The American View: Unheeded Lessons from the Burning Forklift

If you want to truly understand an organisation’s real culture, watch how the powerless employees act when the bosses aren’t around. Oh, sure … a company might have great “corporate values.” Heck, they might paint those values on the office walls or force every employee to carry printed copies of them on a laminated card next to their photo ID. Lots of places claim that they have strong values – codes of conduct that the entire population buys into – but these are more aspirational statements than facts. The harsh reality of every organisation is that office culture is constantly re-negotiated at employee level, not dictated from executive boardrooms. 

This is why upper management is so often disconnected from the production line. The higher up you are on the ladder, the more out of touch you are with the people on the lowest rungs. Might as well be two different companies as far as the workers are concerned. This isn’t an indictment of any particular company; it’s a reminder that there’s no such thing as a monolithic culture in any organisation, and that claimed “values” are mostly wishful thinking … until they’re enforced.

This topic came up a few weeks ago. A group of my blue-collar friends shared an incident that had occurred in their warehouse at the beginning of Autumn … an incident that had their entire site abuzz. They claimed to have seen the closed-circuit television footage of the entire incident, lending the story some credence. All of them swore the story was true and said that their managers were incandescent with rage. Without judgment, here’s what they say happened:

It was ten minutes before the end of the day shift in a massive warehouse. As per standard operating procedure, all the forklift drivers were returning their vehicles to their regular staging areas so the drivers from the evening shift could either refuel or recharge and take over. One driver seemed distracted. It wasn’t clear if he was looking the wrong way, misjudged his position, or got disoriented. All that anyone was sure of was this:

Buckle up. This is going to get weird. 

The driver was advancing down an aisle between two multi-story racks of boxed supplies at his vehicle’s maximum allowed speed.

Toward the end of the aisle, a second forklift was parked on to one side. There was more than enough space to manoeuvre around the parked vehicle.

The speeding forklift did not, for whatever reason, attempt to manoeuvre around the parked vehicle.

The moving forklift and the stationary forklift … merged. In that, the ramming vehicle drove its tines straight through the rammed vehicle’s engine compartment before coming to a jarring halt. 

The ramming forklift’s tines connected the terminals on the wounded forklift’s battery, which then started a fire in its breached engine compartment.

The errant driver took stock and noticed the fire he’s just caused. According to company regulations and their worldwide “culture of safety,” the driver was required to activate the nearest fire alarm, cordon off the area, and report the crash to Health & Safety immediately. 

The driver did not do any of those things. 

Just to put your mind at ease, no one got run over or squished in this story. Unfortunately …  

Instead, the driver stood up on his forklift and scanned the area. 

There were a few workers in sight. There were no representatives of management to be seen. 

The driver looked at his watch. It was five minutes to shift change. 

The driver hopped off his forklift and waked nonchalantly towards the warehouse exit, tipping his helmet so his face couldn’t be seen clearly by the security cameras. He blended in with the throng of departing workers as they streamed out into the car park and went home. 

Behind him, the defiled forklift continued to burn. The anonymous driver had abandoned his post and left his co-workers in peril without a backwards glance.

That, the tale-spinners said, was not the worst part of the story.

As the security camera footage continued, three more forklifts came down that traffic aisle. No, they didn’t slam into the wreckage. Each of the drivers spotted the problem and swerved around it.

They, too, were required to activate the fire alarm, cordon off the area, and phone Health & Safety. Instead … they each sped up. They sprinted (as much as a forklift can) past the accident site and pretended they’d never seem anything so as to get out of the site before anyone noticed.  


That right there tells you everything you need to know about this company’s true organisational culture. At this warehouse, if management isn’t around to enforce essential safety regulations, the employees feel no compulsion to follow them. There is so little cohesion and esprit de corps within the community that no one felt it necessary to pull a fire alarm or fetch a fire extinguisher to prevent others from getting hurt or to stop the entire facility from burning down. Instead, these workers prioritised leaving the facility on-time over the survival of their workmates.

That’s quite a damning indictment; one that falls squarely (I believe) on the site’s leadership tier. Sure, you could get pompous and argue that all blue-collar workers are somehow less responsible than their white-collar managers, but we’re long past that sort of 19th century class bias. Realistically, this isn’t a morality or “fitness” issue … it’s a cultural problem. 

When workers feel so disconnected from one another that even the most basic expectations of duty to one’s community – like pulling a fire alarm – aren’t compelling, it suggests the workers feel alienated from the organisations and from one another. They have no strong sense of duty to their employer (in the abstract) or to their immediate supervisor. When your people don’t give a damn if their co-workers burn to death, it’s time to re-assess who you are, what you stand for, and whether your business is worth continuing. You need to change or shut down. Pick one. 

The best part of the story came at the end, after all the “no way!” and “he did what?” questions were addressed. One of the blue-collar lads smirked and shared that management had been apoplectic for days because they couldn’t identify the mysterious forklift crasher. That’s why so many workers knew about what had happened … worker after worker on that shift had been required to view the security camera footage to try and ID the culprit. 

“You see that guy? That guy that covered for you when you were too sick to work? We want you to rat him out so we can take away his job and health insurance during a global pandemic. Why aren’t you cooperating with the people who make ten times more than you do and will lay you off in a heartbeat if it amuses them to do so?”

There was, they said, no talk about re-training forklift drivers, or reducing distractions, or improving visibility, or any other reasonable measures intended to prevent such an accident from happening again. There had been no consideration of a “safety down day” so that managers could impress upon their people why accidents need to be reported swiftly. There were no investigations and no reporting to the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration. No corrective action at all, other than the threat of “punishment” for the mystery labourer who crashed his forklift and disappeared into the throng

No wonder morale and unit cohesion are so low in this facility. If punishment is all that management cares about, why would anyone subject to their authority care about anyone or anything other than their own personal safety and paycheque? Seems like all the company’s well-intentioned “corporate values” went up in flames alongside that poor, innocent forklift engine. 

It’s a darned shame, because accidents like these are opportunities to examine, refine, and recommit to organisational values. Show everyone what went wrong, then redouble your commitment to living right thereafter. Show your people that management is committed to its principles and hold everyone accountable all up and down the chain for making things right. Make your values more than just pretty slogans painted on the warehouse wall. 

Pop Culture Allusion: The story of Moses encountering the “burning bush” in the Book of Exodus, which is referenced in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban of all places. 

Keil Hubert

Keil Hubert

POC is Keil Hubert, Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert. You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store. Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant. Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

© Business Reporter 2021

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