Three reasons to focus on lift truck safety

Aug. 15, 2002
Learn to prevent lift truck accidents.

There are three good reasons to focus on lift truck or forklift safety.

First, lift trucks are often fast-moving and need to be driven carefully. Tens of thousands of workers are injured in lift truck accidents each year. Small lift truck accidents not only cause bumps and bruises, they also can result in broken bones.

Second, OSHA says companies must pay attention to lift truck safety. Regulations that took effect in March, 1999 require employers to train and certify every lift truck operator and recertify them every three years.

Third, accidents can cost lives. Unfortunately, they also cost a lot of money, and disrupt operations. Workers are a company's largest investment and they deserve protection from injury. Safety is important and makes good business sense.

Before the truck moves

The safe car or truck driver always inspects the vehicle before startup, to ensure it's in good operating condition. Lift truck operators must do the same. Lift truck operators should use a daily checklist, which includes items such as tire condition, battery charge level and engine fluid levels. They must also check key operating components and a walk around the vehicle before startup.

Every lift truck has a data plate. It tells the operator the vehicle's weight and lift capacity, the grades it can safely ascend and descend, as well as other important safety information. The operator should be familiar with this data before starting the truck.

Lifting safely

It's important for operators to know the width and height of the vehicle. A typical lift truck has several height measurements.

  • The collapsed height of the upright (highest point on the truck when forks are lowered).
  • The overall extended height (highest point of the truck when the upright is fully extended and forks are at their highest position, plus some attachments and load safety racks). 
  • The height to the top of the load (which may be higher than the overall extended height). Not knowing the truck's height may result in contact with a conveyors, lights, overhead wires or sprinklers. Similarly, a truck only has to be an inch wider than what the driver thinks it is can cause a collision and bring pallets down on workers.

It's critical that the vehicle's stated lifting capacity not be exceeded. However, it is just as important to make sure the load is stable and secure before lifting. For example, the operator should determine if goods are secured to the pallet properly to avoid shifting, as well as whether the load is balanced properly or weighed to one side. Attention to these details takes only seconds, but it can save lives.

Training programs help operators to understand center of gravity principles. Each lift truck has a stability triangle. As long as the vehicle's center of gravity,loaded or unloaded,remains within that triangle, rollovers can be avoided. Operators must understand clearly how the center of gravity shifts when a load is put on the forks, when the forks are raised, and when the vehicle starts moving.

One of the most common safety problems involves using a lift truck to lift people without them wearing restraining gear. Allowing workers to stand on bare forks while they are lifted is dangerous. This must not be done.

Safety while moving

In a busy, crowded warehouse or distribution center, there must be traffic rules for the moving vehicles, just as there are for cars on the road. The problem is many operators don't know the rules, or forget to observe them. When trucks are moving, workers should remember:

  • Visibility is the first key to safety. Make sure there's a clear view in the direction in which the truck will be traveling. The operator needs to travel in a safe, comfortable position, with controls readily accessible.
  • Make sure there are no body parts extended outside the driver's compartment when the truck is moving. Leg and ankle injuries are the most frequent results of failing to observe this rule. 
  • Yield to pedestrians under all conditions. It's the best way to avoid the miscommunication that leads to accidents. 
  • Because intersections in distribution centers don't have traffic lights or stop signs, operators follow these steps: reduce speed when approaching an intersection and sound horn; stop at the intersection; and look both ways carefully before proceeding. 
  • When following another lift truck, maintain at least a three truck-length separation to provide sufficient time to react to sudden stops. Management's role is key

While these suggestions are good, operators by themselves can't make a lift truck safety program work. Experience shows management must buy into the campaign to prevent accidents successfully. Management commitment must be visible, as well as personal. Management must be prepared to make the necessary investment to reduce accidents and maintenance costs.

For example, to help prevent lift truck accidents, management must ensure dock surfaces are safe and level, and that trailer wheel chocks are available and used every time. Management must examine the warehouse for possible lift truck hazards, such as protruding shelves, low-hanging fixtures and uneven, wet or potholed floors. Lift trucks must be maintained and serviced in accordance with OSHA regulations. Other safety-related measures, such as eyewash stations near the battery-chargers, can prevent serious injuries.

Management should invest in operator training, and re-evaluate lift truck operators regularly as required by OSHA regulations. Accidents, near misses or observed unsafe operating actions should trigger immediate retraining for the individuals involved. Non-operator workers also should be informed of proper lift truck operations and pedestrian safety.

Management can help prevent lift truck accidents by making safety a clearly defined, top-down priority.

Lift truck safety training programs

Managers can either have an outside instructor conduct the training at the instuctor's training center or at the plant; or have a plant employee, after undergoing a suitable training program, train and certify operators.

OSHA regulations accept both options. The decision is usually based on factors, such as the number of operators involved, the amount of operator turnover and the cost of quality training available locally.

What's involved in this training? Though OSHA specifies basic course content, training programs vary. Here are two types of programs.

Lift truck operator training

This course varies from a half to a full day. Usually, it is given at the plant, so operators can gain experience using the specific model of lift truck operated daily.

The course reviews applicable OSHA regulations, typical workplace accidents, the center of gravity and how rollovers are prevented. Hands-on demonstrations and practical exercises on the specific vehicles in the warehouse are provided. Operators take a written mandated OSHA test, and those who pass receive an OSHA certificate.

Train the trainer program

This is a full-day course that prepares one or two individuals to train, evaluate and certify operators. Held at a training facility, students review applicable OSHA regulations, receive instruction on proper pedestrian behavior and view presentations on workplace scenarios that illustrate how people get hurt. They attend an operator training class and review the written test that operators must take. The remainder of the course concentrates on the specific lift truck models used by the company. Trainees are supplied with samples of the tests and documents needed to conduct in-house training, including supplies of daily driver checklists.

Ben Singleton is training manager for Material Handling Supply, Inc., (MHS Lift), Brooklawn, NJ. He can be reached at (888) LIFT-TRUCK.

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