Forklift Safety 101

Avoid a serious forklift accident with these basic forklift safety tips.

Just about every worksite has a forklift, and for good reason: These machines are essential for loading, unloading and moving materials. But the fact that they’re universal doesn’t mean they’re without risk. The reality is that an accident can occur in the blink of an eye. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, forklift accidents resulted in more than 7,000 nonfatal injuries per year between 2011 and 2017, and 614 fatalities in total.

These accidents are almost always avoidable with forklift safety best practices. What are the main causes of injuries when using forklifts, you might ask? The following sections detail some of the most common types of forklift accident and helpful tips for preventing each one.

Forklift tip overs

A forklift tip over, or overturn, is one of the most common causes of forklift fatalities. A tip over can happen for many reasons — if an operator takes on a load that exceeds the load capacity, if the load is unbalanced or if the operator moves the lift with the forks positioned too high, for example.

Speeding is another cause of tip overs. A forklift operator with a lead foot is a dangerous one. Speeding around turns is especially risky. Sudden braking, which can cause the load to shift, also increases the risk of a tip over.

How to prevent forklift tip overs

There are several ways to minimize the risk of forklift tip overs. First, it’s good practice to carry a load as low to the ground as possible (about 4 inches above floor height is typically sufficient). Second, slow down, especially on turns and when driving up or down a ramp or slope. Companies may want to enforce a speed limit of 5 mph or less and post speed limit warnings around the worksite. Operators should avoid tight turns and turning on an incline whenever possible.

It’s important for operators to know the forklift's limits. Somewhere on the side of the machine will be a nameplate with the model number, identification number and maximum forklift capacity clearly listed. Carrying a load that exceeds the machine’s capacity will put too much weight beyond the forward point of balance (the front wheels) and increase the risk of tipping, especially on slopes.

The operator should wear a seat belt if one is available in case the forklift tips. Never try to jump from an overturning forklift. Instead, hold on tight to the steering wheel and lean in the other direction.

Forklift accidents involving pedestrians

Many forklift accidents injure or kill people who aren’t operating the machine. Nearby pedestrians may be hit by a moving forklift or become pinned between the forklift and a fixed object. Collisions involving pedestrians often come down to operator inattention or fatigue.

Forklift pedestrian safety

The flashing lights and audible alarms triggered when a forklift is moving, particularly when it's backing up, are critical in warning nearby pedestrians and other vehicles to get out of the way. Some forklifts project a light on the ground to indicate the danger zone for a pedestrian. If these features aren’t operational, the operator should take the forklift out of service. In an emergency, operators should use forklift hand signals and a spotter to navigate around the site.

To avoid hitting a pedestrian, forklift operators should always look in the direction they’re moving. They should stop at intersections and blow the horn when moving through doorways and coming around blind corners. If they have to move when they don’t have a clear view of what’s in front of them, they should use a spotter.

To protect workers on foot from forklift accidents, OSHA recommends separating forklift traffic from pedestrian traffic whenever possible.

Accidents caused by lack of forklift maintenance

Lack of proper forklift maintenance increases the risk of forklift injuries. Tire blowouts with fully loaded forks can cause unstable loads and tip overs. Low batteries can cause the operator to lose control of the load at height, putting the operator and nearby workers at risk. Soft brakes can make an already heavy forklift more difficult to stop.

Forklift maintenance tips

Regular forklift maintenance is critical. Operators or employees assigned to maintain equipment should perform safety checks often — at least once at the beginning of each shift.

They should check the pressure on forklift tires to avoid blowouts caused by over-inflation and loss of traction caused by under-inflation. They should make sure the battery is adequately charged and the brakes and brake pads are in good shape. All of these items should be included on a forklift safety checklist provided by management.

The importance of forklift safety training

Forklift safety training is essential to learning how to operate a forklift safely and avoid accidents. Training ensures that operators can steer and maneuver safely, that they understand load capacity, load composition and the limitations of the machine and that they know how to properly secure loads. Per OSHA forklift regulations, no one should operate a forklift unless they are properly trained and certified to do so. Companies should verify that all operators are up to date on their certifications.

Holding regular toolbox talks is a smart way to remind operators of basic safety precautions. They’re a good opportunity to identify any forklift hazards specific to the worksite and also remind employees who might be on foot in the materials handling area how to stay safe around a moving forklift.

Forklifts can be one of the most useful pieces of equipment on a worksite. With proper worker training, the right traffic management and careful maintenance, they can also be one of the safest.

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