Forklifts are common at transfer stations, recycling facilities and maintenance shops. Like all equipment, forklifts can be dangerous especially if they are not properly maintained or are improperly operated.

By Will Flower

Managers, supervisors and employees need to take special precautions in order to ensure the safe operation of forklifts. The first rule of forklift safety is only trained and certified operators should be driving equipment. Prior to operating a forklift, a trained operator should check the following:

  • Make sure the steering wheel, handgrips and steps are free of grease.
  • Check the wheels and the forks for cracks.
  • Inspect the cage and safety bars.
  • Check safety lights, backup alarm and horn.
  • Check fluids. If the forklift is fueled by propane, check the connections and hoses.
  • Make sure the exhaust pipe is not crushed or bent.
  • Start the engine and check for leaks.

Keeping in Control

The operator should never allow passengers on a forklift and he or she should keep arms and legs inside the vehicle. The operator must be in control of his or her forklift at all times.  The steering on most forklifts tends to be extremely responsive. The weight distribution and center of gravity of the machine changes constantly depending on the load and the position of the forks. Driving too fast is one of the biggest safety risks. Speed should be reduced when:

  • Turning a corner.
  • Operating on wet or slippery floors.
  • There is a load on the forklift.
  • Changing the direction of travel.
  • Operating around other equipment, people or stacked bales.
  • Crossing walkways and intersections.
  • Operating in reverse.

When operating a forklift near pedestrians, an operator needs to make certain that his or her equipment is seen and heard. Operators should consider the ambient noise level inside the transfer station, mechanic shop or recycling facility and never assume that fellow workers or bystanders are able to hear a horn or back-up alarm. Operators should increase awareness by using the horn and safety strobe lights.

Forklift operators need to slow down when floors are wet or slippery.

Forklift operators must always pay attention to the direction of travel and be alert to their surroundings at all times. Looking backwards when reversing is essential. Even if an operator has just pulled into an area for a few seconds, they need to look backwards when reversing to make sure no one has stepped into the path of the reversing forklift.  Extreme caution must be taken when visibility is limited. If a load obstructs forward view, the driver should reverse and drive with the load trailing.  Rear-view mirrors, rear mounted cameras and other aids are available to assist the driver by increasing visibility.

Operators need to guard against tipover accidents, which can occur especially when changing directions as forklifts are less stable on turns. To reduce the chances of a tipover, the forklift operator should:

  • Come to a complete stop before shifting from forward to reverse.
  • Proceed with caution when making turns, especially when working in confined areas or narrow aisles.
  • Avoid turns when the forks are elevated.
  • Never turn on uneven ground.
  • Take special precautions on ramps and grades.  Never drive with the load downgrade. When going up, a loaded vehicle should be driven forward. When traveling down a ramp, the operator should drive in reverse so that the load is upgrade.

When operating in reverse, the driver needs to be aware of pedestrians who could be struck or crushed by the forklift.  Drivers also need to be aware of a collision with other rolling stock, stationary machines and stacked bales.

Parking a Forklift

Forklift operators should always pay attention to the direction of travel.

When use of the forklift is complete, the operator should place the machine in a designated area on a level surface. The operator should:

  • Avoid blocking traffic.
  • Avoid blocking pedestrian walkways, stairways or fire exits.
  • Neutralize the controls.
  • Fully engage the parking brake.
  • Never store the forklift with the forks elevated.
  • Tilt the mast of the forklift forward and lower the forks fully to the ground.
  • Turn the engine off.
  • Shut off the fuel supply.

As an added precaution, the operator could place safety cones at the four corners of the machine to alert pedestrians of a potential trip hazard.

Ensuring Greater Safety

As a general rule, the forklift operator and all of the workers inside a solid waste or recycling facility should always wear proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), which increases pedestrian visibility. Most importantly, forklift operators need to be aware of their surroundings including overhead dangers from wires, doorways and rolling doors.

Forklifts are excellent machines that help with productivity.  Operating forklifts with care will ensure greater safety inside the transfer station, recycling plant, shop or wherever the forklift is in operation.

Will Flower is the Vice President of Corporate and Public Affairs at Winters Bros. Waste Systems.  Will has 35 years of experience in the area of solid waste management and environmental protection.  He has held operational and executive leadership positions at the Director’s Office of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, Waste Management, Inc., Republic Services. Inc. and Green Stream Recycling.  Will Flower can be reached at [email protected]