The COVID compromise

As the backbone of American commerce, the material handling industry faced an interesting paradox during the past 18 months: rather than shutting down in response to COVID-19, it experienced unprecedented growth.

In order to meet that need, companies nationwide adjusted budgets to order PPE, changed policies and procedures to accommodate social distancing, and “employee safety” took on a whole new meaning. Companies had to shift resources to meet these immediate needs, and that left many delaying maintenance, postponing mandated recertifications and limiting on-board training to new employees. The necessary reallocation of time, money and effort may have protected employees from contracting and spreading COVID-19, but it has come at a concerning cost, say industry experts.

“During the COVID-19 outbreak, many materials handling operations postponed critical maintenance and repairs in an effort to limit the risk of outside personnel introducing the virus,” says Sarah McLawhorn, Director of Aftermarket Solutions for Hyster Company. “But this course of action comes with another set of risks, as equipment failure can stymie productivity and even threaten workplace safety.”

It’s something that crosses Pierre Laudenberg’s mind daily. He works at the Port of Long Beach in California, and is well acquainted with the material handling equipment that’s in use on a daily basis.

“I look out there and there’s equipment that’s essentially the equivalent of a five-story building on wheels, and I know that maintenance needs to happen on it,” he says. “It’s scary to think about.”

As the chief auditor and founder of Lift Auditors, Laudenberg knows critical maintenance has been sidelined for many companies during the pandemic.

“There’s been a serious decline in maintenance services – companies haven’t had the money, and they haven’t had the time,” he says. “Routine maintenance is often done on the graveyard shift when nobody is in the building, but instead of maintenance happening, that time has been spent cleaning equipment and facilities.”

Training has also taken a tremendous hit during the pandemic, says David Hoover of Forklift Training Systems.

“Operators have come due and now they’re way behind, even among companies that are generally pretty compliant,” he says. “And companies seem to be either booming or on their knees; in either situation, when you’re struggling to survive, compliance becomes more difficult.”

Compliance and regulations are there for a reason, and while it’s recently been more difficult for companies to abide by these requirements, they shouldn’t be ignored. “OSHA’s not going to be giving a pass on this, and in my experience, OSHA has always been pretty reasonable about things. But you know what’s not reasonable? Litigation when there’s been an accident or incident.”

Employment changes, such as an influx of new workers with no material handling backgrounds, as well as the need to limit (or even postpone) in-person training have also been a problem.

“In the past, it’s more likely that you’ll have a new hire with some material handling, some equipment background,” he says. “But now, companies have new employees who have never been on a forklift before. They don’t have that background. It’s difficult to build that better operator when traditional training methods had to go remote.”

The challenge

The way for the industry to move into a safer post-COVID era is to evolve from the crisis-based “either/or” environment many were forced into in early 2020. In fact, safety has taken on a much broader meaning and now includes both traditional efforts as well as COVID-mitigation efforts.

“Managing the risk of virus transmission and taking care of critical repairs and maintenance  does  not  have  to  be  a  binary  decision,” says Hyster’s McLawhorn. “Many leading service organizations have proactively developed their own measures against the virus and are equipped to accommodate site-specific requirements for hygiene and  safety.  For example, some Hyster dealers have separate equipment drop-off and service locations to limit contact between employees, along with their own strict procedures for hygiene and PPE and CDC-approved sanitization supplies for service technicians.”

Data is also showing that there are real implications that can impact your business and its safety record by choosing certain safety measures over others.

“If you look at the OSHA statistics for forklift accidents, they’ve stayed about the same,” says Laudenberg. “But what has changed is the cause of those accidents. The statistics are showing that there’s an increase in the cause – it’s not the operator. It’s the brakes failing, it’s maintenance issues on the equipment.”

But with that said, Hoover also says it’s important to recognize another issue now impacting virtually all workplaces: employee distraction, which has hit an all-time high among American workers due to COVID.

“Operators – and people in general – are coming to work very distracted,” says Hoover. “They’re worried about their finances, in some cases, they haven’t been able to be with their families. They’re bringing those issues with them. Studies have shown that a lack of focus is a factor in many workplace accidents.”

Moving Forward

While it’s difficult to predict when (or if ever) COVID will loosen its hold on the workplace environment, the experts agree that the solution is to re-assess and re-integrate what’s best for your company moving forward.

Hoover says training and training expectations cannot be sidelined. He’s concerned about companies that expect that because they’ve enrolled an employee, they will pass.

“If your employee hasn’t passed the training and doesn’t truly understand safety, they should fail, they shouldn’t be automatically certified,” he says. “We’re seeing more people who are not doing their homework, who are not prepared, and that’s a real problem. You don’t want to expose your company to that liability.”

He also recommends looking at the quality of training provided before seeking out alternatives.

“If you look  online, you can see websites that are willing to ‘train’ your operators,” he says. “Most companies are too smart to fall for this – it’s really shyster-type training – but some companies are desperate. You want training that is site and equipment specific.”

On the upside, he does report that remote training has actually helped the industry rethink how to deliver content and more effectively serve clients. “In the past, we may have provided training to a company with 20 locations, and had their employees come to one central location. For them, that meant maybe 30 flights, 10 rental cars and 10 nights in a hotel for all those people. That gets expensive.”

Now, he says sites can present his company’s training remotely, complete with pre-filmed scenarios, such as obstacle courses, effectively reducing client travel costs to zero.

“It’s really been a case of teaching an old dog new tricks,” he says.

Laudenberg says that companies can and should recommit to regular maintenance schedules, both as a means to boost safety and to ensure equipment longevity. Take the time to do proper inspections and ensure that your equipment and its operators are as safe as possible.

“Companies need to allocate the time and resources so that maintenance and repairs can be done,” he says simply. “I think the industry has responded appropriately to COVID, but now we need to get back to the helm of the ship and get out of the waters we’ve gotten into.”

Laurie Arendt is an award-winning business writer based in Wisconsin. Her writing regularly appears in national trade publications in a variety of industries. To contact Laurie email editorial@MHNetwork.com.

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