Compliance Basics for Forklifts and Powered Industrial Trucks

Young girl operating forklift in full PPE

Powered industrial trucks (PIT), also known as forklifts or lift trucks, are used in various different industries to move heavy or bulky materials. But despite, or maybe because of, their common use they are regularly featured on OSHA’s top ten violations list.

According to Injury Facts® (2017 Edition), the number of private industry fatal occupational injuries caused by forklifts increased by 9 percent in the past year. Trade, transportation, manufacturing and construction are most affected by forklift fatalities.

The most serious and most common safety problems for powered industrial trucks are inadequate training, defective equipment, unstable loads, and unsafe driving (including speeding, inattention, and the truck having no seat belts or drivers choosing not to wear them). Given that these issues can easily lead to a serious incident, it’s vital that safety managers ensure their workplace is compliant with PIT regulations, provide workers with training and reliable equipment, and oversee regular checks and maintenance of forklifts.

Employee training

Employees must be trained (by an internal or an external instructor) on the specific type of truck they’re required to operate. They should also understand the regulations on driving a powered industrial truck and follow them all. For example, many drivers get injured or die in forklift incidents because they don’t wear seat belts. This could be because their truck doesn’t have seat belts or because they choose not to wear them. Either way, these injuries and fatalities are preventable and it’s up to an EHS professional to confirm that all powered trucks have good, working seat belts and that drivers use them. This should be covered in regular forklift training. According to OSHA, PIT training must also include:

  • operating instructions, including visual (key off) and operational (engine running) pre-start checks;
  • truck controls and instrumentation;
  • steering and maneuvering;
  • fork and attachment adaptation, operation and use limitations;
  • vehicle capacity and stability;
  • vehicle inspection and maintenance;
  • refueling and battery charging;
  • additional operating instructions from the operator’s manual;
  • surface conditions;
  • loads and their composition and stability, as well as stacking and unstacking;
  • pedestrians in the working area;
  • narrow aisles and ramps; and
  • closed and other environments, which could affect the operator (for example, harmful concentrations of dangerous gases or fumes could overcome the worker in some spaces).

It’s not necessary to retrain PIT drivers if you purchase the same type of truck from a different manufacturer. However, if the truck is a different type (for example, a sit-down truck instead of a stand-up truck) then you should provide new training. Every three years, each forklift operator is required to receive a performance evaluation, which must include being observed by a trainer or someone experienced in operating forklifts.

Refresher training is only required when a driver is witnessed to have been operating a powered industrial truck unsafely, received an unsatisfactory evaluation, or the workplace conditions change in a way that affects safe operations. Workers need to be certified to operate any powered trucks and employers should keep records of forklift training, retraining and certification.

Maintenance basics for powered industrial trucks

Forklifts and other powered trucks should be  kept in good working condition and pass a visual and operational pre-start check:

  • The battery has to be fully charged and in a safe, working condition (including no exposed wires, clogged vent caps, etc.).
  • Forklifts have to be clean and free of excess oil or grease.
  • Ensure that the oil, fuel and radiator water levels are always safe and that there are no leaks.
  • Tires and wheels have to be in good working condition.
  • All lights and gauges must be operational.
  • The brakes (including the deadman brake) have to be capable of bringing the vehicle to a stop when fully loaded and the parking brake has to be fully operational.
  • Forks and hydraulics mustn’t be damaged, cracked or worn out and the lift mechanism has to operate smoothly.
  • The tilt mechanism should move smoothly and hold.
  • The clutch and gearshift need to operate smoothly with no jumps or jerks.
  • The horn, whistle and other any warning devices have to be working.
  • The PIT shouldn’t be making any unusual sounds or noises and steering should be smooth.
  • Seat belts or other restraints have to be present and working. It’s worth pointing out that although seat belts are a requirement only for forklifts manufactured after 1992 and they might not be legally required in your case, you may want to consider installing them anyway.

An essential part of forklift safety is a regular maintenance schedule. It allows potential issues to come to light before they put anyone in serious danger. Keeping work vehicles well-repaired can also reduce the overall capital investment in the organization’s fleet of powered industrial trucks. And it should go without saying that if a forklift is not in safe operating condition or requires maintenance, do not allow anyone to operate it. Remove it from service until it’s fixed. In addition, do not make modifications if they’re not approved by the manufacturer and do not allow workers to make repairs if they’re not trained to do so.

The physical working environment can also have a huge impact on PIT safety. Safe vehicles driven by good drivers can still be involved in serious incidents if proper steps aren’t taken to minimize the risk in areas where forklifts will be operational:

  • If possible, provide barriers or some other permanent and obvious way of separating people and forklifts in the workplace. One option is to designate some aisles as forklifts-only.
  • Make sure that the floors are clear and no objects are left lying around where a forklift might travel. (This can also help to prevent housekeeping-related slip, trip and fall incidents.)
  • The same applies to clearing out any possible obstructions overhead that could get in the way of a forklift.    

Beyond standard forklift training

Anyone who operates a forklift or similar powered industrial truck has to receive training, and it’s the safety manager’s job to ensure that they follow what they’ve been taught. Prove to your workers that nobody is above the rules by making sure that supervisors and management all follow safety rules and regulations. This helps create a culture of safety by showing employees that safety always comes first. Beyond that, there are several safety guidelines you need to enforce:

  • Ensure that forklifts are inspected daily before being used. If forklifts are used on a round-the-clock basis then they should be examined before and after each shift.
  • Workers should never stand or pass under the forks or other elevated portions of trucks (regardless of whether the PIT is loaded or empty).
  • Don’t allow workers to put heavier loads on the truck than it is designed to carry. If they have to make two trips, so be it. Nothing is so important that it can’t be done safely.
  • Trucks mustn’t drive up to employees standing in front of a fixed object.
  • Enforce wearing seat belts and keeping arms and legs inside the forklift.
  • Don’t allow workers to give each other lifts on the forklift if there is no passenger seat.

Use toolbox talks to drive home the importance of wearing seat belts and following forklift safety regulations. Consider recounting stories of incidents you know which might make the dangers more real. It’s also worthwhile to address states of mind like rushing or complacency that can cause distracted driving, which can affect employees operating PITs and other company vehicles, and driving outside of working hours.

Sadly, violations of forklift standards are common. But with safe equipment, good training, attention to human factors and the right take on the safety culture, safety professionals can ensure everyone’s safety when operating powered industrial trucks.