Forklift Safety

For years, forklift trucks have been an essential part of warehouse life. An indispensable tool, they perform the heavy lifting work tirelessly, quickly and efficiently.

A warehouse simply could not operate without one. Many companies that run very busy warehouses will employ multiple machines, sometimes spending thousands when upgrading their fleet. This results in huge numbers of forklifts being sold every year, it's a big business.

So, a forklift truck (FLT) plays a vital role in a warehouse, but it can also be an aggressive machine and very dangerous if not operated correctly, or if proper safety procedures are not in place. Every year there are about 8000 lift truck accidents resulting in injury and on average 10 of them are fatal. Could any of these deaths have been prevented?

One of the first issues that arise when using forklift trucks in a warehouse is the safety of persons in the vicinity. This includes FLT drivers, other employees and even customers. Earlier last month a builders' merchant was fined heavily, after a customer was hit by a forklift while collecting a bag of cement from the yard, suffering a broken ankle.

This could have been prevented had the company prohibited customers from entering work areas and if there had been separate sections for vehicles and pedestrians with a speed limit. All this was in an improvement notice that was not acted upon. The cost to the builders' merchant has been severe, with enormous financial implications.

One of the main problems in the forklift industry is the competence of the driver. It is vital that an FLT operator:

Has been adequately trained for the job.
Is familiar with how his or her particular truck operates.
Drives the machine with care and attention.
Does not use a forklift that is not safe due to malfunctioning or missing parts.
Adheres to site rules.
An untrained operator of a forklift can be as dangerous as an unlicensed driver of a motor vehicle. An FLT is much heavier than a car and is less responsive, making it more difficult to control. The issues above concern the driver, but it is the responsibility of employers to make sure these criteria are met. If they are ignored or overlooked, accidents will happen.

For example, with engine technology improving, a standard FLT is much faster than it was 20 years ago. While the benefits of this (in terms of the time taken to do a job and productivity) are obvious, it does mean that it has become increasingly easier to overturn a forklift. Every year people are crushed to death in these kinds of accidents, emphasising the need for safe driving.

The principal qualification in FLT driver training is the nationally recognised 'Certificate of Basic Forklift Truck Operator Skills'. This is one of the essential ingredients to a good FLT operator and it is illegal to drive any form of forklift truck without one. Apart from that of course, you are risking employees' safety and invalidating any insurance policies you may have on your machines. Courses for this qualification, which includes both theoretical and practical elements, are available nationwide.

Care should also be taken to ensure that the driver is comfortable when operating an FLT. This is particularly important when operating a full-time shift basis, rather than a jump-on jump-off scenario. An uncomfortable driving position increases work-related stress, causing fatigue and a lapse in concentration. This in turn leads to an accident prone operator and when you consider he or she might be driving the forklift around for up to seven hours a day, it is only a matter of time before someone gets hurt.

To eliminate this problem, FLT cabs are now designed with driver comfort as a high priority. Technical features are built into trucks such as suspension seats, light steering and familiar control layouts. A decent restraint belt is also critical, to protect the operator should the truck overturn. When selecting a forklift, details such as these can make all the difference and should be considered carefully.

Another problem in warehousing at the moment is the use of forklift trucks that are not fit for active duty. An FLT that is not operating correctly can lead to an accident. For example, back in 1996 a 43 year-old president of an advertising company was killed while using a forklift to unload steel tubing from a flatbed trailer. He was driving about five miles per hour on a slightly sloped concrete driveway.

As the victim turned the forklift behind the trailer, the vehicle began to turn over on its side. He jumped from the seat towards the driveway, but tragically his head and neck were pinned to the floor by the trucks overhead guard. An inspection of the forklift revealed a damaged rear axle stop, which was not restricting lateral sway as the vehicle turned. Also the steering mechanism was slack, meaning the operator was required to turn the steering wheel slightly more than half a revolution before the wheels started to turn. On top of this the machine was not fitted with a seat belt.

One solution to the problem might be to employ more factory inspectors to condemn old machines. A new forklift is expensive and some companies will run them for as long as they can before purchasing a new one. This sometimes leads to trucks being used past their designed service life, a dangerous safety issue. Another way to avoid these kinds of accidents is checking the forklift for defects daily, in a pre-use inspection. An ideal time for this would be for the operator to do it at the start of a shift. Some things to check are as follows:

Are the controls (e.g. lift, lower, and tilt) working smoothly?
Are the brakes functioning correctly? Sudden stops can cause tipping.
Does the parking brake hold the truck on an incline?
Is the seat belt accessible and in good condition?
Are there any hydraulic leaks in the mast or anywhere else? These could cause slipping hazards or lead to hydraulic failure.
Are the fuel connections tight?
Is there excessive lint, oil or grease on the truck that could catch fire?
Are the battery terminals covered? Dropping a piece of metal across battery terminals can cause an explosion.
Does the horn work
Is the engine showing signs of overheating?
Are the tires in good condition and at the proper pressure? A tire with low pressure or a tire failure can cause a forklift to fall or tip when a load is high.
Check for deformation or cracks in the forks, mast, overhead guard, or backrest.

Can you read the load capacity plate?

Finally despite all the above, make sure you get forklifts regularly serviced by a qualified engineer.
Negligent drivers are a common cause for forklift-related accidents. When a forklift is in use, the driver should only be operating it from the driver's position. It should never be started or controlled while standing next to it. Passengers should be strictly barred unless the FLT was specifically designed for that purpose. Drivers should always look in the direction of travel and make sure they have a clear view of the travel path. If a load obscures the view, they must travel backwards.

When travelling, speed limits should always be observed and a forklift should not be driven faster than walking pace. Passing forklifts travelling in the same direction if they are at a blind spot or intersection is also extremely hazardous and should be avoided. Finally, under no circumstances should anyone be allowed to walk underneath the forks, whether they are loaded or not.

The surface condition a forklift is operating on is also an important consideration. It is essential that a floor will support the vehicle and the load it is carrying. When thinking about this you should also bear in mind that the full weight of the load, plus part of the weight of the forklift, may be centred near a single wheel. Check the floor surface for loose objects, bumps or depressions as these can cause you to lose control of the steering or unbalance your load.

Forklift trucks have many safety features on them to help prevent accidents. When selecting the right machine for the job, it is important to look at these to check they suit your application. For example a backrest extension on the forks stops part of the load from falling backwards towards the driver. These vary in size and strength and must be capable of preventing the load or any part of the load from falling. An overhead guard is a standard fitting required by law to protect the operator from objects coming from above, such as when the load is raised.

Another common place for an accident is a loading docking bay. A dock board is used to allow a forklift to enter a truck or trailer to move goods around. It is essential to prevent the truck or trailer moving during the operation; otherwise the dock board can fall between the trailer and the dock as the forklift crosses it, resulting in a nasty accident. The easiest way to stop this happening is to secure the truck or trailer using chocks under the wheels. The alternative is to use a vehicle restraint system that locks a bar below the truck or trailer when it is backed in. This system will signal when the restraint is engaged or if there is a problem.

Similarly, the dock plate must be secured in place too. Some warehouses use a projection below the surface that prevents the board from shifting off its support. Others use pins that are inserted into the side and project below the board. This stops the board from moving toward the dock or trailer. If it is portable, a dock board must incorporate handholds or lugs that allow a forklift to pick it up. This prevents crushed fingers and makes it easy to handle.

The other accident that occurs at a loading bay is when the tractor is removed after docking. When an FLT drives to the front end of the trailer the extra weight means the whole apparatus tilts, causing a serious accident. The simple way to avoid a catastrophe of this nature is to use a trailer stand or trailer jack, to support the trailer and prevent it from up-ending. If a dock is empty removable rails should be used, to prevent trucks from going over the edge.

So we can conclude that safety is one of the most important issues in warehousing today. The issues that have been discussed above form a small part of how we can work together, to ensure the protection of our employees and customers. Forklift trucks are powerful tools, but must be operated and maintained correctly to prevent accidents.

A company at the forefront of forklift health and safety is Samuk. Their products are renowned for their consistent reliability and high performance. Not only do their machines comply with all government legislation for the protection of employees and customer, they also incorporate special safety features such as advanced coolant systems, which prevent the engine from overheating.

"Safety is one of our key product design characteristics. Creating a working environment that is safe for employees and customers is absolutely essential - this is reflected across the entire Samuk range".

Sir Neville Bowman-Shaw - Samuk Chairman.

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