Not even a handspan between life and death

During loading at a branch of thyssenkrupp Plastics a forklift injures a truck driver’s foot. The accident could easily have been fatal. How could it happen despite all the safety measures in place?

A new episode in our series on health & safety.

It’s September 2019 at the thyssenkrupp Plastics site in Weingarten, southern Germany: The goods outward zone is busy as usual. Every day three trucks operated by a service provider leave the branch and transport ordered goods to customers. A forklift truck takes the products from the two large cantilever racks arranged opposite each other in the goods outward warehouse and transports them to the waiting vehicles. The truck drivers and Plastics colleagues in this area have known each other for years and have a well-established daily routine. But today this routine is suddenly disrupted. A colleague lifts the goods from the rack with his forklift, looks over his shoulder and in the panoramic mirror as usual and starts to reverse. Suddenly he feels a bump. The experienced colleague stops the vehicle immediately and is shocked to see he has run over the foot of one of the service provider’s truck drivers and injured him. The man is taken to hospital with a fractured metatarsal bone. Happily he is allowed home again a few days later. The protective footwear he was wearing prevented more serious injuries – along with the fact that the forklift operator stopped immediately after the collision. If the forklift had rolled just 15 cm further – not even a handspan – the colleague would have been crushed between the forklift and the rack and could have suffered much more severe, perhaps even fatal, injuries.

Warning signals ignored

How could the accident happen despite all the safety measures for forklift operation in place at the Weingarten branch? The employees are aware of the constant risks presented by forklifts – the most dangerous piece of machinery in use at tk Plastics. Managers and employees conduct the risk assessments together.

Everything was as it should be: The forklift was in perfect working order, the racks in the goods outward zone are seven meters apart, the entire area is marked as a loading area and thus offers sufficient space. The forklift operator has many years’ experience and had only recently completed his annual safety briefing. Risks, including those presented by forklifts, are discussed regularly in daily talks. The location also played an active role in a global Materials Services segment initiative to identify specific risks presented by forklift trucks.

But despite all this there is still a residual risk , as the reconstruction of the accident shows: While the forklift operator was removing goods from the rack, the truck driver walked unnoticed along the opposite rack behind the forklift to check the goods still to be loaded. Directly behind the forklift he squatted down to read the customer information on a few of the product labels on the bottom shelf. This information helps him assess the daily delivery run. He heard the warning signals of the reversing forklift but interpreted the familiar beeping noises as an indication that the loading process was continuing as planned.

The forklift operator didn’t stand a chance. Even though he looked over his shoulder and in the panoramic mirror, he could not see the casualty because he was completely hidden in the blind spot, as was established during the reconstruction of the accident.

No-one had ever considered such a scenario before. Pedestrians are generally supposed to keep out of areas where forklift trucks are in operation. If that cannot be avoided, they must establish visual contact with the operator when they enter the area. In this concrete case the truck driver should definitely not have entered the area during the loading process. Moving into the space directly behind the forklift and then also squatting down increased the accident risk immensely. “It’s always terrible when someone gets injured and it upsets me personally. But it’s not about pointing the finger, it’s about identifying the causes and analyzing what measures can be developed,” says Ralf Helex, safety expert at tk Plastics.

According to experts, the fact that accidents continue to happen because people behave inappropriately even though they know better is due to so-called behavioral traps. People fall into these traps even though they have received safety training and know the hazards in the workplace – with potentially serious consequences. After accidents people often say “I just quickly wanted to …”, “Nothing happens normally…” or “I was already thinking about the next delivery…”. They mention time pressure or that they just wanted to finish a task before the end of their shift. And these behavioral traps also played a role in the accident in Weingarten.

“We were of course all very shocked when we heard about the accident,” says branch manager Tobias Decker. “The first thing you ask yourself is: have we done everything we can to ensure safety?” Even though the truck driver was not seriously injured, the accident affected the forklift operator badly. “The employee felt really bad about having injured someone,” says Decker. It was a while before he stopped blaming himself.

Measures after the accident

In addition to the accident analysis conducted by the experts, the management in Weingarten got the entire workforce involved in making the goods outward zone even safer. In a joint brainstorming process the following measures were developed:

  • The forklift truck was fitted with a reversing camera and monitor. This ensures that the operator can see the entire area behind the vehicle.

  • A broad red line with the word “Stop” on it has now been marked around the goods outward zone. This warns pedestrians not to enter the marked danger area.

  • One of the cantilever racks has also been moved to make the confined goods outward area significantly bigger. This provides a clearer view and allows greater maneuvering and safety clearance.

As a consequence of this incident, all front-loading forklift trucks at all tk Plastics locations were inspected. All types of forklift with a blind spot were also retrofitted with a reversing camera. The safety experts from the Materials Services segment also discussed the accident, which led to a revision of the forklift truck requirements catalogue.

Do you have any questions about this incident or health & safety in general? Or would you like to report on your own experience? Mail wecare@thyssenkrupp.com