Worker says Menards was warned about forklifts before fatal accident

"Is that the world you're happy to hand down to your children and grandchildren?"

"Is that the world you're happy to hand down to your children and grandchildren?" Nicholas Eckhart

On May 5, a 27-year-old forklift operator named Alec Saunders was crushed to death at the Burnsville Menards.

Saunders hadn't been at the job for long. For training, he'd been made to watch an instructional video, given a paper test, and observed driving. The day of the accident, he was lifting a load of 16-foot lumber that had been stored on a high bunk, possibly 10 to 14 feet tall, according to yard workers. The forklift began to tip over, Saunders leapt out, and was crushed by his machine.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is still investigating how the accident happened and whether it could have been prevented. But as news of Saunders' death spread through Menards' ranks, one worker reached out to City Pages to say Menards workers complained for years that the company's forklifts are too small for the loads they carry.

The worker, who asked not to be named for fear of being fired, says most Menards forklifts typically have a weight capacity of 5,000 pounds, but that limit is not supposed to be lifted all the way up.

"They pick up lifts of lumber that are 16-, 18-, 20-foot long. A full bunk of 16-foot that's wet because they get a lot of moisture in them, those forklifts will bounce up and down," the worker says. "The person on the forklift will be bouncing because of how much weight it is. And I've talked to the yard manager numerous times to get a bigger forklift."

The worker says he believes the Burnsville Menards did get a larger forklift -- though only after Saunders' death.

"I was told today that each store is supposedly going to get a 6,000-pound forklift so they can handle these better, but I'll tell you in my personal opinion, a 6,000-pound forklift is still too small to handle a 20-foot lift of lumber."

There's no licensing requirement for forklift operators, according to the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry. Employers alone are responsible for training and evaluating workers before they're allowed to drive them.

City Pages asked Menards to confirm what type of forklifts are used at the Burnsville location, whether the company has any regulations on how much weight is put on them, and how operators are trained. Spokesman Jeff Abbott says because Saunders' death is still under investigation, he is unable to provide any information.

Over the past decade, OSHA has cited Minnesota Menards for 45 safety violations, most of which were found in routine inspections.

Near-miss forklift accidents don't get reported to OSHA, says spokesman Jim Honerman, but fatalities do. Of these, Saunders' is not the first in recent years. In 2012, Evaristo Alvarado, a Menards maintenance worker in Illinois, died when he became trapped in the forklift he was fixing, and was crushed.

And about two years ago, 54-year-old George Young from Nebraska was rearranging trusses in the warehouse when his forklift veered toward some storage racks. Young was fatally pinned between the racks and his forklift. OSHA cited Menards for a serious safety violation because Young's body was able to pass beneath the storage rack's lower shelf, a crushing hazard.

"This preventable tragedy demonstrates how quickly a routine workday can turn deadly," said Bonita Winingham of OSHA at the time. "Employers must educate and train forklift operators and others working in warehouses to remove debris and other material from the path of forklifts."

OSHA suggested that Menards could prevent future tragedies by lowering their shelves, or using different types of forklifts.

"In my opinion, they don't really care," the Menards worker says. "They don't tell [forklift operators] they can't lift something."