Powered Industrial Truck Tips for Drivers

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Forklifts are found in almost every plant and warehouse. Forklift accidents have increased dramatically in recent years. Most forklift accidents occur when the driver hits a co-worker because of an error in judgment. Although few accidents result from overturning a forklift, such accidents often result in serious injuries and even fatalities.

Driving a forklift is a serious responsibility. The average American car weighs between 2,500 and 3,500 pounds, and a 6,000-pound capacity forklift weighs two or three times as much. With a capacity load, you are handling a weight of as much as 16,000 pounds. A lift truck with eight tons of weight traveling at a high rate of speed can cause tremendous damage or injury in the event of an accident.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued regulations specifying general requirements for powered industrial trucks (OSHA’s term for forklifts, platform lift trucks, and motorized hand trucks, among others). The regulations can be found in 29 CFR 1910.178.

Forklifts are powered by various means, including gasoline, diesel fuel, propane gas, and batteries. Some forklifts are stackers moving on rail, and some are shovel loaders. Lift trucks come with a number of specialized options, such as clamps, pole carriers, buckets and swing arms. There are also related lifters, such as pallet trucks, towing trucks, low lifters and port-trucks. All require special training and knowledge of safe operation.

With the variety and styles of powered lift trucks available, it is everyone’s business to be aware of the hazards and safety requirements for safe operation. Safety awareness is important for drivers of powered industrial trucks and for anyone in the vicinity of their operation as anyone can be injured by an unsafe driving act.

Forklifts Are Unique

Driving a forklift is a unique experience. Forklifts are steered from the rear axle rather than from the front axle, as in a car. Rear-wheel drive allows a forklift to turn in a tight radius but also means that the rear of a forklift, when turning, will swing considerably more than the rear of a car.

Operating a forklift is fundamentally different from driving a car or other truck. Be aware that a forklift:

  • Is usually steered by the rear wheels;
  • Steers more easily when loaded than when empty (because the load is balanced by counterweights);
  • Is driven in reverse as often as forward;
  • Is often steered with one hand; and
  • Has a center of gravity that is toward the rear and shifts toward the front as the forks are raised.

Forklifts use a three-point suspension that permits the center of gravity to shift, making the forklift more likely to tip over. The center of gravity for a forklift moves depending on the load and how the load is positioned, and will move when accelerating, braking, or turning. Therefore, it is very important to avoid quick accelerating, braking or turning.

Another factor that will affect a forklift’s center of gravity is the load itself. Position the load tilted back and close to the mast. Tilting the mast back when traveling with a load creates better vehicle/load balance.

Never travel with the load elevated any more than is necessary to clear any obstacles or curbs. On an incline of more than ten percent, drive with the load upgrade, traveling forward up a ramp and reverse down a ramp.

Remember that these units are made to travel with loads. An unloaded forklift has the potential to tip because of the extreme weight of the counterbalance. Safe driving is just as important with an unloaded forklift as it is with a loaded one.

Each manufacturer provides an identification plate, or nameplate, on every forklift it builds. This plate gives you valuable information about the forklift’s design and capacity. It tells you how much the unit weighs (important to know before you drive into a trailer or elevator) and how much the unit can carry.

Forklift Accidents Can Be Prevented
Drivers need to be trained before they operate a lift truck. Not only is it important to know how to professionally operate a forklift, it is vital to know all safety rules of operation.

Become familiar with these rules before operating a forklift:

  • Operating a forklift takes skill, mechanical knowledge, safety rule compliance, and defensive driving under unique conditions.
  • Only the assigned driver, or drivers, should operate a forklift. An assigned operator is responsible for the cleanliness, maintenance, and security of the vehicle.
  • If at any time a forklift is found to be defective, in need of repair, or in any way unsafe, it must be taken out of service until it is safe to operate.
  • Only a trained and authorized operator should drive a forklift. A qualified operator is one who has been fully trained and tested, knows the general vehicle design, and has learned safety inspection and safe driving rules.

Safely Operating A Forklift
Begin by getting into and out of your forklift properly. Use a three-point stance, with two hands and one foot in contact with the floor or unit at all times. Never jump on or off the forklift.

Become familiar with all controls, both location and operation. Controls may vary from unit to unit. Be sure you understand every control on your forklift before starting the engine.

If the forklift has a seat belt, wear it! This is an important safety feature that may protect you during an accident. A seat belt will help to hold you within the frame of the safety cage should the vehicle tip. If you attempt to jump from the forklift, you are likely to be trapped under it or the load it is carrying. Wear protective equipment when required, such as safety glasses and ear protection.

The following “rules of the road” list general guidelines for safe forklift operation:

  1. Always keep arms and legs inside the vehicle.
  2. Face the direction of travel, concentrate on what you are doing, and never travel forward with a load blocking your view.
  3. Keep three vehicle lengths away from other vehicles – it is a space cushion around the vehicle.
  4. Do not engage in horseplay.
  5. Be aware of overhead clearances, such as pipes, sprinklers and door beams, and know the load limits of elevators.

When picking up a load:

  • Make sure the load does not exceed the capacity of the forklift.
  • Make sure the forks are positioned properly.
  • Make sure the load is balanced and secure.
  • Check for overhead obstructions.
  • Raise the forks to the proper height.
  • Extend the forks completely into a pallet, and tilt the mast back to stabilize
    the load before moving.
  • Back out and stop completely. After stopping, lower the load.

Traveling with a load:

  • Remember that pedestrians always have the right of way.
  • Never allow anyone to ride on your forklift.
  • Always watch where you are going.
  • Keep the forks low.
  • When moving, always have the unloaded fork as low as possible, but high enough to clear bumps and curbs. Never travel with a load raised high.
  • Know the position of your forks at all times.
  • Keep the load tilted back slightly.
  • Obey speed limits. Remember that a forklift is not a street rod, but is a slow moving vehicle, designed that way for safety.
  • Slow down at all intersections, and always sound the horn at blind ones.
  • Always drive forward traveling up and reverse back down ramps and inclines.
  • Avoid sudden braking.
  • Lift or lower the load only when completely stopped, never when traveling.
  • Keep to the right, the same as highway driving with a car.
  • Be alert for oil and grease spots, which could result in an accident.
  • Make sure the load is balanced and secure on the forks.
  • Cross railroad tracks at an angle, never a right angle.
  • Be careful of changing light conditions, such as coming in from bright daylight into dimly lit areas, and vice versa.
  • Beware of edges on loading docks.

Whether you are moving a load or just driving the forklift, your visibility is restricted. Be very careful to watch for blind spots. Accidents involving forklifts striking pedestrians and other objects are far too common.

When placing a load:

  • Stop the forklift completely before raising the load.
  • Move slowly with the load raised.
  • Never walk or stand under a raised load.
  • Tilt the load forward only when over a stack or rack.
  • Be certain the forks clear the pallet before turning or changing height.
  • Always stack the load square and straight.
  • Before backing, check behind and on both sides for pedestrians or other objects or traffic.

When you leave a forklift unattended and remain within 25 feet of the truck, completely lower the load, neutralize the controls, and set the brakes to prevent movement. A powered industrial truck is considered to be unattended when the operator is 25 feet or more away from the vehicle and the vehicle remains in view of the operator, or whenever the vehicle is not in the operator’s view.

Fueling the Unit
Refueling raises still more safety issues. Be sure to carefully follow the procedures established for your lift trucks, whether they are powered by propane, gasoline, diesel fuel or batteries.

Vehicle Maintenance Is a Continuous Job

Properly maintaining your forklift is just as important as safely driving it. A regular maintenance schedule should be set up for forklifts, and you should always complete a safety checklist at the start of your shift. This check includes a visual inspection, as well as a check of fluid levels, hydraulics, wheels and tires, brakes, and a check for any potential mechanical problems on the vehicle. Any forklift not in safe operating condition must be removed from service.

Because mechanical failure of brakes is one of the most common causes of lift truck accidents, the brakes are an important part of your inspection. Improper brake operation should be reported to appropriate personnel, and the vehicle should not be driven.

Here is a sample checklist of items to inspect before operating a vehicle:

  • Check the fork pins and stop to make sure they are in place.
  • Check all cowling and body parts.
  • Check the fuel level, crankcase oil level, and radiator water level.
  • Check the engine air cleaner, fan belt, hydraulic fluid level, and battery water level.
  • Check the hour meter and record the reading. This is important for maintenance scheduling.
  • With the engine running, check operation of the hour meter, headlights, taillights, and warning lights.
  • Check the oil pressure gauge, water temperature reading, ammeter, and operation of the horn.
  • Ensure that the clutch is working properly and check hydraulic controls and any other controls on the lift system.
  • Check the wheels and tires for excessive wear.
  • Look for any broken or loosened parts.
  • Check the steering to ensure the wheel turns correctly both ways.

These checks are not excessive. For safety’s sake, and for your own well-being, you need to know if your vehicle is safe to operate. Anything irregular must be reported to your supervisor at once.

Getting Your Attention
Human error is the primary reason for most lift truck accidents. The greatest cause of accidents among new drivers is forgetting to watch for overhead obstructions when lifting a load. Other causes that rank high on the list are carelessness and driving on the wrong side of the aisle.

  1. Never park in front of fire equipment, doors, exits, or high traffic areas.
  2. Do not pass another vehicle in narrow aisles.
  3. Never smoke in fueling areas.
  4. If you cannot see past a load in front, travel backwards carefully.
  5. Know the load capacity and limits of your vehicle. Also, know the elevator load limits and how to enter and exit an elevator.
  6. Never attempt to lift a load that is beyond the load limits of your forklift.
  7. Perform only maintenance or repair work that you are authorized to do. Leave the rest to maintenance personnel.
  8. When leaving your vehicle, lower the forks, put the controls in neutral, set the brakes, block the wheels if on an incline, shut the power off, and remove the ignition key or connector plug.

When driving a forklift, your responsibilities are great. By using common sense, you can prevent many potential hazards and accidents. You can also prevent accidents by employing safe habits, driving defensively, and operating the forklift in a professional manner. Be a skilled and safe driver, capable of completing the job efficiently and safely.

KEMI does not assume liability for the content of information contained herein. Safety and health remain your responsibility. This information is to be used for informational purposes only and not intended to be exhaustive or a substitute for proper training, supervision or manufacturers’ instructions/recommendations. KEMI, by publication of this information, does not assume liability for damage or injury arising from reliance upon it. Compliance with this information is not a guarantee or warranty that you will be in conformity with any laws or regulations nor does it ensure the absolute safety of any person, place or object, including, but not limited to, you, your occupation, employees, customers or place of business.