Common Safety Mistakes: Forklifts

Raise the level of forklift safety on the job with these tips.

For the loading, unloading and moving of materials around a construction job site, it's hard to beat the agile and often-compact forklift. But accidents happen. Each year, thousands of workers are injured in forklift accidents, and dozens are killed. Overturns are the leading cause of fatalities. Struck-by accidents are next.

One way to prevent accidents is to understand — and avoid — some of the common mistakes forklift operators and maintenance crews make.

Failure to signal movement. The flashing lights and audible alarms that are triggered when a forklift is on the move, particularly when it's backing up, are critical in warning nearby pedestrians and other vehicles to get out of the way. An operator should check that the alarms are working before operating the equipment. If they aren’t, don't use the forklift. In an emergency, operators should use hand signals and a spotter to navigate their way around the site.

Operating over maximum capacity or carrying an unsecured load. The information on the nameplate, or dataplate, that is secured to the body of a forklift includes the machine's load capacity as well as the weight of the machine, model, serial number and to which standard the equipment has been tested. If an operator takes on a load that exceeds the load capacity limit, he or she risks tipping the forklift. Forklift overturns can also occur if the load is not balanced or if the operator moves the lift with the forks positioned too high. (Don’t raise or lower the forks while the machine is moving.

Because overturns do happen, drivers should wear a seatbelt. In the event a sit-down forklift starts to overturn, the operator should stay with the truck, holding on tightly and leaning in the opposite direction. On stand-up forklifts with rear-entry access, the operator should exit the truck by stepping backward in the event of a lateral overturn.

Driving too fast. A forklift operator with a lead foot is dangerous when negotiating tight corners and other obstacles is a daily requirement. Operators should be consistently reminded to take it slow, and speed limit warnings should be posted around the work site. Operators should avoid turning whenever possible.

Neglecting basic maintenance. Operators or employees assigned to maintain equipment should check the pressure on forklift tires daily to avoid blowouts caused by over-inflation or loss of traction caused by under-inflation. The same attention should be paid to the forklift battery to reduce the chances of it dying during the lifting of a load or any other operation that could cause an accident after a sudden loss of power. Operators or the maintenance crew should also ensure that the brakes and brake pads are fully operational prior to each use of the forklift.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has more tips for preventing forklift injuries.

Forklifts can be one of the most useful pieces of equipment on a construction site, and, with comprehensive worker training, the right traffic management and careful maintenance, they can also be one of the safest.