About a year ago P.B. instituted a policy that the truck drivers were not to load their own trucks; only Acme personnel could use the forklifts and load the trucks. I no longer remember the nominal reasons, much less whether they made sense. I think it had to do with legal liability for the truck drivers’ safety and the condition of our shipments (if the freight was damaged, was it damaged by our material handlers or by the trucking company?).
When we were bringing a new person on the second shift who had only just been trained to operate the forklift, I was present after hours on one occasion when the supervisor had already gone home, and I carried out the policy by refusing to allow the experienced truck driver to load his own truck, and making the trepidatious new forklift operator load the truck. The driver lounged sardonically on the roller racks as the operator slowly and hesitatingly went about the work.
Shortly after that time I went through the Acme certification process to operate forklifts. I have used the license on occasion, once running a pallet with a particularly tall load into a support pillar and breaking the pallet. It was not an exceptional beginner’s mistake, but I bring it up to underscore the fact that being allowed to operate a forklift does not make one proficient at doing so.
As the last day of March drew to a close, the workers had already put in their required 10 hours and were trickling out. We came to the point where only the supervisor, the manager, the second-shift worker, and one voluntary stay-over remained. The manager is not licensed to drive the forklift. The second-shift worker was running the last batch of small packages through the shipping terminal, and the volunteer was wrapping up pallets of tools that had been cleared to ship late in the day by the plant manager and were now a priority to ship. Ordinarily we use less than the entire trailer on any given truck, but circumstances at this end of month had given us so much freight that one (or two?) of our carriers had to bring two trucks. One of the carriers had just arrived.
The truck needed to be loaded and I was licensed to do it. But I didn’t want to. Steering the forklift forward or backward is no big deal for anyone who’d driven–although forklifts are steered by a single wheel in the back, and do not turn like a car at all–but remembering to do the up and down with the forks can be difficult. When you are loading a truck you typically aren’t moving up and down much: you need to get low enough to get the forks into the slots in the pallet without actually being on the floor, when the forks would hit the support slats, and without being too far up so that you clip the top of the pallet or spear the freight. Then you just need to lift the forks up enough to keep the load from dragging, and, if you are so inclined, from slamming into the bottom of the truck as you negotiate the ramp that slopes down into the back of the truck that is sloping up. The simplest way to pack the truck as tightly as possible is to let the pallet down all the way to the floor as you approach your final position so that you can push it until it touches the pallet behind it; otherwise it is too easy to have the pallet lip onto the one behind it as you try to set it down. With your forks going up and down within about one foot of space, it is not obvious if they are at the right height or not.
Then there is the matter of loading the trucks. They are, as you well know, long rectangles, not much more than two pallets wide. Given an empty trailer, it is no big deal at all to drive into it and drop the pallet. The tricky part comes when you have to get the pallet far enough to the side to leave room for the other pallet. That is still not too hard except when you put the pallet down a little too much to the middle and you need to adjust it. You might be able to do that with the lateral movement in the forks (they can slide to the left and right), but you might already be at the end of your play that way. You might have to bring the forks up against the side of the pallet and nudge it over. Remember that the entire time you are in a long rectangle. Once you get to the end of the truck, where the leveling ramp is coming down into the truck and there is the concrete of the dock along the slope of the ramp, you can very easily get yourself in spots where you don’t seem to be able to turn your forklift without smacking either the front or the rear of the forklift into something–the flimsy sides of the truck, the freight, the concrete of the dock jutting out behind you.
So I did not do a very manful job of taking initiative. I approached the supervisor and said, “So, one of us should probably start loading the trucks, huh?” And rather than volunteering herself, she said “Yep, grab a forklift and go for it.” Darn.
As I loaded one of the trucks and got to the end of it, I asked the voluntary stay over if he wanted to finish it off because I wasn’t sure I could handle it. He said “No, it’s easy,” so I went ahead and finished it off, but having made this pathetic request out loud I was all the more conscious of the stares of the truck drivers and their imagined criticism. The trucker had already suggested I stack some of our pallets on the pallets he already had, and I declined, since I often get the messages that come back about goods damaged in transit.
Once I had his truck finished, the next trucker offered to take over loading for me. But that, you remember, is against the rules, so I declined his offer. Again I felt more self-concious about my lack of polish, and to make up for it, and just to try to hurry an unpleasant end to a late day, I was going as quickly as I could manage. Faster than I felt comfortable, because the jolts and bangs the forklift made going up and down ramps (forklifts are made for flat surfaces and don’t manage slopes well), and as the forks hit the floor, and as I jerked the forks up and down with my indelicate touch on the control levers, all got on my nerves. The soggy cord hanging from the truck door spraying me with brown water ever time I slapped through it did not help the ambiance.
When this trucker told me, with the authority of a brusque sensei, to stack the shorter pallets of our freight, I did not argue. I paused momentarily, debating whether to refuse, but decided that I would do it because these truckers carry our freight far across the country and across many docks where the freight is moved from one truck to another, and basically, if he would stack the pallets, and some point they were going to be stacked. Having an idea of what was in the pallets, I judged it not too risky to the freight to stack them.
He told me to place the stacked pallets on the right side of the truck. Many roads are domed, so that as a truck is driving along the road it leans slightly to the right. This is to shed water off the road, but it also means that freight will generally tend to tip to the right, so it’s better to put loads prone to tipping against the right side of the truck.
This is a general rule, and the possible exceptions explain the pallets of damaged freight that sometimes come back upside down.
This truck was mostly empty, and I filled it and had begun filling the second truck when my haste caught up to me and I brought the forks in over the top of the pallet and punctured the boxes of tools on the bottom. It was one pallet out of 19 and pulling the order off for later was not an option, particularly at the very end of the month (and of the quarter). So I had to consult with the manager and decide the best way to remedy the situation, and as I was doing that someone from the receiving dock took over loading the trucks, and I was off the hook for the rest of the evening.
Even though there are some situations loading a truck that are tricky, there is nothing so difficult that it would take long to master with regular practice. But at the end of the month, with a lot of extra freight that must all go, and already being late, and having impatient and experienced truckers on hand, it’s too much to be any fun for a novice forklift operator. And I don’t do really well under pressure.
But when all is said and done, I got my license so that I could help out in that way, and I am glad I did it. Not everything I am glad to have done was fun to do at the time.