The combination of mechanical power, leverage, height, mass and fallible human judgement is a dangerous one, and in the case of light industrial trucks, including forklifts, all-too-often fatal. Common accidents include driving lifts off of loading docks, overloading, collisions with other vehicles and machines, falling debris and material, and horseplay or reckless handling. Lifts can fall between a dock and an unsecured trailer, or run over workers who are immobile or not paying attention.

Forklift accidents are responsible for about 85 fatal accidents every year, and tens of thousands of lost-time injuries, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Naturally, every death or serious, life-altering injury is a human tragedy. And these tragedies have a very real financial cost to employers and insurers, as well.

If your company uses forklifts and other light industrial trucks, employees at all levels must remain constantly vigilant about their use, and diligently enforce proper licensing and certification requirements and safe operation procedures.

Here are some of the best practices for keeping your work force safe and productive:

  • Restrict operators to 18 and over. Yes, most forklift owners know that this is already the law. You can help build awareness, by posting signage to that effect on the forklift itself. You can download a sign in English and Spanish from the OSHA website.
  • Maintain a tracking sheet to account for which workers have completed an OSHA-compliant forklift/light industrial truck training program.
  • Empower foremen and on-site supervisors to discipline workers who demonstrate carelessness or recklessness with forklifts. Provide training to workers who need additional review.
  • Don't let workers stack up so much on the forks that their line of sight is blocked.
  • Use ground-guides in high-traffic or restricted areas, or when visibility is limited.
  • Strictly enforce pre-shift forklift/light industrial truck inspection and maintenance procedures.
  • Use a maintenance checklist.
  • Ensure the operator's manual is on hand and that employees use them. A brand new, perfectly clean maintenance manual is no good. It's just there for show. If your manuals have grease prints all over them and they are grimy and dog-eared, that is a sign of a healthy maintenance program and good supervision.
  • Ensure reverse-gear alarms are functioning.
  • Test front, rear and brake lights prior to operation, every day.
  • Train your operators in the specific type of truck or forklift they will be operating.
  • Don't overload the lift. It's better to make two or more trips than the overload the lift and risk dropping the load, and perhaps tipping the lift, potentially injuring the worker.
  • Ensure lift operators also have HAZMAT training on the specific substances in your workplace. Drill and practice responses to spills and direct contact with harmful or potentially fatal chemicals or compounds.
  • Bonus and promote safe operators - others will want to be like them.
  • Make sure workers trusted to be forklift operators are selected from your more mature employees with good judgment - at whatever age.
  • Never let people ride on the forks or cargo.
  • Appoint a manager or foreman to become a subject matter expert on forklift safety, operation and compliance.
  • There are many videos available on the internet concerning forklift safety and accidents, both from official and unofficial sources. Invest some time in having workers watch them, periodically, and discuss how hazards that led to the accidents can be mitigated in your own workplace.
  • Don't let junior workers use forklifts unsupervised by mature managers or foremen.

These are just a few of the steps you can take to lessen the risk of forklift accidents and prevent lost-time accidents, injuries or fatalities. Forklift safety isn't just a matter of keeping a compliance binder. To do it right, it requires training and ongoing vigilance. For more information, visit the OSHA Forklift and Light Industrial Truck Safety page.