Forklifts are large, heavy machines. Aside from the accident and injury risks associated with any vehicle, forklift operators must consider hazards relating to the lifting mechanism and forks, especially under load.
An OSHA accredited forklift training program should teach your operators the main principles of forklift safety but you have a responsibility to ensure these rules are followed in your workplace. Safety signage, checklists, and clear SOP's can all support best practices and help your workers stay safe.
Read on for a rundown of potential issues, regulations, and safety tips to help your team operate a forklift as safely as possible.
The 5 Forklift Safety Rules & Tips
#1 Know the Hazards
In any industry, the first step in reducing hazards and preventing work-related forklift accidents is to understand the potential dangers of the environment and equipment in use.
Proper risk assessment is key to producing procedures and training.
As far as forklifts are specifically concerned these risks occur in two main areas, those associated with the operation of the forklift, and hazards relating to maintenance.
The former of these are largely similar to what you would expect when working with any vehicle i.e. the possibility of collision-based accidents, although with the extra movements available at the forklift mast, issues such as overhead obstructions and dropped loads play a greater role than with some machines.
Forklift maintenance and repairs should only be carried out by an OSHA-certified technician but the potential hazards should still be included in your overall risk assessment. It's important to know what could go wrong so that your Health and Safety personnel can be given suitable resources and training to respond accordingly.
#2 Always Check Your Daily Operator Safety Checklist
A forklift's daily operator safety checklist is vital to safe operation and to prevent forklift accidents. It is also the easiest way to remain compliant with several OSHA regulations.
There are two types of daily inspection activities, categorized as visual and operational checks.
Some of the main points which need to be included are listed below.
Wheels and Tires
Damaged wheel rims or forklift tires can cause serious accidents, especially if a pneumatic tire blows out. The rims should be checked for dents or cracks as these can either cause the wheel itself to break or damage the tire. For the tires, the operator should inspect sidewalls for damage, the tread depth (or wheel diameter for smooth tires) checked for excessive wear, and the tire pressure checked for air-filled tires.
The engine oil level of a diesel or LPG-powered industrial truck needs monitoring to prevent overheating and serious engine damage. It's also important to check all visible hoses, drive chains, cables for damage. Injuries could easily occur from hazards relating to loose or cracked chains, as well as brake/hydraulic failure caused by damaged or missing lines.
Bent or damaged forks can break, dropping the load and leading to serious injury hazards. Inspect the forks, carriage, backrest, and mast assembly for any cracks, misalignment, or excessive free play.
Safety signage and warning labels, fire extinguishers, the operator's harness, overhead guards, side rails, and other safety features of the forklift are all pieces of equipment designed to keep the forklift operator safe and secure. Checking to make sure these are all visible and in good order is vital, both for OSHA compliance and to protect your operators.
Even with a well-maintained forklift driven by an operator with proper certification, there are some hazards that can result from the working environment itself. For example, air-filled pneumatic tires can be punctured by sharp debris on the floor. Conduct a visual search of the site to remove such hazards, as well as ensuring any overhead obstacles are either removed or clearly marked and other impediments are removed from the driving area.
Make sure all the correct lights and signals appear when switching on the power, as well as checking the battery power meter (for electric-powered industrial trucks). Then check to make sure the power cut-off is equally effective in shutting down every system. This is to check there are no shorts or other wiring irregularities which could lead to serious injuries either via electrocutions or mechanical failure.
Lights, Horn, and Signals
The visibility and audibility of the forklift are key to safety. On a busy site, pedestrians and other powered industrial trucks need to be aware of where the vehicle is and if it is in motion. Check to make sure all lights are clear and bright, signals are operating properly, and the horn (along with any other features such as a "vehicle reversing" warning) is clearly audible.
Steering, Controls, and Brakes
After checking the power and signaling equipment for proper operation, It's time to use a low-speed test drive to ensure the brakes, steering, and plugging controls are fully operational. The most important things to look out for in terms of forklift safety are excessive free play or binding (sticking) in the steering, and soft, "spongy" or unresponsive brakes. Once you've checked all these it's a good idea to perform the same steps at a higher speed, as some issues only become apparent with faster motion.
Proper operation of the hydraulic equipment is integral to forklift safety. The hydraulic mechanisms are responsible for lifting the load and maintaining load stability. Check to make sure all lift and tilt controls operate smoothly through the mast's normal range of motion without any unusual noise, a shift in alignment, or vibration related to the movement.
Accessories and Attachments
Forklift companies offer a range of solutions to specific material handling needs, in the form of forklift attachments that are fitted either to the forks or directly to the mast. These provide the capacity to shift a broader range of loads, as well as performing other activities such as towing and floor-sweeping.
OSHA compliance requires these attachments to be checked in the same way as standard equipment before operating the forklift. First, a visual inspection should be carried out to ensure the attachment is in good working order and fitted correctly. Then, forklift operators must check the movement and proper function of the attachments.
(NOTE: The use of attachments can affect the lift capacity of the forklift and this must be taken into account in safe load calculations (see below)).
#3 Never overload the forklift
The forklift loading capacity (or lift capacity) of a forklift refers to the maximum loads the truck can handle without compromising stability. Per OSHA industry regulations, this must be clearly displayed on the data plate and operators must ensure they do not exceed these figures, otherwise, serious accidents can occur.
The lift capacity is related to the forklift's ability to counterbalance a load lifted at the forks via weight distribution towards the rear. Many trucks use a fixed ballast system for this, but some use removable plates to increase or decrease the counterweight. When operating one of these forklifts, operators should check all plates are in place before loading close to the stated load capacity.
Stated load capacity is based on the center of mass of the load being no more than a certain (horizontal) distance from the load backrest and (vertical) distance from the forks. If a load is unusually large or has an uneven weight distribution, this will affect the moment it exerts on the forklift and reduce the effective lifting capacity accordingly. OSHA-compliant forklift safety training certification includes the necessary calculations for working out the effective capacity and these must be adhered to.
Similar to the effect of unusual loads, many common forklift attachments can alter the effective load capacity due to their own weight or a change in displacement of the load mass from the carriage. The forklift's stability relies on trained operators following the same rules for load calculations for the attachments as for the loads themselves and taking this into account when deciding whether a specific job can be safely carried out using their forklift.
#4 Be Aware of other Workers
Some forklift designs have limited visibility for the operators. This can make pedestrians or other workers difficult to spot.
It is best practice to have clearly marked out operating lanes in the worksite, with fixed crossing points for workers on foot to help prevent pedestrian accidents.
However, operators are still responsible for using their horns, flashing lights, and other signals to make sure co-workers are aware of the forklift's location and can maintain a safe distance accordingly.
#5 Always Keep Your Forklift Well Maintained
Not all mechanical or electrical safety issues will necessarily be apparent from the operator's daily inspection. Regular, scheduled maintenance in line with OSHA standards and the manufacturers' recommendations helps prevent accidents as well as ensuring your lift truck keeps running smoothly.
The owner's manual will contain a list of the recommended service intervals for different components and systems. Rather than continually checking these on an ad hoc basis, it's best to produce a checklist for weekly, monthly, six-monthly, and annual tasks which can be easily monitored. Even if you have a service contract with your forklift dealer it's still worth keeping your own records to minimize the risk of vital maintenance jobs being missed.
Additional Ways To Stay Safe
Forklift Safety Training
Both Federal and OSHA regulations mandate that any operator must undergo suitable forklift training, to include full safety training in both a formal and practical context. The classroom aspect of operator training includes the use of video and other resources to demonstrate identifying potential hazards and how to avoid them, before being expected to carry out such tasks in a real-world context.
This safety training must be refreshed at least once every three years but employers should provide additional safety training whenever an incident or performance evaluation highlights the need to do so.
Forklift Safety Lights
Forklifts are fitted with several lighting systems aimed at preventing accidents by improving the visibility of the truck to pedestrian workers and other operators. These are especially important for electric forklifts, which are very quiet compared to their diesel or LPG counterparts and can't always be heard in a noisy industrial environment except when the cooperator uses the horn.
As previously stated, the proper operation of all lights and signals must be checked on every shift.
If other workers glance towards a forklift and do not see the relevant lights illuminated, they may incorrectly assume the vehicle is stationary or powered down, leading to potential injuries or even fatalities.
Forklift Safety Signs
Forklifts should only be driven by suitably trained and OSHA-certified operators. However, proper safety signage is still vital for two reasons. Firstly, to remind the operator of potential hazards or safety tips that may have slipped their mind during a busy shift and, secondly, so any other workers sharing the site are made aware of any immediate hazards even if they have not undergone forklift training themselves.