Operating and maintaining a forklift truck safely
August 8, 2006
Lack of safe operating procedures and safety rule enforcement, as well as insufficient or inadequate training, lead to tens of thousands of injuries each year. Safe forklift practices through proper use, adequate maintenance, sufficient clearing for travel, and correct load stability are the best way to prevent these injuries.
The use of fork trucks to handle and store materials and products efficiently is vital to the metal fabricating industry. Unfortunately, unsafe fork truck use often results in injuries, property damage, and costly Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) citations. Each year tens of thousands of injuries related to forklifts occur in U.S. workplaces. Most incidents also involve property damage.
The majority of fork truck accidents can be attributed to lack of safe operating procedures and safety rule enforcement and insufficient or inadequate training. In addition to training and education, applying general safety principles—such as proper work practices, equipment, and controls—can help to reduce such workplace accidents.
The powered industrial trucks (PIT) standard (29 CFR 1910.178) is one of the most commonly cited standards in the materials handling industry. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, OSHA forklift violations alone cost the manufacturing industry almost $1 million last year, with metal fabricating businesses accounting for the largest amount—approximately $250,000. This is the cost of OSHA citations only, it does not account for the cost of property damage, lost work time, replacement of an injured employee, medical expenses, increased workers' compensation rates, and potential lawsuits.
All new PITs, except vehicles for earthmoving and over-the-road hauling, must meet the design and construction requirements established in the American National Standard for Powered Industrial Trucks, Part II, ANSI B56.1-1969.
Each of the 11 different designations of industrial trucks is suitable for use in certain locations and under specific conditions. Pay special attention to work areas containing hazardous concentrations of chemicals or metal dusts. Special requirements for trucks in these areas include safeguards to prevent ignition of vapors, fumes, or dust, such as completely enclosed electric motors and electrical equipment and strict temperature limitation features. Also, mechanical operator protection becomes especially important where loads can shift or fall. To protect operators in this situation, ensure that trucks, especially high-lift riders, have an overhead guard if possible, and make sure that fork trucks have the manufacturer's vertical load backrest extension.
Aisles, Passageways, and Docks. Aisles and passageways must have sufficient clearance at loading docks, through doorways, and wherever turns must be made. Providing sufficient clearance for mechanically moved materials can prevent workers from being pinned between the equipment and fixtures in the workplace, such as walls, racks, posts, and other machines. Sufficient clearance also helps prevent the load from striking an obstruction and causing materials to fall on or injure an employee.
Make sure that all passageways that workers use remain clear of obstructions and tripping hazards. Do not store materials in aisles or passageways, and mark permanent aisles and passageways appropriately.
Modifications. You are allowed to modify a powered industrial truck only with the manufacturer's written approval. In this case, you also must change the plates, tags, and decals that list capacity, operation, and maintenance instructions to reflect the new information. Appropriate training also must be provided.
If the truck is equipped with front-end attachments that aren't factory-installed, make sure the truck is labeled to identify these attachments and show the truck's approximate weight—including the installed attachment—when it's at maximum elevation with its load laterally centered. Extended forks move the load away from the operator and can move the center of gravity off the base, causing the entire truck to become unstable and tip. Alternate or modified equipment requires careful consideration of load limits.
Stability. According to OSHA, forklift overturns are the leading cause of fatalities involving forklifts; they represent about 25 percent of all forklift-related deaths. To maintain stability:
Loading and Unloading. Preplan and train employees on how to move loads and what the limits are. The size, weight, and shape of the material being moved will dictate the type of equipment used. All material handling equipment has rated capacities that determine the maximum weight the equipment can safely handle and the conditions under which it can handle that weight. The rated capacity must be displayed on each piece of equipment and cannot be exceeded except for load testing.
Before loading or unloading, prevent movement of trucks, trailers, or railroad cars by ensuring that brakes are set and wheels are chocked. It is recommended that truck keys be removed to prevent unintentional "driving off."
Load Stacking. Stacking materials can be dangerous if workers don't follow safety guidelines. Falling materials and collapsing loads can crush or pin workers, causing injuries or death. To prevent injuries when stacking materials:
Ensure that employees can identify safe stacking heights easily: Paint walls or posts with stripes to indicate maximum stacking heights for quick reference. Be sure to enforce any rules you have on height limitations when stacking materials.
Four main fuel types are used to power fork trucks: gasoline, diesel, propane, and electric batteries (produced by the interaction of water and acid). Each fuel type has safety issues, some more than others. Because gasoline is flammable, it should be used outdoors in a nonsmoking area. Safe gasoline storage and dispensing is both an OSHA and an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issue. While less flammable, diesel fuel and diesel exhaust contain known carcinogens, and safe handling procedures must be established for them.
Liquefied petroleum (LP) gas, also known as propane, is a derivative of natural gas. Like gasoline, it's both flammable and explosive. However, it's also a cryogenic liquid, which means that contact with skin can result in frostbite.
No smoking, open flames, sparks, or electric arcs are permitted near LP tank storage or tank-filling areas. If you fill your own LP tanks, do it outdoors in a well-ventilated area to prevent the buildup of gas vapors. Keep tools and other metallic objects away from LP tanks. Have a charged ABC dry chemical fire extinguisher in filling areas. Ensure that employees understand the proper method of changing an LP tank and the safety precautions to follow. Personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements include safety glasses and rubber or leather gloves.
With electric forklifts, electrical shock is a potential hazard, as is the immense weight of the battery—as much as 1,500 pounds. Because hydrogen gas, a byproduct of the industrial battery's charging process, is highly flammable, smoking is prohibited near it. Safety shower and eyewash stations must be readily available in case an employee comes into contact with sulfuric acid.
Gasoline, diesel, and propane are fuels that are burned and emit combustion byproducts. Carbon monoxide is a byproduct of the incomplete combustion of anything containing carbon, including fossil fuels.
OSHA considers carbon monoxide to be one of the most dangerous industrial hazards. Because it's colorless and odorless at room temperature, it has no warning properties. The most common means of exposure is through inhalation—especially in enclosed spaces. Carbon monoxide concentrations are especially high in the exhaust from internal combustion engines. Forklift operators are on the list of the most typical occupations that may experience this hazard. Control measures include controlling emissions, ventilation, and PPE.
OSHA data has identified key items that can help prevent accidents that occur while maintaining these trucks:
Employers are responsible for training all personnel who work with or around forklifts on potential hazards and safe work practices. OSHA training requirements for operators were enhanced significantly in 1999 because of the high accident rate across the U.S. Today all employers must develop a training program specific to the type of truck to be driven and the working conditions encountered. Employers now must evaluate the operator's performance in the workplace and certify that each operator has successfully received the training needed.
Refresher training, including an evaluation of each operator's performance, must be conducted at least every three years. Retraining must be immediate, however, if:
Fork trucks are an essential tool in the metal fabricating industry, so you must ensure that they are an asset, and not a liability, by assessing the work site for potential safety problems, developing safe work procedures, and adequately training employees.
Shannon DeCamp is client services manager for TechneTrain Inc., where she develops products designed to help businesses comply with OSHA safety regulations. She can be reached at 140 Wooster Pike, Milford, OH 45150, 513-248-0028, fax 513-248-1094, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.techne trainonline.com.