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Cale Pierson from the Christchurch DC

Forklift drivers compete for top honours – By Lynne Richardson

Forklift driving is a necessary part of running a distribution centre, and a national competition, supported by Crown Equipment, has recently put 12 of Woolworths NZ’s best operators to the test.

Woolworths NZ – part of the Woolworths Group headquartered in Australia – runs more than 180 Countdown supermarkets across New Zealand, along with a number of Fresh Choice and SuperValue stores. It operates four major distribution centres (DCs): in Favona, Auckland (that services the Auckland region), Wiri, south Auckland (the national DC for slower-moving SKUs), Palmerston North (serving the lower North Island) and Christchurch (serving the South Island).

The forklift driver competition is open to all Woolworths NZ forklift operators, with each DC running its own regional heats to select the top drivers to put forward for the national competition. 
Peter Martinez Koti from the Wiri DC

Shane Mohi from the Palmerston North DC

Woolworths NZ has been supporting its forklift drivers to enter regional and national competitions for more than a decade. “We used to enter our drivers in the national forklift competition run by the Occupational Safety and Health Service (OSH), but when that ceased, we decided to run our own internal national forklift competition,” explains Russell Judd, logistics manager for the Palmerston North DC and part of the Woolworths NZ team overseeing the competition.

A highlight for all

Crown Equipment has been involved with the competition for more than eight years. “We’re a customer-centric company. While we are well known for our materials handling equipment, driver training is an important part of what Crown offers its customers in addition to the supply of lift trucks,” says managing director Kieran White. “Woolworths NZ is a valued customer of Crown and our collaboration for this event is an indication of this.”

Crown Equipment managing director Kieran White: “Driver training is an important part of what Crown offers its customers”

Crown has a long history with Woolworths NZ, and training its staff to safely use materials handling equipment is a highlight for everyone involved at Crown, as is the annual competition. “This event brings out the best in the competitors – all drivers that participate are aiming to operate at the top of their abilities and demonstrate good practices they have learnt at Crown driver training,” adds Mr White. “It’s also a lot of fun for everyone involved – it’s as enjoyable for the Crown staff as it is for the participants.”

The aim of the competition is to promote forklift safety and training amongst the company’s employees while allowing forklift drivers to demonstrate their skills and attention to safe operating practices. It comprises three parts: a written Q&A test, which all finalists must complete, followed by individual drivers running through a pre-operation visual checklist of safety points with a Crown driver training assessor, and then the rigorous driving test around an obstacle course, in which drivers have to lift, carry and stack pallets and manoeuvre in a tightly constrained space in the shortest possible time. Drivers can choose to compete on either a counterbalance or reach truck – whichever they would normally use at work.

Safety and awareness

Mr Judd says the course is designed both at local and national level to specific standards to simulate the typical workplace environment that drivers would face every day. “Safety and awareness within that environment should become the norm and is a requirement for all competitors,” he notes.

“That environment can change rapidly. With boundaries simulating racking, people and obstacles, competitors need to adjust and drive to the confines they work in. A good understanding of rules, safety and materials handling equipment limitations is a must – this gauges how effectively we train our operators.”

Mr White concurs, saying the Crown assessor will be looking for health and safety knowledge, accuracy, efficient operation and correct procedures.

Initially, Mr Judd explains, Woolworths NZ designed the challenges themselves with some external support and advice from industry experts. “Crown had always supported the competition through sponsorship and judging. As the competition grew and evolved, the value for our team was evident, and consistency became the key element for the national competition, both from a competing and judging perspective. Crown’s support grew to the point that for the last seven years they have designed and judged the whole competition for us, which is appreciated.”

Russell Judd, logistics manager for the Palmerston North DC: “The teams from the different DCs like to compete and strive to be better – and hopefully the best”

Intense concentration

It’s obvious from the steely determination and the occasional nerves shown by the drivers during the tests that the competition means a lot to them. 

“The teams from the different DCs like to compete and strive to be better – and hopefully the best at some stage. We often see familiar faces year after year, reflecting on where they went wrong in previous competitions. The event is also a lot of fun and creates healthy banter between contestants,” says Mr Judd. 

“Our management team are always proud of their local representatives competing at national level. I personally enjoy supporting my team and watching and learning how intense their concentration needs to be.”

The event inspires the drivers to practise and put their skills and understanding on show to their peers and leaders throughout the business, Mr Judd adds. “On the day they have to bring their best-practice driving techniques to the course while testing their composure and accuracy to react to the course environment while under the watchful eyes of judges and competitors. Beyond that, it is a great platform to reward competitors that achieve in their local environment by sending them to compete at a national venue. The reward is recognition that they are our logistics champions.”

After his turn driving around the obstacle course, driver Cale Pierson from the Christchurch DC says it’s a tough competition. “You’re competing against the best of the best. It’s great to be able to represent your company, and it’s a fun thing to do – something different to your normal day. I’ve entered before, but I’m hoping to win it this time.”

The next level

The forklift driver competition is highly valued by Woolworths NZ and is an important event on their annual calendar. “Valuing and recognising the skill levels of our teams is important, and the competition helps the drivers to realise that this level of skill is what we expect from them daily in their work environment. It pressure-tests our training and our values toward providing a safer working environment,” says Mr Judd.

In addition to the training provided to drivers to obtain their Forklift Operator’s Certificate F endorsement, Woolworths NZ also provides training in working at heights, warehouse management systems and post-incident retraining. 

Woolworths NZ would like to see the competition extended to other FMCG and logistics companies, just like it used to be many years ago. “An industry-wide competition would be the next level and definitely something to aspire to,” says Russell Judd. 

Vagatai Leagailesolo from the Favona DC

“There are lots of applications for forklifts in many environments and across numerous industries, but the basic fundamentals around operation and safety of them is similar and relatively easy to benchmark. This creates a consistent platform for competition. I’m confident that we would support and participate in an event that nationally recognises a champion that displays skill, safety and awareness in any workplace.”

And would Crown remain as a supporter? “Absolutely. Crown is not just about selling equipment and services. Our driver training division was established as a ‘value add’ for customers, as well as a way of helping to make lift truck driving a fulfilling, safe career on an ongoing basis,” says Kieran White.

“Crown’s management understands that an important part of a strong future for the industry is to have a high standard of drivers, and they see events like this as a chance to invest in the future of the industry.”

Woolworths NZ’s forklift driver of the year was announced at an awards dinner on Wednesday 5 September, with Shane Mohi from the Palmerston North DC taking out the top place, Scott Petersen, also from Palmerston North, coming second, and James Harrington from the Christchurch DC coming third. Crown congratulates all this year’s contestants and winners and looks forward to supporting the event again next year.

Lynne Richardson is the editor of New Zealand Construction News and FTD - Supply Chain Management Magazine

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