March 23, 2006

How much do you know about forklift safety?

  • 70 percent of workplace accidents could be avoided with proper training and safety procedures.

    What should you do if you're driving a forklift under normal working conditions and it starts to tip over? Is it safer to stay in the vehicle or jump out?

    If you said, "jump," you'd be dead wrong: a driver who did that would be putting his or her life in jeopardy.

    The safest way to survive a tip-over is to stay in the vehicle, seat belt always fastened, with a tight grip on the steering wheel and feet braced against the floor, leaning forward and away from the direction of the tip-over.

    Because forklifts are everyday equipment at jobsites nationwide, many people may not realize they can be potentially dangerous. It's every company's responsibility to make sure its forklift operators are properly trained and certified before they ever get to run a forklift.

    A unique vehicle

    Compare a forklift to a car and you'll see that forklifts are unique vehicles with special challenges. While the average automobile weighs around 3,000 pounds, the average forklift weighs around 9,000 pounds. Also, forklifts are heavier in the rear to counter the weight of items being carried in the forks. And, while cars have brakes on all four wheels, most forklifts only have stopping power in their front drive wheels. Those factors combine to make forklifts harder to stop, so they should be driven slowly.

    Since a forklift is turned by moving the rear wheels, it has a much smaller turning radius than a car. When cornering, the rear end of a forklift swings outward. A forklift is also easier to tip over on a turn. The driver needs to be very careful when turning, stopping, or accelerating, since the vehicle could tip over or the load could fall off.

    Forklifts are often used to carry tall loads in the front. That's why forklifts are designed to drive equally well backward and forward. When forward vision is obscured, the vehicle must be driven backward, with the driver looking in the direction of travel. Operators should drive with the load as low as conditions will permit without dragging. Forklifts can raise loads to great heights — a necessity in facilities with high storage racks. The processes of raising, lowering and transporting loads all offer opportunities for accidents to occur when safety measures are not observed.

    These factors only begin to cover the many important points of forklift safety training. When that training is insufficient or neglected, the forklift's unique qualities can become dangerous.

    Types of accidents

    The following accident examples from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reveal the three most common types of forklift injury: forklift overturns; workers struck, crushed, or pinned by a forklift; and falls from a forklift.

    Forklift overturn: The president of a sign company was killed while using a forklift to unload steel tubing from a flatbed trailer. He turned the forklift behind the trailer and the forklift began to tip over — so he jumped from the operator's seat to the driveway. When the forklift overturned, his head and neck were pinned to the concrete driveway under the overhead guard.

    Worker struck by forklift: A punch press operator was fatally injured while performing her usual duties. A forklift was traveling in reverse at high speed toward her work station. A witness observed the forklift strike a metal scrap bin, propelling it toward the punch press station. The bin hit the press and rebounded toward the forklift. There it was hit once again and shoved back against the corner of the press, striking and crushing the punch press operator.

    Fall from forklift: A technician was killed after falling from and being run over by a forklift. While the operator was driving the forklift, the technician was riding on the forks. As the operator approached an intersection, he slowed down and turned his head to check for oncoming traffic. When he looked to the front again, he could not see the technician. He stopped the forklift, dismounted, and found the technician under the right side of the forklift.

    According to OSHA, 70 percent of workplace accidents could be avoided with proper training and safety procedures. With that in mind, it only makes sense to make sure all forklift operators receive required safety training. When every forklift operator at your company has passed a training and certification program that observes OSHA regulations, you've taken a major step toward fostering a safer workplace.

    Benjamin W. Mangan is president and founder of Mancomm and American Safety Training, two businesses that provide safety compliance products and training.

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