Safely Driving and Operating Forklifts

Safely Driving and Operating ForkliftsIntroduction

In recent years we shared several incidents from emergency medical services where people were injured in incidents involving forklifts. These included road crashes, rollovers as well as accidents in the loading of these vehicles.

Reports also included crush injuries to those operating the forklift and others working in the vicinity of the forklift operator. 

But why do we have so many injuries and what can we do to prevent these at our places of work? We decided to approach a few specialists in Health & Safety to gain a few more insights and advice on how to safely drive and operate a forklift: 

What are the most typical types of crashes we find involving forklifts?

Crushing, Struck or Pinning of a Pedestrian

Accidents, like these, can be avoided by regular training for operator and pedestrians, visible post warning signs and application of floor tape to designate forklift zones, and the use of blue lights and pedestrians red zone lights to alert pedestrians to the presence of a forklift.

Pedestrians may become unobservant to signs and tape, yet, an approaching blue spotlight is hard to ignore.

Similarly, a red light zone around the lift truck reminds pedestrians to keep a safe distance from heavy machinery and also prevents foot injuries and collisions from rear end swing. Similarly, sensor back up alarms audibly alert pedestrians that equipment may be coming their way.

Overturning of a Forklift

Forklifts overturn are the leading cause of fatalities involving lift trucks. Overturns can be caused by:

  • Equipment malfunction
  • Improper turning; turning or stopping too quickly
  • Driving with an elevated load
  • Excessive speed
  • Operating on an inclined 
  • Uneven driving surfaces

Unstable loads/ Instability

Unstable loads/ Instability could be caused by anything from an off-centre load to a damaged or loose load. These unstable loads can cause you to tip over or drop the load. This is caused by:

  • Exceeding the capacity of the forklift
  • Not utilising the load-extension backrest  
  • Not carefully centring the load
  • Carrying loose or damaged merchandise

What injuries are usually sustained in these crashes/ incidents?

Minor bruising to a loss of a limb to fatality depending on the severity of the accident. 

Do you believe that operator inexperience is contributing to these incidents?

More so than often, people tend to underestimate the operation of forklift machinery. Like driving an on-road vehicle, experience and training are required to operate any lifting machinery, in fact, the experience is vital for all machinery. An operator needs to have knowledge and understanding of the capabilities and limitation of a forklift machine. It is a fact that the more hours you put in any machine or vehicle the better you become to know and understand and operate that machine to its fullest and safest capability. An inexperienced operator can only present danger to him/herself, pedestrians and damage to the load and property.

Forklift Operator Training

Do you believe training can reduce these incidents?

Training gives the operator an opportunity to understand and learn specific machine capabilities and limitations. It also gives a novice operator the opportunity to learn in a safe environment before being introduced in the real world. For an operator that requires recertification, training provides knowledge and skill evaluation, as well as the reintroduction of general changes, legislation and machine specification. Training is also vital for an operator, that requires certification for the upgrade of machine capacity or the use of additional attachments. 

How do you suggest these trainings be delivered and would there be both theoretical and practicals? 

All training and licensing should be done in line with the Driven Machinery Regulation Act and Driven Machinery Regulations Code of Practice. Training should cover pre and post inspections, the adaption of operations to different loads, handling and storage principles associated with specific forklift machinery and emergency procedures. 

Theory and practical application of forklift machinery are of utmost importance in the training industry, as determines if the operator is found competent.

  • Operators are required to have the knowledge and sound understanding of theoretical topics such as machine specifications, capabilities and limitations, safety and emergency procedures, laws and regulations and specific company procedures. 
  • Operators are also required to demonstrate the practical application of forklift machinery, such as; identifying machine components, functions of machine components and its various attachments, operational capabilities and limitations of the machine. Safety and emergency procedures, laws and regulations are also integrated into the practicals as a means of preparing the operator’s behaviour/reaction to events/situations experienced outside learning environment. 

Unsafe conditions are only a contributing factor in 10% of incidents experienced – it is employee actions or lack of corrective actions that contribute to 88% of all incidents. Health and safety is everyone’s responsibility from the CEO to the construction site. Construction work is inherently dangerous. In South Africa, this is reflected in the alarming incident and accident statistics in the construction industry.

Particularly, operating with a forklift and powered industrial trucks; they present numerous hazards that endanger both pedestrians and drivers. While they move heavy loads and increase efficiency, forklifts can also cause serious injuries when they are used unsafely. It is averaged, two construction workers are killed every week and anecdotal evidence indicates that employees acting unsafely is the cause of 80% of accidents, resulting in injuries or damage to equipment.

Here are some precautions for how forklifts are used in the workplace, common hazards:

General Precautions and Rules

  • Before each shift, examine forklifts for safety purposes.
    1. Avoid operating a vehicle that requires maintenance or repair (which should be provided by the respective qualified experts).
      1. Inform the shift supervisor of any identified issues, problems, questions, or concerns.
  • Forklifts operate uniquely; since they steer from the rear, the back of the vehicle needs a wide sweep to turn.
  • Never leave an operating forklift unattended. In fact, leaving keys in an unattended forklift (or, thus, leaving on the ignition of this vehicle) is illegal, and has dire consequences as a safety hazard, even without the actual occurrence of an accident.
  • Know and never exceed the lifting capacity of the forklift.
  • Forklifts must follow designated roadways at the work site.
  • Work-site rules and regulations must be adhered to.
  • Keep hands and feet away from the cross members of the mast- should the mast be lowered and catch your hand, you’ll suffer from serious injury.
  • Forklifts need to be refuelled after, of course, they’ve been turned off, at designated and well-ventilated locations.
  • Forklifts which are not in use should be carefully parked, with the parking brake applied.

Safe and Smooth Operating

Safe and Smooth Operating

  • As the operator of a forklift, you must receive thorough forklift training and certification before being entrusted with the heavy machinery.
  • Be alert and attentive to your surrounding environment at all times with these forklift safety tips:
    • Avoid hazards on the floor; slippery or unstable surfaces, bumps, holes, etc.
    • Driving over small, scattered hazards (like shards of wood) may make the load shift and
    • topple, or knock you out of place (and out of control)
    • Direct your forklift forward when driving up ramps, but go downhill in reverse.
    • Don’t load/unload on the ramp.
    • Be alert others of your coming with a horn or your voice.
    • Keep a safe distance from people and from other trucks
    • Stop only when you have enough space to pause safely.
    • Note any changes to your operating environment.

Eliminate Dangers to the Surrounding People

  • If you’re driving, always keep an eye out for other people around you, especially those on foot.
  • Avoid fast moves. Always drive, stop, turn, and lift or lower the forks slowly and as smoothly as possible.
  • Sudden turns can toss off a load or even the entire forklift off balance, which make it a much greater hazard for the operator and especially the surrounding people.
  • Be especially careful when navigating ramps, inclines and grades.
  • Always check carefully before turning or backing up the vehicle. Keep in mind that people may be walking or standing on one of your blind sides (i.e. behind the vehicle) or obstructed by other obstacles;
  • No one should be allowed to stand or walk beneath or upon the forks, whether they’re emptied or loaded.

When Loads Become Hazards

When Loads Become Hazards

  • Most accidents with forklifts occur by plummeting loads which crush the person below.
  • Place loads back by the mast, where they’ll balance most stable; never place loads at the front of the forks.
  • Never load trucks beyond approved capacity.
  • Always travel with the forks positioned as low as possible for increased stability and protection. Never travel with forks that are elevated and/or tilted forward.
  • Ensure that the load is stable or strapped in place before moving the vehicle. The load must be balanced on both forks.
  • Avoid decaying, warped, or otherwise damaged skids and pallets.
  • When stocking, be vigilant for slipping, unstable, or toppling loads. Have a good view of and easy access to the rack or location where you must position your load.
  • If your load obstructs your view, operate the forklift in reverse to improve visibility and operation control. If visibility remains obstructed, enlist the help of a lookout or helper to guide you between obstacles and people.

Also View

Safety from Falls, Falling Objects and Crush Injuries

Treatment and Response to Cuts and Bruises


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