How To Drive A Forklift
Want to know how to drive a forklift truck, whether out of personal interest or because you're considering training to operate one professionally? They're complicated machines and many of the controls look unusual, so how can you work out what's what?
The techniques required to operate a forklift vary, with differences mainly depending on the type of engine in the truck and the lifting equipment it uses. However, the main principles remain similar, especially in terms of safety.
My beginner's guide to operating a forklift will help you get your head around the controls, safety checks, and procedures you'll need to understand before training to drive a forklift.
How To Operate A Forklift
Sit-down Forklift Controls
There are a lot of similarities between how to drive a sit-down forklift and how to operate other vehicles, including domestic automobiles. However, there are some minor differences in the driving system, as well as having to learn to operate the forklift mast hydraulics.
Forklift Driving Controls
Like driving a car, steering is achieved via a steering wheel directly in front of the operator's seat.
The steering wheels are at the rear of a forklift though, so the handling characteristics when you operate a forklift are very different from most vehicles.
Speed control uses a foot-operated accelerator pedal.
Hydrostatic forklifts have two of these, for forward and reverse movement, whereas most others have directional controls similar to the gear shift on an automatic car (with Forward, Neutral, and Reverse settings).
Clutch and brake pedals are also used on internal combustion forklifts, while electric trucks don't need these. For fine control, many forklifts have an extra "inching" pedal. This is a combination clutch and brake, allowing smooth operation at even the slowest speeds.
Another feature borrowed from the automobile industry is the parking brake. Usually engaged and disengaged using a lever next to the driver's seat, this stops the forklift's wheels from turning when the operator exits the cab. So, you can park safely even on a sloping floor.
Forklift Hydraulic Controls
The controls for operating the lifting equipment itself will be less familiar to most drivers, but being able to operate them is just as important as knowing how to drive a forklift around the site.
All movements which can be performed by the mast and forks, or other attachments, are powered by hydraulic cylinders and controlled using levers in the cab.
There is usually one lever for each type of motion. The basic movements of which all forklifts are capable are raising and lowering the forks and back tilt. Back tilt refers to tipping the mast forwards and backward slightly, to assist with picking up loads and keeping them stable in transit.
In addition, many forklifts can move the fork carriage side to side using another lever. Extra levers can also be used to adjust the width between the fork tips, extend the carriage forwards (for reach trucks), or swing the mast from side to side, depending on the model of the forklift.
Driving a Stand-up Forklift
Although they have similar functions, stand-up and sit-down forklifts use a completely different control system. An operator could well have years of experience with sit-down trucks but still not know how to drive a stand-up forklift.
The hydraulic tilt and lifting controls work the same for both types, it's the controls used to drive the forklift itself that differ significantly.
Apart from the operator driving from a standing position rather than a seated one, there are two other key differences.
Unlike the steering wheel system found on seated lift trucks, Stand-up forklifts use a control lever to change direction. This can be pushed in any direction by the operator to turn the wheels and maneuver the truck.
Stand-up forklifts typically have just one pedal, which controls the power being supplied to the wheels by the motor. Braking is achieved by simply releasing pressure on the power pedal, whilst both forward and reverse driving are made possible by pushing the steering control lever in the required direction.
Operating a single-pedal and steering lever system requires specific training, which should be carried out before letting the operator drive loads around in a working environment.
Driving a Forklift Around Other Workers
A worksite can be a busy, noisy, and generally hectic environment. When driving a forklift in an environment where pedestrians and/or other vehicles are also working, it is vital for everyone to maintain a sufficient distance from each other to prevent serious accidents.
In order to achieve this, many sites have clearly marked routes where personnel can operate a forklift, with warning signs for other workers. Employees will be given training on how to safely navigate areas where lift trucks are operating.
Forklifts are also fitted with lights, horns, and sometimes sirens, to alert colleagues of the whereabouts of the truck. As well as using some of these as a general alert, forklift operators are expected to use an audible signal (the horn or a reversing alarm) when moving in reverse. This is because the person driving a forklift may not be able to see pedestrians to the rear of the truck. These workers need to be made aware so they can take responsibility for their own safety.
Lifting and Carrying a Load
The loading capacity (or lift capacity) of a forklift is the maximum weight the forklift is designed to handle safely.
Trying to lift a load that exceeds the loading capacity can either damage the lifting mechanism in the mast or cause the forklift to overbalance and tip over, so operators must always stick within the guidelines for their forklift model.
The lift capacity of the forklift is one of the pieces of information which is found on the data plate (a sheet of metal attached to the chassis by the manufacturer and engraved with important data about the truck).
However, the rated loading capacity isn't the whole story. Unusually shaped loads with the center of mass either high up or toward the fork tips create a greater moment, so the effective loading capacity is reduced. Forklift safety training includes teaching operators how to calculate these changes.
Using the Forks to Lift a Load
Once the operator has maneuvered the forklift in line with the load to be lifted, they will use the hydraulic controls to lower the forks to the correct height, with the mast in its upright position. For palleted loads (the most common objects handled by forklifts) this is usually between 2-6" from the ground.
Once happy with the alignment of the fork tips, the operator will either drive the forklift slowly forward using the inching pedal or, in the case of reach trucks (and light loads), extend the carriage forward using the hydraulics, until the forks are fully inserted and the load is touching the backrest.
Next, the forks are raised slightly to bring the load off the ground, and back tilt is applied so the load is leaning securely against the backrest. Once the operator is satisfied with the stability of the load they can transport it to the desired location and deposit using the reverse process.
Forklifts are incredibly versatile machines, largely due to the wide range of accessories and forklift attachments available. These allow not only the handling of different types of products, but also for operations such as concrete pouring, towing, and even floor-sweeping.
Forklift operators do need to be aware, however, that using certain attachments significantly alters the lifting capacity. This is due to both the size and weight of the attachment itself and its effect on the displacement of the load relative to the truck's wheels.
Forklift Pre Operation Inspection Checklist
Simply knowing how to drive a forklift is not the only requirement to operate a forklift safely. Like any other piece of industrial machinery, the vehicle needs to be kept in good working condition.
Alongside the need to service the truck, following a clear schedule of regular maintenance, a daily pre-operation inspection is of vital importance in reducing accidents and/or mechanical damage due to avoidable hazards.
These checks must be carried out at the start of each shift in which you will drive a forklift, and the main points will be covered during any OSHA-approved training program. The checks are often split into three parts: Visual inspection of the forklift, site inspection, and operational checks to verify everything is running smoothly.
Visual Forklift Inspection
Before you start driving a forklift, make sure there is no visible damage or missing equipment. An operator will check the condition of the tires and wheels and that all exposed lines and hoses are in the correct location and undamaged. They will inspect the living equipment (mast, carriage, and forks) especially closely, as well as the engine, and safety equipment such as the seat belt and overhead guard.
When driving a forklift, the operator's visibility is often impaired either by the mast, chassis structure, or the load itself. Hitting or driving over unseen obstacles and hazards can cause the forklift or its cargo damage.
To avoid this, the operator will conduct a site check at the start of their shift. Hazards could take the form of sharp objects on the ground which could damage the tires, machinery or other objects impeding the path of the truck, or overhead obstructions which could cause a problem when driving with the forks loaded and raised.
As many obstructions should be safely removed as possible. However, some are fixed and inherent to the site. In this case, the operator should note their position and, where possible, ensure they are clearly marked and/or accompanied by warning signs (especially where the visibility of the hazard itself is an issue).
Forklift Operational Checks
In addition to visual checks of the forklift and its environment, driving a forklift safely relies on all the controls and mechanisms functioning smoothly. There are a series of operational checks the driver will carry out before they operate a forklift.
The first set of these occurs before starting the machine. The driver will enter the cab to check the steering wheel for excessive free play, and ensure the pedals can be depressed smoothly without sticking. Next, the operator will put on their seat belt and start the forklift using the key.
This allows them to check the information shown on the gauges and warning lights. Before driving a forklift, make sure the battery power, oil pressure, etc are all within normal limits. The operator should also test the signal lights and horn.
Lift, tilt, and other hydraulic controls can also be checked at this stage. The operator will be looking for movement of the levers to result in smooth controlled action without any unusual noises or vibration related to the hydraulics.
Once the stationary checks are complete, the driver can release the parking brake, switch the directional controls out of Neutral, and use the pedals to set off in a controlled manner. Initial driving checks require the operator to drive slowly, both forward and in reverse, checking the operation of the accelerator pedal, brake, clutch, and steering wheel. There are lots of factors to pay attention to here: engine noise, the feel of the controls, and the smoothness of the drive are all indicators of proper function.
Once satisfied with the low-speed performance, the operator will accelerate and repeat the driving checks at normal operating speeds.
How To Get Certified To Drive A Forklift
All forklift operations in the USA are subject to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations. In order to remain compliant, forklifts must only be driven by operators who hold an up-to-date OSHA Forklift Operator certificate. These are valid for three years at a time, after which the operator will need to be reevaluated.
There are two ways to gain certification as a forklift operator. The first of these is the online route, whereby a provider will use video resources, presentations, and online assessment to deliver and evaluate the theoretical aspects of driving a forklift and forklift safety (including loading capacities, controls, etc). This process can be as quick as just a couple of hours, but employers are still required to provide you with hands-on training and a practical assessment covering the specific forklift equipment used by the company.
The second pathway is to go to a forklift training institute (often part of a center offering other types of industrial certification) for a combination of classroom theory and driving practice. Although you will still have to undergo the employee training process, it may be easier to secure a position driving a forklift if you can demonstrate prior practical experience.