Accommodating Aging Forklift Drivers

agingforkliftAs the National Safety Council focuses on driving for National Safety Month, we look at the driving that is most common in a manufacturing environment: forklifts. Of course, forklift safety is likely front and center at your facility as it’s one of the most dangerous jobs onsite. However, the aging workforce is a major issue in manufacturing, so if you have forklifts, odds are good that you have operators over the age of 55. How does aging affect the safety of these drivers?

We can look at the same list the NSC put out for all drivers and then accommodate these physical changes in a warehouse or manufacturing environment. Here’s how our physical changes can affect our ability to drive or operate machinery:

Vision: Our eyesight and eye health declines as we get older, and it can affect our ability to operate a lift truck in a few ways:

  • Difficulty seeing in poor light
  • Difficulty seeing through glares and bright flashes
  • Peripheral vision is diminished, hindering ability to see to the side or even up and down while looking ahead
  • Eye diseases like cataracts and glaucoma inhibit the ability to read signs or see colors

Hearing: Lift truck drivers often work in loud environments, anyway, putting drivers at a disadvantage for being able to hear people or other things happening around them. Risks increase with age as hearing declines because it also decreases the odds of hearing warning sounds or other alerts that are loud enough for younger drivers to hear over other noise or protective earwear.

Motor Skills: Forklifts and other machinery take more effort to operate, which requires unique motor skills. Here are some ways this affects your fleet force:

  • Strength – we weaken with age, meaning that steering, braking, and lever movement may be more difficult, especially in an outdated forklift
  • Range of motion – any reaching a person has to do on a forklift, or turning one’s head to see everything, is strenuous and more limited
  • Flexibility – stiffer joints also affects a person’s ability to move inside the cab, as well as entering and exiting. Operators may be more likely to fall as they get on or off the truck
  • Coordination – the upper and lower body need to work together to shift, steer, and brake. Accidents can happen when these things can’t be done together

Mental Acuity: Memory, judgement, decision-making, and reaction time all suffer as we age. Each has a clear role in the safe operation of a forklift.

Disease/Conditions: Common diagnoses can interfere with a person’s ability to operate a lift truck at full mental alertness:

  • Diabetes – fluctuations in blood sugar levels can lead to dizziness, confusion, seizures, or loss of consciousness
  • Arthritis – this exacerbates the issues we mentioned with motor skills, adding to the list difficulty grasping the wheel or levers and applying the brake
  • Sleep – everything form sleep apnea to medications can hurt the quality of sleep for many over age 55, making them more likely to be drowsy and unalert while operating a lift truck

Take Control

The good news is that older drivers are generally better at abiding by rules and all other safety precautions. Without physical setbacks, they’re the safest drivers you have. Overcoming the natural progression of age will depend on the individual, and it requires full cooperation from the operator(s) and other employees.

Create an environment for safety: Be more cognizant of the markers and warnings you have. Update or refresh these things if necessary

  • Lighting – make sure areas are well lit
  • Signs – are they large enough for everyone to see and recognize?
  • Pathways and other space – is there enough room to safely maneuver a forklift?
  • Alarms – are they loud enough?
  • Markings – is tape easy to see and fully secured to the floor, and are all painted lines and shapes clear from a distance?

Schedule for optimal times: Your employees over 55 are an asset. Accommodate their needs for sleep or other schedule adjustments due to medications, etc. by scheduling their drive time when they are most alert. Consider letting employees take small nap breaks if that helps safety and productivity. Contrarily, also consider offering light physical activities at break time.

Promote positive work environment: Awareness is a powerful tool, but you need to be careful not to approach it in a way that embarrasses or discriminates against anyone. The changes we endure as we age are natural and widespread. Treat this issue as a normal part of work. Discuss it with employees so that people know what to expect of themselves and others. Encourage everyone to look out for each other, and ensure people feel comfortable speaking up if they need a break. Emphasize other expertise that your aging coworkers possess – years on the job do one thing to the body and the opposite to knowledge and understanding. In addition, any efforts to reduce job stress will help with general health.

You want your employees to be safe and your assets to remain protected. By accommodating the changing needs of your employees, you can keep everyone at their best. Of course, the final piece of advice is to assess your drivers and their abilities on a regular basis. Provide additional training as needed, and be prepared to offer alternate duties if necessary.

Packnet treats the safety of your goods as seriously as you do the safety of your team. If you have any packaging concerns, see how we can improve your protection and cost efficiencies. Call 952.944.9124 or request a free assessment.