Powered Industrial Trucks: Know the Risk

By Todd Teets, Safety Trainer
Safety Management Group

Forklift234 copyForklifts and their many cousins in what OSHA lumps together as “powered industrial trucks” are among the most common vehicles on worksites – so common that it’s easy to take these workhorses for granted.

However, taking them for granted and forgetting basic safety rules leads to many injuries each year and serious damage to property. Most of those incidents – whether they involve a worker being struck, someone driving off a loading dock, or an improperly loaded forklift flipping over – are preventable.

Most accidents involving powered industrial trucks happen to workers between ages 35 and 44. Mention that to any safety professional, and he or she will respond with a primary cause: complacency. Those workers have been using the equipment for so long that they take shortcuts around proper safety procedures. That’s why it’s so important to emphasize and re-emphasize safety procedures to all employees who use and are around these versatile pieces of equipment. (While there are many types, from power jacks to lift trucks and reach trucks, I’ll use the term “forklift” to represent them all in this article.)

Training for everyone

The number one rule is that anybody who uses a forklift must receive formal classroom training and hands-on training in its use and safety procedures. (If you have any employees younger than 18, don’t allow them to operate forklifts, because that’s a violation of federal law.)

Although a typical forklift has four wheels and a steering column, it’s not at all like driving a car or truck. First, forklifts usually weigh at least twice as much. The seat tends to be elevated, creating a higher center of gravity that is less forgiving when it comes to tipping over. They’ll turn on a dime, but the back end has a wider swing than other types of vehicles. Wheelbases tend to be even narrower than what you’ll find on a Mini Cooper. Turn too sharply while going quickly, or carry the load just a little too high, and there’s a good chance you’ll be on your side with a damaged load.

Training must cover inspection, the operation of the vehicle, proper loading and movement, safety precautions when operating around other people, and emergency procedures. Once a worker has been trained on a particular type of equipment, he or she should be able to operate other makes and models of similar types with a brief orientation. However, just because an employee is trained for a forklift doesn’t mean he or she is ready to operate other types of powered equipment. If you’re in doubt, err on the side of extra training.

Before starting work

It’s always a good idea to take a couple moments to examine the forklift and ensure that everything appears to be in good working order. From tires and forks to safety equipment, a simple inspection can identify potential hazards before they put anyone in danger. If there are any defects or repairs are needed, the operator should notify a supervisor and take the unit out of service.

When climbing into a forklift, hazards include hitting the head on the safety cage and the possibility of feet slipping off the steps (especially if the steps or shoes have become oily). Once the engine starts, the operator should ensure that it is running correctly and that the lift and all safety systems are working correctly.

It’s also important to remember that there are different models for specific applications. For example, a solid-tired forklift designed for flat warehouse floors isn’t going to be suitable on a construction site with wildly varying surfaces and terrain. A forklift with pneumatic tires is better suited for those applications.

Protecting the operator

Workers may be accustomed to wearing seatbelts on the drive to and from work, but may forget about them when they climb into the cab of a forklift. Bad move. Between the increased risk of tipping over and the weight of the equipment, failing to wear the seat belt or other harness can lead to a worker being crushed. And operators must always look behind before backing up.

If a forklift has a seat belt, its use is mandatory. But if the forklift is an older model without a seatbelt or similar harness, the trainer must show the operator what to do if it begins to tip. Typically, there are specific places on the rollover cage that offer the best protection, but without training, a worker is not going to have the instinct to grab them.

Protecting other workers

While everyone on a worksite should be aware of what’s happening around them at all times, forklift operators have an added responsibility to watch for and alert nearly workers, because being struck by such a large piece of equipment can be deadly. Most modern forklifts have backup alarms, but those alarms may fail. If that happens, the operator needs to use the horn to warn workers when moving near them. It’s also important to remember that pedestrians normally have the right-of-way on a jobsite.

Being aware of surroundings

It’s true that running into objects with a heavy piece of moving machinery can create quite a bit of damage, but there’s an even bigger hazard to forklift operators. If they hit a wall, stacked objects, or a large piece of equipment, it’s possible that those objects could fall on the forklift, crushing it and its operator.

Operators also have to be careful when entering trucks, trailers, railroad cars, and containers to load or unload items. The truck or other object must be secured in place so the contents won’t shift while the forklift is working. In addition, the floor of the truck or trailer must be able to support the weight of both the lading and the forklift. The operator should also watch for conditions that may impact the integrity of the floor, such as holes, cracks, or saturation by oil or other liquids.

The operator should also check to make sure that the dockboards or dock levelers are in good shape and securely positioned, so they will not slip under the forklift’s weight. Care must also be taken to ensure that the operator does not accidentally roll off loading docks or other elevated areas.

Handling loads correctly

It’s the operator’s responsibility to ensure that all loads are picked up and secured correctly. One of the lessons operators learn is called the “stability triangle,” which offers an easy way to remember how the load and its placement affect the stability of the forklift. A load that gets shifted outside the borders of the triangle increases the risk for tipping over.

In cases when the load has to be carried off-center, or when it is somehow damaged, the operator needs to use extra caution. Additional wrapping, banding, or other safety equipment may be required, and the heaviest part of the object should be positioned near the forklift’s front wheels. If the forklift will be operated on any inclines, grades, or uneven surfaces, the operator must consider how the differences in height may affect the stability of the forklift and the load.

Just take your time

None of these steps is complicated, but they all take a little extra time. Whether it’s a minute to inspect the forklift at the beginning of a shift, taking a moment to scan around the area before moving, or verifying that a load has been properly centered on the forks, that little bit of extra time the operator takes could prevent a lot more painful downtime.

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