Many questions, no answers in death of young worker crushed by forklift

The death of a teenager working at a building material supply store near Edmonton last month is raising questions about the need to improve Alberta's safety code.

Mitchell Tanner, 16, was killed on June 7 at the Rona Building Centre in St. Albert. According to media reports, Tanner was a passenger on a forklift, which was being operated by a 17-year-old, when it tipped over and crushed him. The incident is still under investigation by police and provincial officials.

"What we hear is that neither one of these young men were trained and shouldn't have been on the forklift, but we have no way to confirm this," said Gary Wagar, executive director of the Alberta Construction Safety Association.

"If this turns out to be true, there are significant implications for the company, because they were using the forklift without proper authority or training."

The Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) said Tanner's death may have been avoided with tougher legislation.

"We sent a letter to the minister and have been raising concerns for two years about a lack of a code of practice for forklifts," said Gil McGowan, AFL president.

"There is some language in the occupational health and safety code about heavy equipment in general."

Wagar agreed that there is a requirement in the safety code to train workers when they operate equipment that poses a hazard, but that the forklift is not specifically mentioned.

According to McGowan, Alberta's Occupational Health and Safety Code is too quiet on the matter. The only two provisions require a legible load rating chart and that if the lift has seat belts, the belts must be used and be maintained in good condition.

"Because our code says nothing about forklifts, employers do very little to ensure they are used safely," he said. "There is inadequate training on what should and should not be done and the result, unfortunately, are accidents."

McGowan said forklifts are a regular and particularly problematic safety problem in workplaces.

"There needs to be regulations about forklifts in particular, because the accident rate is so high. Every year there are dozens of accidents that involve the improper use of a forklift," he said.

"These are dangerous pieces of equipment and nobody should get behind the wheel without proper training in safety and forklift operation."

Wager said that the provincial government and industry associations already developed a safety awareness program for schools.

A safety video for the program deals with the issue of mobile equipment and specifically addresses the use of forklifts.

"The provincial government spent $750,000 on the program, but it was pulled before the last election," Wagar said.

"We have written a letter to Hector Goudreau, minister of employment and immigration, to make this program available. The construction industry in Alberta supports the release of that program aimed at young workers."

McGowan said that worker and some employer representatives pushed for tougher forklift rules, including certification of operators, when the safety code was revised a few years ago. However, it was rejected by other employer groups and the government.

McGowan said he believes that the government needs to move immediately to implement the Manitoba model for safety protection on forklifts, which has more substantial training and ongoing monitoring of credentials.

"There is so much more that can be done," he said. "Look at Manitoba. They have a comprehensive code of practice for forklifts. Operators must be certified by an independent trainer, and the employer has a series of responsibilities for keeping the forklifts safe."

Journal of Commerce, Mon July 7 2008
Byline: Richard Gilbert

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