Photo courtesy of Sunbelt Rentals
Sunbelt Rentals' training certifies the operator for five years after which a complete re-training is required.

For Rental Companies, Safety is Everything

March 14, 2014
RER interviewed a number of rental companies about their aerial safety practices, including NES Rentals, Sunbelt Rentals and Metrolift. Here’s a look at what those companies are doing to ensure safety at the rental center and on the jobsite.

Andy Studdert had seen enough. Random bridge strikes during transport of aerial work platforms, Department of Transportation violations related to load securement, accidents involving employees and customers, too many close calls for comfort. A former chief operating officer at United Airlines, Studdert knew all too well the danger of accidents and the cost of carelessness. As he put it in 2005, “I’m tired of being lucky,” and he set out to create greater safety awareness in the industry.

While accidents involving aerial work platforms don’t normally result in multiple deaths as an airplane accident might, the numbers had nothing to do with it. One injury, one fatality is too much.

In an industry increasingly cognizant of the importance of aerial safety — and indeed in this era an increasingly high percentage of companies rent them — the importance of aerial safety is paramount. Still, as the International Powered Access Federation has documented, the leading cause of fatalities on jobsites are falls from height. Rental companies are increasingly careful about making sure that their own workers are properly trained, and that their staff is prepared to familiarize and train their customers in proper operation of aerial work platforms.

RER interviewed a number of rental companies about their practices, including NES Rentals — Studdert’s company — as well as Sunbelt Rentals and Metrolift. Here’s a look at what those companies are doing to ensure safety at the rental center and on the jobsite.

Everybody gets trained

If you are hired to do accounts payable at NES, you get aerial safety training. If your job is procurement, you still get aerial safety training. If you’re an administrator, a salesman, a yard worker or office manager, you still need aerial safety training if you work for NES.

“Everyone goes through the AWPT training,” says Teresa Kee, director of environmental, health and safety at NES Rentals. “Our shared services group that resides here in Chicago goes through it. We found that they got a greater understanding of the equipment we were renting, as well as some of the struggles that the drivers could have, or the mechanics could have. It allowed for a little more cohesiveness among office personnel and shop personnel, and the guys who are out in the field and the drivers. So everyone does it; all of our new hires do it.”

NES uses an e-learning program that IPAF developed. “We worked with them in 2013 and converted it from classroom to an e-learning version,” says Kee. After successfully completing the e-learning program, the trainee takes a written exam and then goes through a workplace inspection as well as a pre-start inspection on the equipment while an evaluator observes them. They must navigate the machine through a pre-established course, with specific criteria such as the distances between cones for AWP operation. Evaluators use a detailed checklist to assess how the trainee performs various functions on the equipment.

All employees go through twice-monthly safety-training meetings with topics such as safety equipment, safe practices and current topics that could be applicable such as the weather. An example of a topic, Kee says, covered safety-device tampering. “We get equipment back and sometimes the customer has modified the safety devices so we go through a training about how to recognize that and what to do about it.” 

Sometimes the regular meetings are done as an online safety update, although at least once a month a live meeting is required.

“The branch manager will receive an e-mail that will give them the ability to either have their employees go to a link on a website where they can view the training and take their quiz, or they get printable handouts so they can meet with their entire branch as a group and go through the training in that fashion. We require them to meet as a group at least once a month because we believe there is value in the employees hearing the branch manager and others talk about safety. So it’s kind of a blended approach.”

NES trains customers at all of its 70-plus locations and has hundreds of employees who are trained to be instructors. The company typically has more than one AWPT Evaluator at every branch. NES offers the Aerial Work Platform Training program, developed by IPAF, and also offers Genie’s classroom or instructor-led program, as well as its new online Lift Pro training program. “Customers have the option of a classroom version through Genie and using Genie materials, which is a great fit for some people, and we have customers who love the e-learning access and the AWPT program,” says Kee.

Not only is NES diligent about training and safety updates, it is also vigilant about making sure safety procedures are regularly followed in all its branches. It has an annual environmental health and safety audit that it performs unannounced at all its branches. “It’s basically individuals from our EHS group that audit the branches and provide a deficiency report to inform the branch about where they need to place their efforts,” says Kee. “They visit every branch annually and the audit checklist is almost 200 items in length.”

If an aspect of operations is found to be deficient, the branch has two weeks to respond with a timeline of corrective action planned. “I said, ‘We’re not just going to find the problem, we’re going to fix the problem,’ ” Kee says.

NES is diligent about additional training for drivers and others who actually handle the equipment. The company created a load-securement video in 2008, has provided online driver training and developed a recognition program for DOT roadside inspections and Hours of Service logging compliance.

“If the drivers are compliant with their HOS logs there are categories of platinum, gold and silver for them,” says Kee. “If they are a platinum driver through that level of effort then they get a NES platinum drivers’ jacket. We really tried to be very positive and corrective with our drivers. They get decals on their trucks and they get certificates, so there’s a lot of visibility for the work and effort that they’re putting forth.”

  NES is concerned about employees’ safety beyond the workplace, so in 2013 all employees were trained in Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation/Automated External Defibrillator through the American Red Cross using a blended program of e-learning and hands-on training by certified American Red Cross instructors.

“We have already had two instances where our employees used the knowledge and skills gained during the training to help family members and others in need of aid,” says Kee.

Studdert’s emphasis is on training and standardization and process, and then, in practical terms, checking and re-checking everything. Kee relates a story that illustrates how far the company has come.

“There was an accident where our truck was struck by another vehicle,” she says. “Our truck flipped on its side, but the boomlift was tied down so tightly that it stayed on the truck. It speaks to how much our drivers focus on load-securement.”

For NES Rentals, safety is everything. And, as Studdert says, if you take care of safety, everything else will take care of itself.

Eliminating exposure

One of the most committed people to aerial safety in the rental industry is Jeff Stachowiak, director of safety training for Sunbelt Rentals, the North American rental industry’s second largest company. Making sure safety procedures are followed at roughly 375 branches is not an easy task, but Stachowiak is strongly invested.

Sunbelt Rentals has an online course of about three hours with videos that cover the ANSI 92 standard requirements for training as well as loading, unloading and transport of aerial work platform, along with delivery procedures to the customer. After a new hire completes the online course, usually in one sitting, they are required to complete the hands-on portion with a Sunbelt training instructor who has completed the company’s Train the Trainer program.

“During the hands-on [training], the trainee shows the trainer how to complete a prestart inspection while the trainer coaches the trainee and then the trainee operates the lift around the Sunbelt yard,” Stachowiak says. “If they are a driver they will load and unload various lifts, all the time being observed and coached by the trainer. After the hands-on, a wallet card is issued and their attendance and completion tracked in our LMS system. We have had this online course since about 2004.”

Besides the online and hands-on training, Sunbelt does weekly and special safety topics for all employees. But since drivers have the largest exposure to accidents and injuries, many topics cover and rehash loading, unloading, delivery and transport safety and procedures. Each employee completes a monthly quiz online. Stores that have 100 percent participation are entered into a pool for cash and other prizes each month.

“We expire our AWP training at five years and retraining is required if any trained operator has an accident, is involved in a near miss or has been observed operating the equipment in an unsafe manner,” Stachowiak says. “The refresher is the entire course, not a shortened version. Of course for any new AWP that we purchase, a group meeting is held to go over the new piece and any special loading and unloading procedures. Atrium lifts are a good example of a new AWP we have recently been introducing into our fleet. Forklift training expires at three years.”

Stachowiak says that loading and unloading is the greatest exposure so the company pays special attention to this when equipment is loaded and unloaded in the yard. Use of winches with remotes, dovetails with remotes, fold-down steps, step and ladder access to decks, non-skid decking and upkeep and maintenance of trailers, trucks and all the accessories is of constant focus.

For customers, each store has at least two operator trainers who can deliver Sunbelt’s in-person AWP operator training course usually at a branch but sometimes on the jobsite if the jobsite is capable of handling a classroom and hands-on training and the equipment is available.

“Then we offer our ‘Train the Trainer’ course around the country and upon request,” Stachowiak says. “We also offer operator and train the trainer courses for forklifts, telehandlers and earth-moving equipment.”

An important part of safety is making sure customers have the proper machine for the application. Although Sunbelt staff tries to evaluate what the customer is doing, often customers are experienced and know what they want.

“Our outside sales staff follows up on the jobsite to make sure the customer is satisfied with their selection and we do make changes and suggestions but ultimately it is up to the customer to determine the best lift for their job,” Stachowiak says.

After delivery to the customer, Sunbelt drivers will go over the controls with them, show them where the manuals are located and then identify any additional safety devices that may be unique to that lift they are delivering.

“This can take 10 to 15 minutes or in the case of larger extendible axle lifts, 20 to 30 minutes, and in the case of atrium lifts, much longer,” says Stachowiak. “Often another Sunbelt person will show up later to go over setup and operation of more complicated lifts such as the atrium lifts.”

Stachowiak says another reason for completion of familiarization is to eliminate the service call and prevent having an unhappy customer who can’t get the lift started or get it to where they have to work.

Stachowiak points out that although it is the responsibility of the contractor to take care of jobsite hazards, if a Sunbelt driver sees something obvious he might call it to the attention of the customer.  “Our outside sales staff sometimes is challenged with unsafe use they may observe too and most of the time the customer is willing to adjust but sometimes the customer can be a little testy when we ask them to stop doing something we see as unsafe.”

Elimination of jobsite hazards, however, is an important part of Sunbelt’s training program.

“We do spend a lot of time in our training on jobsite hazards since statistics show that the jobsite and the hazards they present are the cause of most accidents with aerial work platforms,” he adds. “ has forms for pre-start checklist and jobsite hazard checklists that customers have access to as well. Most large general contractors will require a daily hazard analysis be completed for each job the AWP user will do.

“Power lines and tip-overs caused by driving elevated into depressions or on uneven surfaces seem to be the big [causes of accidents] that too often result in a fatality. Entrapment has happened as well, often times not witnessed [in which case] it is difficult or impossible to piece together what happened.”

Watch out for customer misuse

Large national rental companies typically have resources for sophisticated safety and training infrastructure. Smaller independent companies run leaner organizations. Although Sugar Grove, Ill.-based Metrolift is not what one would call a small “mom-and-pop” rental center, the single-location company can’t easily compare with the capabilities of Sunbelt Rentals or NES Rentals. Nonetheless, Metrolift has a strong awareness of the need for safety practices on aerial work platforms.

For Metrolift, it all starts with Lift Pro, an online training program from aerial work platform manufacturer Genie Industries. Everybody in the company takes the training, including office employees that don’t operate the machines.

“We have all our people go through that online class,” says Jacky Valdez, service and training manager for Metrolift. “That way they understand what everybody else goes through. And if anybody calls and says ‘What kind of training do you offer,’ the office staff knows about it. All of our drivers, mechanics and sales people have been through Lift Pro, and new employees all sign up and take the course online.”

Staff that handles equipment such as sales people and drivers, also take the Lift Pro hands-on training. Metrolift employs two actual trainers — Valdez and one other. Its sales staff are capable of doing familiarization, “But they are better utilized doing other things,” says Valdez. “We don’t have time for them to be tied up doing training.”

Metrolift holds staff safety meetings once a month, covering a variety of safety issues. “But it’s not always about an emergency procedure or anything like that,” says Valdez. “When we get new equipment here, we try to get everybody in here to become familiar with it. If it’s a new operating technique, new control feature or a new lowering procedure, we bring everybody in and show them how to do it.”

Valdez says one of the biggest concerns when renting aerial work platforms and one of the biggest causes of accidents is misuse of the machine, customers using lifts improperly. Sometimes Metrolift’s staff discovers customers modifying machines, such as taking guard rails down, or not closing the entry gate so they can unsafely exit the machine, or adding extensions on it.

“We got a service call one day on the electric 3219 and the customer made a little shelf on the outside of the machine,” Valdez says. “Along the side, where the kickplate is, they drilled in a piece of wood there so they could rest something on it and carry it up. What they didn’t realize was they drilled into where the cables run for the controllers. So they were calling, saying ‘the machine didn’t stop right away’ and ‘it drove on its own.’ Fortunately, there was no accident but unauthorized modifications on machines can be dangerous. We try to nip that in the bud right away.”