Safe Forklift Operations

A forklift is a powerful tool that allows one person to precisely lift and place large heavy loads with little effort. Using a tool such as a forklift, cart or hand truck instead of lifting and carrying items by hand can reduce the risk that you will suffer a back injury.


However, there is great risk of injury or death when a forklift operator:

  • has not been trained in the principles of physics that allows a forklift to lift heavy loads
  • is not familiar with how a particular forklift operates
  • operates the forklift carelessly
  • uses a forklift that is not safe due to malfunctioning or missing parts

Pre-Use Inspection


The forklift should be checked for defects before initial use, usually by the operator before beginning a work shift. If someone else has used the forklift during a shift, it’s a good idea to check it for defects again.

Even if you operate a forklift safely, a defect can cause or contribute to a serious accident. Any defects that would affect safety must be corrected before the forklift is returned to service.

Look at the following items for things to look for during an expection:

  • Is the horn working? Sound the horn at intersections and wherever vision is obstructed.
  • Are there hydraulic leaks in the mast or elsewhere? These could cause slipping hazards or lead to hydraulic failure.
  • Are fuel connections tight and battery terminals covered? Dropping a piece of metal across battery terminals can cause an explosion.
  • Is there a lot of lint, grease, oil or other material on the forklift that could catch on fire?
  • Do sparks or flames come out from the exhaust system?
  • Does the engine show signs of overheating?
  • Are tires at proper pressure and free of damage? A tire with low pressure or a tire failure can cause a forklift to tip or fall when a load is high.
  • Do all controls such as lift, lower, and tilt work smoothly? Are they labeled?
  • Is there any deformation or cracks in the forks, mast, overhead guard, or backrest?
  • Are lights operating if used at night or in dark locations?
  • Is steering responsive? A lot of play or hard steering will reduce your control.
  • Do brakes stop smoothly and reliably? Sudden stops can cause tipping.
  • Does the parking brake hold the forklift on an incline?
  • Are seat belts (if equipped) working and accessible?
  • Is the load capacity plate readable?



Precautions and best practices while traveling in a forklift include:
    • The most basic rule for traveling is that you maintain control of your forklift at all times.
    • Operate a forklift only while in the seat or operator’s station.
    • Never start it or operate the controls while standing beside the forklift.
    • Never allow passengers unless the forklift was designed for a passenger.
    • Do not put any part of your body between the uprights of the mast or when traveling, outside of the forklift frame.
    • Never drive with wet or greasy hands. If necessary, keep a towel or rag handy at all times.
    • Whether loaded or empty, carry forks and platforms on lift trucks as low as possible. This lowers the center of gravity and reduces the possibility of overturning the truck or dumping the load.
  • Always look in the direction of travel and keep a clear view of the travel path. Travel in reverse if the load blocks your view.
  • Always observe posted speed limits (usually 5 mph) at your workplace. A forklift should not be driven faster than a quick walking pace.
  • Keep a distance of at least three forklift lengths between you and any forklift traveling in front of you.
  • Do not pass a forklift traveling in the same direction if it is at a blind spot, intersection or other dangerous location.
  • Never drive a forklift up to anyone in front of a bench or other fixed object.
  • Never allow anyone to walk or stand under the elevated forks—even if the forks are not carrying a load.
  • Check that there is adequate clearance under beams, lights, sprinklers, and pipes for the forklift and load to pass.
  • Never engage in stunt driving or horseplay.


Driving on Ramps and Grades


Forklift operators should follow certain general rules of the road when traveling on ramps and other inclines. Traveling up and down ramps and grades can be quite dangerous because the forklift can more easily tip over. Be sure to follow these safety practices when operating the forklift on ramps and grades:

  • Always look in the direction of travel.
  • Never turn on a ramp or incline. Turn prior to the ramp or incline to place forks in proper direction.
  • Keep a safe distance from the edge of a ramp.
  • Do not travel on ramps with slopes or other conditions that exceed the manufacturer’s recommendation.
  • When traveling with a load, the load should point up the incline, regardless of direction of travel.
  • When traveling without a load, the forks should point downgrade, regardless of direction of travel.


Driving onto Trucks, Trailers, and Railroad Cars

Forklifts are often driven onto trucks, trailers, or railroad cars over a dock board (also known as a bridge plate) at loading docks. If the truck, trailer or car is not secured to the dock or otherwise chocked, it may move forward. The dock board can then fall between the trailer and the dock as the forklift crosses it.

You can secure wheel chocks with chains at each loading dock bay and tell truck drivers that they must place them in front of the rear wheels. Another way of securing the trailer is to use a vehicle restraint system mounted to the dock that clamps onto a bar below the trailer as it backs into place. This system will signal when the restraint is engaged or if there is a problem.

The pavement at some loading docks slopes downhill toward the loading dock. This is not a substitute for chocking wheels.


Sometimes a trailer is left at a loading dock without the tractor attached. Use trailer jacks to prevent the trailer from up-ending when a forklift drives to the front of the trailer to load or unload. Here are some additional loading and unloading procedures:

  • Inspect the floor of the trailer to be sure that it will support the forklift and load.
  • Ensure that the height of the entry door is adequate to clear the height of your vehicle, taking into consideration the height of the loading platform.
  • Drive straight across the bridge plates when entering or exiting the truck trailer or railroad car.
  • Use dock lights and headlights when working in a dark trailer.
  • Sound the horn when entering or exiting the trailer.
  • In determining the capacity of the trailer floor to support a forklift, consider various factors, including floor thickness and cross-member spacing or unsupported floor area. In general, the larger the unsupported area, the lower the forklift capacity the trailer will have for the same floor thickness.
  • Never use the forklift to open railroad car doors unless:
    • It has a device designed for that purpose.
    • The operator is trained in the use of the device.
    • All other employees stand clear.
    • Keep a safe distance from the edge of a loading dock or a ramp. The edge must be painted yellow or with alternating yellow and black diagonal stripes to warn of both the fall hazard and the potential to be crushed by a trailer backing into the dock.
bull rail
    • A portable dock board must be secured in place to prevent it from moving. Some boards have pins that are inserted into the sides and project below the board. This prevents the board from moving toward the dock or toward the trailer. To prevent crushed fingers and make for safe handling, a portable dock board must also have handholds or lugs that allow the forklift to pick it up.
    • Some loading docks have a bull rail that prevents a wheel from slipping off the sides of ramps or edges of the dock where a forklift would not have to cross to enter a trailer.
  • Any part of the dock edge that is four feet or more above the adjacent surface must have a standard guardrail. Removable rails (such as chain rails) and posts can be used at the place where trucks or trailers will be loaded.
  • Use rail mounted chocks to secure a railroad car. Also, prevent anyone from moving the rail car while the forklift is working. A blue sign with the word “STOP” attached to the track is one way of signaling that the car must not be moved. A special attachment must be used if a forklift is used to open a rail car door.


Loading and Unloading the Forklift

Because of the wide variety of equipment used and the different kinds of stock and materials handled, each company must form additional rules for loading and unloading to fit the needs of its facilities. Know the maximum load that each truck can carry safely; do not overload it. An overloaded truck will not operate in a safe manner.

Answer the following questions and check the load before you pick it up.


Common pallet stacking patterns

  • Do the dimensions and weight of the load fall within the capacity rating of the forklift at the highest elevation and maximum extension you will handle the load? If not, can you break the load into smaller parts?
  • Is it stable or will parts slide or fall during transit? Secure it as necessary. The illustrations to the right show some common pallet stacking patterns

When you pick up the load:

picking up

  • Make sure your view is not obstructed.
  • Move squarely into position in front of the load.
  • Do not permit anyone to stand under or too close to a load that is being hoisted or lowered.
  • Position the forks wide apart to keep the load balanced.
  • Drive the forks fully under the load.
  • Tilt the mast backward slightly to stabilize the load and lift. Check the destination before you place the load.

Check out the destination:

    • Is the destination flat and stable—or, will the load rock, tilt or lean?
    • Never place heavy loads on top of light loads.
    • Observe maximum stacking quantities and orientation if printed on cartons.
    • Do you know the load bearing capacity of your rack or storage loft destination?
    • Are rack legs or support members bent or disconnected? The load bearing capacity of a damaged rack is unknown. Wait until the damaged component has been replaced before loading.
    • Are racks arranged back to back with a stock behind where you will place the load? Someone may need to be in the next aisle to control access while you place the load.
    • Are wooden stringers or decking laid between front and rear rack beams in good condition? They may support the load if the pallet is not properly placed on both front and rear rails.
    • If you are stacking, are other pallets in the stack in good condition and capable of supporting the load in addition to what they are already supporting?

When you place the load at its destination:

  • Move squarely into position in front of the rack or stack where the load will be placed.
  • When ready to place the load, tilt the mast to level. Only tilt forward when the load is over the spot where it will be placed.
  • Lower the forks and back away.
  • Visually verify that the load is stable.
bridgeplacing load

Leaving a Forklift Unattended


Do not leave the forklift unattended.
Click to Enlarge

A forklift is considered to be unattended when it is not in view of the operator or if it is in view, the operator is 25 feet or more away.

If you leave a forklift unattended:

  1. Lower the forks to the ground.
  2. Set the controls to neutral.
  3. Turn off the power.
  4. Set the brakes.
  5. If the forklift is on an incline, block the wheels.
  6. If you dismount a forklift and stay within 25 feet, you must at least lower the forks to the ground, set the controls to neutral, and set the brakes.


Lifting and Lowering People

Lifting or lowering a person on forks or a pallet can result in a fall injury or fingers caught in moving parts of the mast.

lifting people

No worker should be allowed to be lifted while standing on the forks or on a pallet lifted by the forks. The image to the right is a good example of what should never be done. These workers in the photo are lucky they did not get hurt or killed.

If you want to use a forklift to raise an employee to an elevated position, use a platform or structure specifically built for this purpose that meets the conditions described below.

    • The platform must have standard guardrails which include a top rail 36” to 42” above the platform (39” to 45” on a construction site), midrail and toeboard. It must also prevent contact with chains and shear points on the mast. See the illustration for an example.
    • The platform must be securely attached to the forks such as by a clamp or chain.
    • Check with the forklift manufacturer to verify that the hydraulic system will not allow the lift mechanism to drop faster than 135 feet per minute in the event of a system failure. Identify the forklift as approved for use with the platform.
    • Lock or secure the tilt control to prevent the boom from tilting.
    • A forklift operator must be at the normal operating position when lifting and lowering the platform. The operator must be near the forklift while a worker is elevated.
    • Except to inch forward/backward or maneuver at low speeds, do not move the forklift between two points when a worker is on the platform.

Order picker forklifts are designed to allow the operator to be lifted along with the controls to an elevated location. However, if the operator station does not have standard guardrails on all open sides, then the operator must wear a full body harness with lanyard attached to a manufacturer approved anchor.


Traffic Patterns


The first step to prevent powered industrial truck accidents in a facility is to establish a traffic pattern. This is management’s responsibility.

Management must ensure:

  • Aisles are well-lighted and free from obstructions.
  • Floors are sound and in good shape. Wet, oily or icy surfaces should be avoided. Clean them up as soon as possible.
  • Aisles are marked clearly. When they are wide enough for two trucks to pass each other, the center of the aisle and the two extreme edges should be marked with painted lines. In some plants, the aisles are wide enough for two truck lanes and a pedestrian lane.
  • Do not allow for two trucks to run side by side in the same direction.
  • A truck must never pass another truck at an intersection, blind spot or other dangerous location. In areas where there is high concentration of truck traffic, it may be best to have one-way aisles.
  • Speed limits are set and strictly enforced. A few speed limit signs at strategic points serve as constant reminders to truck operations.
  • Prominently display stop signs at all crossings. These may be regular stop signs or signs painted or set into the floor. You can also use stripes and discs as indicators.
  • Each plant must set up its own rules regarding traffic control, but a required four-way stop at every intersection is a wise way to avoid collisions. Plants that have adopted the four-way stop requirements have found that no significant time is lost by this extra precautionary measure.


Workplace Conditions

workplace conditions

Workplace surface and overhead conditions are an important part of safe lift truck operation. Operating surfaces must be strong enough to support the forklift, its load and its operator. They must also be free of holes, grease, oil or obstructions that could cause the lift truck to skid, bounce, and/or possibly tip over.

Workplace surface and overhead conditions and factors to consider when traveling include:

  • Slippery Conditions: There is a danger of skidding when traveling on oil, grease, water or other spills. A forklift could tip over when traveling on ice, snow, mud, gravel and uneven areas.
  • Obstructions and Uneven Surfaces: There is a danger of tip over when traveling over obstructions, holes and bumps.
  • Floor Loading Limits: There is a danger of the floor collapsing if it’s unable to support the weight of the forklift, load, and operator.
  • Overhead Clearance: There is a chance of damage to lights, stacks, doors, sprinklers and pipes. Damage to the load may also occur, and the forklift may tip over when traveling and hitting an overhead obstruction.



Develop a model for good housekeeping. Develop specific procedures for storing tools and material in the proper location. Items to consider for proper housekeeping include the following:

  • uncluttered and well-marked aisles
  • a corner mirror for traffic safety at the intersection
  • adequate lighting

Other standard precautions, which management should consider, include guardrails or flashing lights in front of doors that open into aisles; curbs around docks, pits or drop areas; and mirrors at intersections.

Carbon Monoxide

carbon monoxide

Internal combustion engines produce carbon monoxide. This gas can rapidly build up in any indoor area. Once inhaled, carbon monoxide decreases the ability of the blood to carry oxygen to the brain and other vital organs. Even low levels of carbon monoxide can set off chest pains and heart attacks in people with coronary artery disease.

Workers can be overcome without even realizing they are being exposed. Confusion, headache, dizziness, fatigue, and weakness may set in too quickly for victims to save themselves. Carbon monoxide poisoning can cause permanent brain damage, including changes in personality and memory.

Gasoline powered forklifts should not be used indoors. Propane forklifts also produce carbon monoxide and must be regularly inspected and maintained. If you are concerned about the exposure level in an enclosed area where a forklift operates, contact a qualified industrial hygienist to make measurements and recommendations to improve ventilation.


Maintenance Records

It is very important to maintain accurate records of all corrective and preventative maintenance for a substantial period of time. Doing so will help in conducting accident investigations by providing a maintenance history for analysis. It will also make it easier to establish trends in maintenance needs.

Source: OSHAcademy

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