Safety Tips for Rough Terrain Telehandlers

These are amazing machines, but don’t try to drive one like a Jeep.

The telehandler, also called a rough terrain forklift, is a thing of wonder.

“The telehandler is the machine now,” said Matthew Owen, corporate master safety trainer for United Academy, the training branch of United Rentals. All four wheels are capable of steering, so you can get into tighter spaces, and the boom can reach as high as 55 feet. It’s easy to change the load handling attachment, from fork to bucket to material handling hook. Because you can level the frame laterally, you can set the machine on uneven ground.

With all the power and versatility of these machines comes some unique safety considerations. Owen offered these pieces of advice.

Read the load charts

“What a lot of folks don’t understand is that even though the machine may be a 10,000-pound rated forklift, it’s not 10,000 pounds with the boom fully extended. The misconception is that the advertised maximum capacity is safe to lift through the full range of motion of the boom, and that’s not the case,” said Owen. Extend the boom too far with too much load and the most likely outcome is a tip-over.

In United Academy training classes, “We teach them how to read the load charts, very similar to what you’d find on a crane,” Owen added.

Beware the blind spot

These machines have “huge blinds spots,” said Owen, especially the right rear corner. That’s one reason it’s not uncommon for an operator to run over a stationary object, such as jobsite materials. “Adjusting the mirrors properly is key — and then of course actually using them,” said Owen.

Be realistic about the terrain

A telehandler can weigh more than 25,000 pounds without a load. The pressure these machines exert on the ground is immense. “Just because it says rough terrain doesn’t necessarily mean allterrain,” Owen noted. Operators get telehandlers stuck in mud or soft terrain “quite frequently,” said Owen. The answer? “Know your surroundings.”

Drive straight up or down a slope

If you drive a telehandler diagonally up or down a slope instead of straight up or straight down, you could be looking at a rollover. If you drive on too steep a slope, same goes.

Check the manufacturer-specific limit to the slope and grade the machine is capable of operating on.


“OSHA specifically prohibits wrapping a chain or sling over the fork instead of using a lifting eye, “said Owen. “Metal chains on a metal fork are slick, they can slip off.”

Matthew Owen, Corporate Master Safety Trainer for United Academy

Balance your loads

Unbalanced loads are one of the causes of telehandler accidents. “From time to time you’ll see folks not opening their forks wide enough to accommodate the load, for instance,” said Owen. “Your forks can commonly spread as wide as 4 feet, sometimes 6 feet, but sometimes operators will leave them significantly smaller and then try to pick up a bundle of lumber that’s 12 feet long. At the first dip in the ground you hit, the load tips.”

Also watch how you attach the load. “OSHA specifically prohibits wrapping a chain or sling over the fork instead of using a lifting eye, “said Owen. “Metal chains on a metal fork are slick, they can slip off.”

Avoid carrying loads too high

Carrying a load too high can cause you to become top heavy, potentially resulting in a tip-over. A load should generally be carried as low to the ground as possible considering the terrain. Operators don’t always do this.

“Generally what folks try to do is get the load out of their line of vision and look under it. But the proper technique would be for them to use an additional person to spot or guide them, or to travel in reverse,” said Owen.

Inspect the machine before use

This applies to all equipment, of course. In the case of the telehandler, pay special attention to the tires and look for cuts. “The cuts on normal operation won’t present a problem, but under severe load, those cuts can open up and release the fill from the tires and cause the machine to lean to that side,” said Owen.

Owen also advised looking for loose steering components. “Most of the steering components are exposed on those machines, so it’s something you should notice in an inspection.”

Marianne Wait is an editor and writer who creates content for Fortune 500 brands.

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