Look Before You Load: Managing Loading and Unloading Risk Amid a Labor Shortage

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With industries across the spectrum and around the world struggling to find good labor, employers are often settling for less. The labor shortage has hit lumber and building material dealers particularly hard, as demand for our goods and services exploded during the past two years.

In our industry, cutting corners on hiring and training can translate directly to property and equipment damage, employee or bystander injuries or even death. One area where unskilled, untrained and/or uninterested workers can significantly raise a lumber and building material dealer’s risk exposure is loading and unloading. Fortunately, lumber and building material dealers can take steps to make sure they are protecting their businesses from loading and unloading risk exposure – even as reliable workers become more difficult to find.

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Though the housing market may be cooling in today’s post-pandemic, rising-interest environment, the global construction industry is still on the rise, expecting to grow to roughly $10.5 trillion by 2023, at a CAGR of 4.2 percent from 2018 to 2023. Meanwhile, the industry is grappling with an uncharacteristically tight labor market with the national unemployment rate at just 3.5 percent. What this means for lumber and building material dealers is that business will likely continue to be busy and good workers will continue to be hard to find.

When balancing production and safety in a busy environment, safety often goes out the window as employees can rush through or skip critical safety steps and managers fail to enforce protocol. Failing to follow safety protocols when loading or unloading lumber and building materials can result in injuries, fatalities, costly insurance claims and litigation.

Top Risks Related to Loading and Unloading

To some, loading and unloading may seem like a fairly mindless aspect of working in a lumber and building material facility, but it can’t be.

Recently, we saw a $4 million case involving a forklift accident. The forklift operator failed to notice the delivery driver wearing dark clothing rolling up a dark tarp nearby. The forklift operator noticed the items in the truck were unstrapped so he began unloading the inventory. While doing so, he reversed the forklift and ran over the driver.

Now, the vast majority of insurance claims we are seeing at my company, Pennsylvania Lumbermens Mutual Insurance Company, are related to forklift operations in retail and wholesale facilities. Forklifts carry large heavy bundles of lumber and/or other building materials around employees, customers, and third-party delivery drivers.

A number of other factors are contributing to loading and unloading risk exposure for lumber and building material dealers whether operating a commercial auto or forklift, including:

  • Distractions – Technological advancements have brought us new forms of distractions with some operators and drivers using their cell phones or wearing headphones while operating the vehicle. Any distraction, from smoking, sipping a cup of coffee to texting could lead to an accident.
  • Inadequate Training – The past few years have been the busiest many lumber and building material business owners have ever seen – amid a tight labor market. In some cases, facility owners have moved employees to new job functions within the operation without new training or brought on employees and put them to work with zero or inadequate training just to manage the business’ demands.
  • Inexperienced or Poorly Vetted Employees – In their haste to get a new person on staff, some employers are hiring inexperienced operators and/or overlooking red flags on background checks.
  • A Patchwork of State Marijuana Laws – Today’s employers also have to navigate a complex web of drug testing and marijuana legislation. Though some states have legalized marijuana, it is still illegal to operate equipment while under the influence of marijuana.
  • The Language Barrier – The language barrier creates another challenge for safe loading and unloading as non-English speaking employees may not fully understand direction or safety precautions.

Ensuring Safe Operations

Though it can be challenging during these busy times for facility owners and operators to turn their focus toward loading and unloading safety, it’s imperative that they do.

Lumber and building material dealers interested in ensuring their team is practicing safe loading and unloading protocols, should consider implementing the following best practices:

  • Requiring training for all employees related to job function and conducting regular training refreshers every 3 years or remedial after an incident. Providing training, safety instructions and signage in multiple languages where appropriate.
  • Designating a loading/unloading area and ensuring the areas are clear of other traffic, people, electric lines and is clearly marked and sufficiently lit.

Truck Drivers, when loading and unloading, should be advised to:

  • Secure the vehicle, apply brakes turn off the engine, and chock wheels
  • Remove straps, tarps and any other load securement devices,
  • Proceed to designated safe areas when the truck is being unloaded.

Forklift Operators, when loading and unloading, should be advised to:

  • Check the surrounding area to make sure no one is near the area.
  • Stop the process if the location of the truck driver or bystanders is unclear.
  • Understand the material to be unloaded and ensure it is secure.

Loading and unloading is critical to business for lumber and material dealers. Sticking to protocol can be particularly challenging in busy times when labor is tight, but proper risk management is key to safe operations and to avoid costly claims and litigation.

To learn more about best practices related to loading and unloading for lumber and building material dealers, consult your insurance agent or broker. Pennsylvania Lumbermens Mutual Insurance Company is the country’s oldest mutual insurer in the wood niche with 127 years of experience. For more information and loss control guidance, visit PLM’s Loss Control Center at: https://www.plmins.com/loss-control/.

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