Forklifts have the power to magnify your workforce. When it comes to moving large quantities of material or handling awkward loads, one forklift operator commanding their equipment can do the work of several employees.
With that kind of power, you just know there are some responsibilities. The sheer mass of a forklift can be equivalent to a full-size sedan. And if you decided to drive your car through the stock room, you would definitely need to be extra cautious behind the wheel.
A forklift may not have the engine for a sports car, but even though it's relatively slow, its mass still gives it the potential to cause serious accidents.
If you were asked how many workers are injured each year as a result of forklift misuse, you'd be right if you answered "too many."
But let's put a number on it.
With nearly 100,000 workers injured or killed each year due to improper training or sheer carelessness, we clearly have a problem on our hands.
And it's worse when you compare it with the estimated number of forklifts in the United States: 855,900. That means that every single year, more than 1 in 10 forklifts are involved in an accident (assuming a single forklift per accident – repeat offenders might change the figures a bit, but probably wouldn't move the needle too far).
Forklift Safety Starts with the Operators
Fixing the problem starts, obviously, with operators knowing the ins and outs of forklift safety.
Powered Industrial Truck training is necessary – for both safety and legal compliance – for every forklift operator. Every operator must complete a training program that includes both truck-related and workplace-related topics (29 CFR 1910.178(l)(3)).
Along with the training, all forklifts must undergo a daily inspection.
Ensuring that operators are trained and responsible is a critical step. But there's only so much they can do.
Pedestrians Also Play a Role
Forklift safety is not just the operator's responsibility. Anyone entering or working in a forklift traffic zone needs to take their safety into their own hands.
Think about it. When you cross the street, drivers are responsible for following traffic laws and watching out for you. But I bet you still look both ways before stepping of the curb.
And it's not just that forklift operators are careless, aren't looking where they're going, or are trying to text while barreling down the warehouse floor. Most of the time, forklift drivers are simply coping with a restricted field of vision. Even if they're paying attention to where they're going, their vision is likely obstructed by the mast, by the load itself, or obscured by dusty or misty conditions.
Operators carrying a load are also multitasking. They can't just worry about the driving and their surroundings; they also have to focus on load stability and making sure it arrives in one piece. That divided attention makes it even harder to notice nearby pedestrians or to react quickly when one of them pops up in front of them.
Four Tips for Pedestrian Visibility
So, when you're working or walking near a forklift, how can you do your part to make sure nobody gets hurt?
1. Make Eye Contact
Making eye contact and throwing in a nod of acknowledgement isn't just a friendly gesture – it can prevent an accident.
Before moving into the forklift's path, make eye contact with the driver. Make sure the driver acknowledges you in some way before walking by.
Remember all those things that can obstruct their vision – don't assume that you'll be seen.
2. Understand Equipment Limitations
Forklift operators can't just hit the brakes and stop on a dime. The machines they're piloting have long stopping distances. So if you think the operator seeing you at the last minute is going to be enough, well, think again.
Forklifts also have limited maneuverability when going in reverse. Just look at how the driver has to be positioned to back it up and you'll understand that it's not exactly a smooth, easy ride. Factor that in and take extra care when the forklift is reversing.
3. Pay Attention to the Lanes
Those markings on the floor aren't just your employer's weird idea of decor. Unless pedestrian traffic is expected to share the aisles with forklifts, pay attention to the areas that are marked off as pedestrian lanes and crosswalks to avoid getting hit.
Ideally, operators will be vigilant 100% of the time. But just like jay walking makes you more likely to get hit, catching forklift operators off guard when you surprise them by being in their zone isn't the best way to stay safe.
4. When in Doubt, Yield
If you're having trouble making eye contact with the operator or you're not 100% certain that the way they quickly waved their fingers was meant to signal you to cross, yield the right of way.
Don't take chances with your safety. You have somewhere to be, so you might be impatient to make your way across the floor. But it's not worth getting hit by heavy machinery – nothing is.
Working Together Is the Best Safety Strategy
Keeping the work zones safe and organized is a team effort. Whether you're an operator or a pedestrian, do your part to ensure forklift safety in your workplace.
Remember: alert today, alive tomorrow!