Forklift Training Guide

Forklifts are a critical element in supporting America’s economy. For the product distribution and warehousing sectors, forklifts are indispensable pieces of material handling equipment. Warehouses and distribution center activities would come to a halt if not for their trusty forklifts. Other industries also rely on forklifts in their daily operations.

As much as forklifts are the workhorses of many businesses, they should also be handled carefully. Forklift accidents causing product damage or worker injury in industrial or commercial workplaces are far too common. However, many of these accidents can be prevented through proper forklift training. This forklift operating guide will help train operators in knowing how to use a forklift safely.

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Forklift Uses in the Workplace

This forklift operating handbook starts by looking at the many uses for forklifts in the workplace. It covers the basic forklift types and what they’re designed to do. A clear and concise forklift training handbook also needs to outline the principal regulations covering safe forklift operating procedures, identify the best forklift operation practices and give direction on how employers can effectively train workers to be accident-free every working day.

The United States Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) identifies forklifts as “powered industrial trucks." The OSHA definition says they are “mobile, power-driven vehicles used to carry, pull, push, stack, lift or tier material." By definition, forklifts don’t include pallet jacks or hand trucks, but they do take in these seven forklift classes, which cover a wide usage field:

  • Class 1: Electric Motor, Rider, Counter-Balanced Trucks with solid or pneumatic tires
  • Class 2: Electric Motor Narrow Aisle Trucks with solid rubber tires
  • Class 3: Electric Motor Hand Trucks or Hand/Rider Trucks with solid tires
  • Class 4: Internal Combustion Engine Trucks with solid rubber tires
  • Class 5: Internal Combustion Engine Trucks with pneumatic tires
  • Class 6: Electric and Internal Combustion Engine Tractors (all tires)
  • Class 7: Rough Terrain Forklift Trucks with pneumatic tires

Each forklift class has specific design characteristics intended for different applications or uses. For example, Class 1 forklifts are the most common and widely-used in American warehouses. This class takes in various-sized forklifts that move, stack and remove pallets containing virtually every product imaginable.

Class 2 forklifts are more specialized. Because of their compact design, Class 2 powered industrial trucks operate in confined spaces found in many distribution centers. These narrow-aisle forklifts are commonly called order-pickers as they’re almost exclusively used to pick products for outward-bound distribution.

Forklift classification distinguishes models based on their power source as well as their tire composition. While electric forklifts are commonly used indoors, internal combustion engine forklifts fueled by propane, compressed natural gas, diesel or gasoline find their best use outdoors where the exhaust fumes don’t present a health hazard.

Forklifts aren’t only found in warehouse and distribution facilities. Forklifts are used practically anywhere material or products require handling. Other common places using forklifts include:

  • Construction sites
  • Container shipping yards
  • Railroad freight handling
  • Aviation and aerospace industries
  • Sea and marine operations
  • Military and defense facilities

Forklift Safety Tips

The U.S. Department of Labor and Industries keeps statistics on forklift accidents. They report that approximately 20,000 serious injuries occur every year in American workplaces due to forklift misuse. Statistics also show the four main forklift-related fatal injury causes:

  • Forklift operators involved in tip-overs, roll-overs or overturns
  • Workers on foot struck by moving forklifts
  • Workers on foot crushed by collapsing loads
  • Workers falling from forklifts being improperly used as aerial lifts

Most, if not all, forklift accidents are preventable. American legislators recognize this reality and formed forklift regulations to place a strong safety onus on employers who authorize workers to run forklifts, regardless of their class. Every employer using forklifts in their workplace must be familiar with these two primary forklift regulatory documents:

Combined, the publications from OSHA and ANSI make it clear that employees are required to develop and implement forklift operator training programs. Forklift training isn’t meant to be a general guide to safe operations. By law, workers must be trained on the specific forklift class and model they operate. Regulations mandate employers to document this machine-specific training and prove operator competency.

Aside from OSHA and ANSI material, other valuable forklift safety tips help prevent accidents and injuries. Here are five top tips every forklift trainer and operators should know:

  • Be aware of all forklift operating regulations.
  • Understand the physics behind how forklifts operate.
  • Know the individual forklift’s capacity and limitations.
  • Be familiar with the forklift workplace environment.
  • Receive thorough forklift operator training and refresh every three years.

How to Operate a Forklift

Safely operating a forklift requires skill and experience. Developing proficient forklift skills takes time and comes with experience as well as competent training. Forklift operation can be dangerous, and no person should ever operate a powered industrial truck without sufficient training. That training includes the basic principles of how forklifts operate.

Operating a forklift is not the same as driving a car. Although there are many differences between automobiles and industrial trucks, the principal one is how they’re steered. Conventional autos have four wheels and steer with the front two. Most forklifts are tricycle designs and have three tires. The single rear wheel steers the forklift, and this allows the machine to operate in a tight turning radius.

Safe forklift operation is primarily about managing stability. Four elements contribute to forklift stability or instability. To be safe, every operator must know these components of a forklift’s design:

  • Fulcrum point: Forklift design is much like a children’s seesaw. In its most basic form, a forklift must constantly off-set the load being lifted. A rear-mounted counterweight achieves this balance and relies on a crucial fulcrum point. This is the forklift’s front wheels that evenly distributes the load and counterweight forces.
  • Center of gravity: While the fulcrum point or front wheels balances the front-to-back forces, a forklift’s design needs to balance forces from side-to-side. Balancing the loaded forklift in all directions requires a precise point compensating for centrifugal and gravitational forces, which vary according to the load weight and height. This moving target is called the forklift’s center of gravity, and it continually changes.
  • Stability triangle: Because most forklifts have a tricycle design, load transfers from the machine to the ground or floor depend on three wheel points. There’s an imaginary triangle printed between the three tires, and it’s incumbent on the operator to ensure the forklift’s load weight transfers inside this triangle. Moving the load point outside the lines results in instability and a probable tip-over.
  • Load center: The forklift load center refers to load placement on the equipment’s forks. Mathematically, the measurement is the distance from the fork front or leading edge and the center of the load. Most forks have a 48-inch reach so this places the load center at an optimum 24-inch or closer distance from the forklift mast or back edge of the forks. Keeping a load centered on the forks from front-to-back and side-to-side is critical for maintaining safe stability.

Once a newly-trained forklift operator understands the machine’s physics, it’s time to get practical with operation. Safely operating a forklift is then a matter of understanding the controls and always maintaining complete situational awareness of the working environment. Being alert and aware is paramount to safe forklift operating. Here are the basic steps in safely operating a forklift:

  • Pre-inspection: Best forklift operation practices start with following a checklist to ensure the truck is in proper working order.
  • Mounting and dismounting: Training involves proper procedures for safely entering and exiting the forklift’s control area.
  • Controls: A safe operator is completely familiar with all controls, including the hydraulics, brakes, steering and safety features.
  • Load security: Safe operation involves ensuring the load being handled is secure on its own as well as secured to the forklift tines.
  • Movement: This involves traveling with a load, and the number one rule is never move a forklift in a traveling motion with a raised load.
  • Awareness: Safe operators are completely aware of surroundings, including all other workers who may be in the forklift’s line of operation.
  • Parking and securing: Leaving a forklift for any period requires safely setting the brakes, chocking the wheels if on an incline and deactivating energy sources.
  • Fueling and maintaining: Safely fueling a forklift and making sure it’s properly maintained is also an important part of operation. These tasks should be included in a thorough forklift operation instruction program.

Forklift Operation Instruction

OSHA regulations and ANSI guidelines require every American employer using forklifts to instruct every employee who uses a forklift on how to operate a specific machine safely. Failing to formally train, practically instruct and finally evaluate a forklift operator could result in severe penalties and significant liability in the event of an accident. Laws also require refresher training to be done and documented every three years or immediately following an unsafe forklift operation incident.

Several competent and independent forklift training agencies operate across the country. No law mandates a forklift license, although any credible training agency will issue a certificate showing that a student has successfully completed an organized training program. OSHA and ANSI guidelines allow flexibility so any employer can develop and authorize their own in-house program provided it meets these requirements:

  • Formal instruction: Training a forklift operator initially involves a formal discussion, lecture or another type of interactive learning session like a video or online course. This step ensures the trainee has a solid understanding of forklift design and operating procedures as well as the particular machine’s capabilities and limitations.
  • Practical training: The second step requires a trainee to physically operate the forklift they intend to run. Practical training takes in everything from preliminary inspections to final shut-down. Students demonstrate their competency by starting the forklift, moving loads and then safely refueling and parking it in a real-life environment.
  • Personal evaluation: Before signing-off on an employee’s ability to safely operate a forklift at the workplace, a competent overseer must evaluate a new trainee’s performance. The evaluation includes watching the student go through every operation step and verifying they have retained the skill to independently drive a forklift. The evaluator must be someone who already has documented skills and experience with that particular equipment.
  • Refresher updating: Every three years, a forklift operator must have refresher training regardless of how experienced or skillful they are. This is a safeguard against complacency, and it doesn’t have to be a lengthy or complicated procedure. As well, regulations make it mandatory that any person who’s had an unsafe incident with forklift operation must immediately be re-evaluated with some form of documented refresher training.
  • Documenting competency: It’s also legally required that every employer using forklifts in the workplace keeps accurate and current records documenting operator competency. Record keeping can be written as a note-to-file or stored electronically. The primary concern is that operator skill and safety has some sort of record available for inspectors to verify that safe forklift operation is a workplace priority.

Training a forklift operator requires a dedication to safety and a corporate culture formed around committing to safe work practices rather than being merely compliant to OSHA rules or ANSI best practice recommendations. Although there are many aspects involved in training a forklift operator, certain fundamentals must be instilled through the formal, practical and evaluation process. The key takeaways to cover in forklift operation instruction are:

  • Know the individual forklift’s lifting capacity and never exceed it.
  • Make sure all safety features and devices work before starting a forklift.
  • Ensure a load always stays centered within the forklift’s stability triangle.
  • Never, under any circumstances travel with a raised load.
  • Do not allow any worker to stand under a raised load.
  • When operating on an incline, always travel with the load pointing uphill.
  • Maintain visibility at all times, whether moving forward or in reverse.
  • In the event of a roll-over, stay inside the driver cage and do not jump out.
  • Always wear a seat belt or a restraining bar throughout any forklift movement.
  • Be clearly aware of boundaries when operating on a loading dock or ramp.
  • Make sure the load itself is secured by way of stretch wrap, bands or tie-downs.
  • Never lift a worker on the forks unless in an approved lifting device.
  • Checklists are a forklift operator’s friend and should be treated like one.

Learn More About Forklifts From the Cat® Rental Store

The Cat® Rental Store is also a valuable resource to forklift owners and operators. With a vast network of Cat equipment rental dealers located across the United States and other parts of the world, The Cat Rental Store helps businesses source quality Cat straight mast forkliftstelehandlers and other top material handling equipment to help build America’s economy. The Cat Rental Store also supplies equipment from over 70 other high-end allied brands as well as a full line of Cat products.

For more information on how The Cat Rental Store can help your business, call 1-800-RENT-CAT or find your nearest location today and rent whatever you need from the people who do whatever it takes.

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