements with the or a third party is an option that ensures your equipment is meeting regular operations and maintenance (O&M) milestones.
It’s more than just the heavy stuff
Clark warns that smaller equipment can be experience wear and tear just as much or even more than the heavy equipment, noting the same training and proper maintenance is important even when it comes to small machinery.
“It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, or what type of job site you’re working on, when you’re working with equipment and you’ve got people on the ground, that’s always a hazard,” said Clark.
Conducting regular training and engaging in proper preventative maintenance are both key to reducing the likelihood of danger both on the job site and at the plant.
Mindi Zissman is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has covered the AEC industry, commercial liability and health care for more than 15 years.