By Steven K. Fess, CSP/CIH
Each year, thousands of injuries related to powered industrial trucks or forklifts occur in U.S. workplaces. National fatality data indicate that the three most common forklift-related fatalities involve forklift overturns, workers on foot being struck by forklifts and workers falling from forklifts. The forklift vehicle, the work environment, and actions of the operator can all contribute to injuries or fatal incidents involving forklifts.
Forklift incidents can also involve property damage, including damage to overhead utilities, pallet and storage rack systems, process or sprinkler pipes, building walls, and machinery. Research indicates the majority of employee injuries and property damage can be attributed to a lack of safe operating procedures, lack of enforcement of safe operating procedures, and insufficient or inadequate training on vehicles. The powered industrial truck operator training requirements apply to all industries where trucks are being used, except compressed air or nonflammable compressed gas-operated industrial trucks, farm vehicles, or vehicles intended primarily for earthmoving or over-the-road hauling.
A comprehensive safety training program is always one of the most important elements in preventing injuries and death. It is particularly vital to forklift operation, however, because heavy mobile equipment always has the potential to cause injury if not operated properly. Inexperienced or untrained workers can make the fatal mistake of thinking that it just takes common sense or the ability to drive a car to operate a forklift, and because every brand and type of forklift is different all require specific training to operate.
All companies must develop, implement, and enforce a comprehensive written powered equipment safety program that includes worker training, operator licensure, and a timetable for reviewing and revising the program. At a minimum, a forklift safety training program should ensure that workers do not operate a forklift unless they have been trained and licensed.
Remember, training and an operating license — or certification that an operator is qualified to operate that vehicle — are required for every vehicle the employee will be operating, and refresher training or an evaluation of each operator’s performance is required at least once every three years.
Training should cover all aspects of the equipment the worker is going to operate, down to when to set the parking brake. Operator training should also address factors that affect the stability of a forklift — such as driving behavior, the weight and symmetry of the load, the load center based on fork length, driving and parking on an incline, the speed at which the forklift is being driven, type and characteristics of the operating surface, tire pressure, and even the type of tire on the vehicle.
Inform operators of sit-down type forklifts that they can be crushed by the overhead guard or another part of the truck if attempting to jump from the falling or an overturning forklift. The risk of being crushed by the overhead guard or another rigid part of the forklift is greatly reduced if the operator of a sit-down type forklift remains inside the operator's compartment. The operator of a sit-down type forklift should be instructed not to try and jump from the operator's compartment but to stay inside the truck, hold on firmly, and lean away from the point of impact if lateral or longitudinal tip over occurs.
Ensure that operator restraint systems are being used on sit-down type forklifts. Since 1992, forklift manufacturers have been required to equip new sit-down type forklifts with operator restraint systems and some manufacturers of these forklifts offer restraint systems that can be retrofitted on their older vehicles. Many of the fatalities resulting from overturned sit-down (also known as counterbalance) type forklifts might have been prevented if the operator had been restrained. The overhead guard and cage system of the forklift can crush the operator's head or torso after they fall off or jump outside the operator's compartment.
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