Forklift Safety

It’s important operators understand how to properly operate forklifts.

By Alexandra Walsh

Forklifts, classified as “powered industrial trucks” by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, are commonplace in the groundwater industry. But they can be deadly if used improperly and require respect and diligence for safe operation.

About 35,000 serious injuries and 62,000 non-serious injuries involving forklifts occur every year. Further data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows as many as 96 U.S. workers were killed in incidents involving forklifts in 2015. Forklift operators at heightened risk of injury or death include those who:

  • Don’t understand how principles of physics allow forklifts to lift heavy loads
  • Are not familiar with how a particular forklift works
  • Operate a forklift carelessly
  • Use a forklift despite the machine having missing parts or unapproved alterations.

What Are Forklifts?

Powered industrial trucks, commonly called forklifts or lift trucks, are used in many industries, primarily to move materials. Forklifts may be powered by batteries, gasoline, diesel or propane, and come in many sizes.

Some forklifts have drawbars so they can pull weighty loads. Others have booms and attachments that allow them to lift heavy objects. They can be used to raise, lower, or remove large objects or a number of smaller objects on pallets or in boxes, crates, or containers. Forklifts can be driven by an operator or controlled by a walking operator.

Regardless of the type of forklift, one thing holds true: All forklift operators must be trained.

What Are the Hazards?

Tipping over on its side is the leading cause of fatalities involving forklifts and accounts for nearly 25% of all forklift-related deaths. Case studies examined by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) indicate the forklift, workplace conditions, and the forklift operator can all contribute to fatal incidents involving forklifts.

In addition, these fatalities would seem to indicate many employees and employers aren’t using or aren’t aware of safety procedures and the proper use of forklifts. If they were, the risk of injury and death would be greatly reduced.

There are many types of forklifts and each type presents different operating hazards. For example, a sit-down, counterbalanced high-lift rider truck is more likely than a motorized hand truck to be involved in an accident involving a falling load. That’s because a sit-down rider truck can lift a load much higher than a hand truck.

The type of workplace and its conditions are also factors in hazards commonly associated with forklifts. For example, some worksites face greater challenges than others in maintaining the safety of workers who are walking about and working in areas. Beyond that, many workers can also be injured when:

  • Forklifts are inadvertently driven off loading docks.
  • Forklifts fall between a dock and an unsecured trailer.
  • Workers are struck by a forklift.
  • Workers fall while standing on elevated pallets and forklift forks.

Safety Training

A commitment to safety begins with proper training. Determining the best way to protect workers from injury largely depends on the type of forklift operated and the worksite where it is being used.

Employers must ensure each forklift operator is competent to operate a powered industrial truck safely, as demonstrated by the successful completion of the training and evaluation specified in OSHA 29 CFR 1910.178(l)(1)—“Powered industrial trucks, Operator training, Safe operation.”

OSHA requires training programs combine formal instruction such as lectures and written materials with practical training and a workplace performance evaluation. Operators should be mindful of the differences between various types and models of forklifts and lift trucks.

Know the Equipment

Although lift trucks and forklifts share some similarities with personal vehicles, they are quite different. Lift trucks and forklifts have the following differences:

  • An open structure where the driver is not completely enclosed
  • Weights ranging from 9000 to 30,000 pounds (rough-terrain lift trucks at the heavier end)
  • Traveling speeds of less than 20 mph, closer to a walking pace
  • Three-point suspension, not the four-point suspension used in a vehicle
  • More prone to tipping over—loaded or not—and variable stability
  • Tighter turning radius for operating in tight spots.

The National Safety Council (NSC) urges forklift operators always wear seat belts. Neglecting to do so can cause an operator to be ejected from the forklift’s protective cage if it turns over—which could result in a possible serious injury or a fatality.

An operator should always be aware of their surroundings on the jobsite—especially when or if the load they’re moving or the surroundings may obstruct their visibility.

It is essential forklift drivers are aware of, and make eye contact with, pedestrians or other workers while operating. OSHA’s best practices for maintaining visibility include:

  • Keep a clear view.
  • Always look in the direction you’re driving.
  • Use spotters or rear-view mirrors to boost visibility.
  • Use headlights if working at night, outdoors, or in areas where additional lighting would improve visibility.
  • Equip forklifts with headlights when general lighting is inadequate.

The Stability Triangle

An unloaded forklift’s center of gravity—where the weight has equal concentration—typically is higher than that of a personal vehicle, according to the NSC. The load has its own center of gravity, and once it’s picked up, a combined center of gravity between the load and the forklift is established.

Forklifts are built on a three-point suspension system, which resembles a triangle. Support points lie at both ends of the front axle, with another located at the center of the rear axle. Together, NSC states, this forms a “stability triangle” that operators must stay within when the forklift is in motion.

Numerous factors can cause a forklift to lose its stability triangle. Loads that are unstable, heavy, wide, or elevated. Fast starts and stops. Taking corners too quickly. Driving over rough terrain.

Here are tips to help prevent forklifts from tipping over:

  • Before operation, make sure a load is completely stable and secured on the forks.
  • Keep loads low to the ground during operation.
  • Keep loads uphill when climbing or descending an incline.
  • Drive slowly in wet or slippery conditions.
  • Slow down during turns and honk the horn upon meeting traffic.

Load Basics

OSHA advises forklift operators check loads before picking them up with the forks, thus ensuring the load’s stability and dimensions will allow for safe transport. Move squarely in front of the load and move the forks apart as far as possible before driving them under the load. Make sure not to overload and the load is centered.

Slightly tilt the forklift mast backward before lifting. Lift the load enough to clear the floor or rack. For stacking, OSHA recommends lifting the load above the lower stack by about 4 inches.

When placing a load, operators should be squarely in front of the placement destination. Make sure the area is flat and stable, and don’t place heavy loads on top of light ones. Lower the forks upon placing the load, and then back the forklift away. As always, be sure the load is stable.

Perform Checkups

Operators are urged to inspect forklifts before each job, checking first without the engine running. Checkpoints should include seat belts, tires, lights, horn, brakes, backup alarms, and fluid levels, as well as the moving and load-supporting parts of the forklift.

Employer and Worker Responsibility

Here is an overview of safety obligations for employers and workers when operating forklifts.

  • Provide employees with training and evaluation once every three years, after a near-miss or an accident, and if an employee has been observed operating a forklift in an unsafe manner.
  • Document and certify an employee has been trained and evaluated on forklift operations. The certification records need to be maintained including a copy of the test, the training provided, and evaluation of the driving.
  • Enforce forklift safety rules—does the employer have a disciplinary policy?
  • Enforce forklift inspections to check on damage and remove from service until repaired.
  • Operate a forklift in a safe manner.
  • Inspect a forklift for damage prior to use.
  • Report damage to a supervisor and take the forklift out of service until repaired.
  • Know the load capacity for the forklift you are operating.
  • Use only factory-approved forklift attachments on the forklift.
  • Never lift employees using your forklift.
  • Have zero tolerance for horseplay.
  • Drive within speed limits specified by the employer.
  • Never leave your forklift unattended.
  • Engage the brakes prior to dismounting.
  • Honk your horn when in a blind spot.
  • Never drive with a load blocking your vision.
  • Know your surroundings and hazards in your work area.


Forklifts are incredibly useful in the groundwater industry, but they can lead to accidents—some with deadly consequences—when not properly used. Make sure everyone at your business is properly trained before operating a forklift.

To help meet your professional needs, this column covers skills and competencies found in DACUM charts for drillers, pump installers, and geothermal contractors. DO refers to the drilling chart, PI refers to the pumps chart, and GO represents the geothermal chart. The letter and number immediately following is the skill on the chart covered by the column. This column covers: DOK-8, 9, 10; DOL-1, 2, 3, 4; PIG-2, 3; GOI-8, 9, 10; GOJ-1, 2, 3, 4. More information on DACUM and the charts are available here.

Alexandra Walsh is the vice president of Association Vision, a Washington, D.C.–area communications company. She has extensive experience in management positions with a range of organizations.

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