How to ensure workers are properly trained in heavy machinery use

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Heavy machinery? Make sure your workers are properly trained

  1. While OSHA doesn’t certify heavy equipment operators, it does require proper heavy machinery training.
  2. View common safety hazards associated with heavy equipment.
  3. Learn 6 general heavy machinery safeguarding methods.
  4. View our list of tips for safety training.

Protecting worker safety is paramount in industries that involve heavy machinery use. Many on-the-job injuries occur each year, resulting in lost productivity and additional expenses.

All workers deserve a safe working environment. It’s leadership’s responsibility to ensure each employee demonstrates sufficient competency before operating dangerous devices.

Adequate training and recognition of common hazards protect staff from injury while keeping operations running smoothly. Here’s how to ensure your workers are properly equipped to handle heavy machinery.

Ensuring worker competence  

It helps to know what “heavy machinery” entails. The following are examples of heavy machinery:

  • Automotive wrecker hoists
  • Backhoes
  • Bulldozers
  • Chippers
  • Cranes
  • Construction machinery
  • Industrial machinery
  • Forklifts
  • Mixers
  • Tractors
  • Off-highway trucks
Related: OSHA Top 10 Violations of 2023 [Slideshow]

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not independently certify heavy equipment operators. It does, however, require that employers instruct all employees in the regulations applicable to their work environment and teach them to recognize and avoid unsafe conditions.

Additionally, OSHA requires that businesses allow only trained and competent employees to operate vehicles, as demonstrated in a workplace evaluation and certified by the employer.

The importance of regular heavy machinery training 

OSHA mandates annual safety training, meaning employers must host such sessions at least once per year. However, savvy employers recognize the need for more frequent training under specific circumstances, such as:

  • When introducing a new piece of equipment.
  • Upon hiring multiple new employees.
  • After violations occur, especially if they result in injury.
  • When embarking on complex projects where staff will encounter new challenges.

Additionally, OSHA requires each worksite to have at least one “competent person” present at all times. This qualification refers not to their education or degree but rather their specific training and knowledge of OSHA standards, which allows them to identify and address safety issues. This individual is responsible for:

  • Conducting daily site inspections, including equipment, site conditions and protective gear before workers begin to ensure a safe work environment.
  • Performing maintenance examinations on workplace equipment.
  • Enforcing safety procedures, including evaluating support structures and monitoring employee behavior.

Many crews appoint more than one competent person per shift. Doing so ensures they remain compliant with OSHA requirements if one individual calls out sick or goes on holiday.

Crews should come together to review and improve procedures in the aftermath of any safety violation, especially one that results in injury. They must determine what went wrong, adjust guidelines to create a safer environment and disseminate relevant, updated information to all team members.

Related: Workplace foot safety

Common safety hazards when handling heavy machinery 

All staff members should receive training in the common safety hazards that may occur when handling heavy equipment. Those identified as competent persons must know the equipment inside and out to test it, diagnose problems and enforce standards.

It’s equally important for all employees to have a basic understanding of the unique dangers each piece of machinery presents. These fall into two categories.

1. Mechanical hazards 

Machines can cause injuries including amputation, fractures, lacerations and “crushing” injuries. Mechanical hazards include machines that can strike, grab or trap a heavy equipment operator during one of the following processes:

  • Hazardous motions: These include rotating, reciprocating or transverse mechanized movements.
  • Points of operation: Check the points where the machine cuts, bores, shapes or forms the stock fed into it.
  • Pinch and shear points: These points are where a body part can become trapped between a moving part and a stationary object.

2. Non-mechanical hazards

Nonmechanical hazards refer to the circumambient conditions heavy machinery use creates. For example, non-mechanical hazards may include:

  • Chips and flying metal
  • Splashes or sprays with caustic substances
  • Sparks that burn and ignite fires

Generally unsafe conditions surrounding are also non-mechanical hazards. For example, OSHA requires daily scaffolding inspections, as falls are one of the number one job site hazard, and a collapse that results in workers plummeting into heavy equipment can be lethal.

Related: Confined space safety tips for employees

Heavy machinery training: a safeguarding checklist 

Competent persons should utilize the following heavy machinery checklist at the beginning of each workday:

  • Guards: Each piece of machinery has guards against mechanical hazards.
  • Devices: These prevent entry by uninterested parties to heavy equipment areas and may include gates, presence-sensing controls and restraint straps.
  • Automatic feed and ejection mechanisms: These protect operators from the point of operation while feeding stock, such as running a board through a saw.
  • Tagout/lockout procedures: These shut down or lock out equipment from use while crews maintain them — for example, unclogging a jam or working with electric circuits.
  • Machine location and distance: Maintaining heavy equipment a sufficient distance away from other work areas.
  • Miscellaneous aids: These protect operators and passersby and include hard hats, safety goggles and shields, holding tools for inserting materials into the point of operation and signage to alert people to potential dangers.

The appointed competent person for each shift is responsible for testing each of these safeguarding methods and taking action where deficiencies exist. Corrective actions may include temporarily discontinuing the use of faulty equipment, requisitioning additional safety gear and signage, or retraining employees in correct procedures.

Related: How lockout/tagout safety can prevent accidents

Tips for handling heavy machinery training  

Mandating that employees receive heavy machinery training is the easy part. The trick is making them pay attention and buy into the necessity of reviewing safety protocols. Here are tips for making yours engaging.

1. Use real-life, relevant examples  

Few things get people to pay attention like scenarios they may someday encounter. Seek examples not to horrify employees but to drive home how relevant the training is to what they do each day.

2. Combine automation with the human touch  

Some crews attempt to use today’s tech to automate training, but doing so presents risks. For one, many blue-collar workers are hands-on learners and the “read these onscreen instructions and take this quiz” approach doesn’t mesh with their learning style. Two, much of today’s heavy equipment is highly specialized, and questions invariably arise.

Hosting in-person training ensures your crews stay on task with mandatory requirements. Even if you automate part of the training, such as the final quiz, there’s no substitute for a trained individual to answer questions.

3. Make it enjoyable  

Include plenty of hands-on and group activities, interspersed with breaks to let participants digest what they’ve learned. Here’s one place where pizza is much appreciated — the promise of free lunch musters enthusiasm for the training period.

Protect your workers around heavy machinery  

Workplace safety is a must for those who operate heavy machinery. Construction crew leaders are responsible for ensuring worker safety and adequate training. Follow the guide above to meet your legal requirements and protect your employees.