The Safety Side of Forklift Operation

Words: Joanne Anderson

Words: Joanne M. Anderson
Photos: IvanZivkovic

It's fun to drive a truck. It’s fun to ride a horse. It’s fun to take out a snowmobile and operate a forklift. There’s something exhilarating about being in charge of moving something so powerful. Yet, each type of transport is fraught with danger for the novice, the untrained and the unskilled or unaware. Drivers or riders must possess a comprehensive understanding of the unique characteristics that result in a happy ending, i.e., having moved the horsepower and loads safely without injury or death to the driver, workers, other drivers and riders and casual observers.

Accident and fatality statistics are never pleasant and almost always stunning. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that annual injuries from forklifts alone top 60,000, and that’s before factoring in more than 80 deaths, more than one each week.  

“There are several different terms used to identify forklifts,” states Zach Everett, Corporate Safety Director for Brazos Masonry based in Waco, Texas, “like powered industrial trucks or fork trucks. Mason contractors most often use the all-terrain extended-boom forklift and warehouse-type forklifts. Pallet jacks are even considered a type of forklift due to the low lifting action of the pallet.”

Like every good story, using a forklift has a beginning [At the Start], middle (Operating the Forklift] and end [Parking It]. It even has two prefaces, one called Maintenance and the other one Training, and herein lie the most important parts of having a forklift in tip-top condition being handled by a fully-trained operator.


Any machine, like any horse, is only as good as its care and attention. Every forklift has a maintenance guide to keep it running at optimum performance. Many come with a warranty document that covers a variety of repairs and parts for some period of time as long as the equipment has been serviced properly.

Every owner of every forklift should have someone assigned to routine forklift maintenance so time is not wasted on the job site checking that nuts and bolts are tight, batteries and electrical systems are good and brake fluid, engine coolant and filters have been properly changed at appropriate intervals. 

Maintenance plans are available from many dealers which include warranty compliance. Others may have field calls as part of a service program. It is wise to determine at the outset who is responsible and how forklifts are going to be inspected, repaired, maintained and transported.  


Educating potential forklift operators needs to include classroom instruction as well as practical application. Teaching begins with the machinery, its design, purpose, capabilities, and limitations. While OSHA does not require that a forklift driver even have a valid driver’s license, each employer must have a record that a forklift operator has successfully completed training. 

“Without training, both classroom and hands-on instruction, an individual should not be allowed to operate a forklift,” Everett relates. “The classroom training should cover the essentials of forklift operation and hazards that will be encountered. The operation training will depend on what type of forklift is being used. The hazards will be relatively similar, however, there will be some differences due to the dynamic diversities of machines.” 

Many companies and online sites offer comprehensive forklift operation training, like:


Training should also include presentations on the center of gravity and the stability triangle. The Center of gravity refers to where weight has equal concentration. A load of bricks, for example, has its own center of gravity, which when loaded, creates a combined center of gravity between the forklift and the load. There is a 3-point suspension system on a forklift with support points at both ends of the front axle and another one at the center of the rear axle forming a triangle. Among the many reasons a forklift might be outside the stability, triangle are uneven loads, fast start or stop, quick turning, and rough terrain.  

At the Start

Getting ready to use a forklift entails more than jumping into the seat and putting into practice what one learned in a training course on a few trial rides. Ideally, routine maintenance has been performed, and the machine is ready to use. Walk around the forklift to see if anything seems out of the ordinary. 

Everett concurs: “One key point of training that OSHA mandates is for the operator to understand the machine and do inspections at the beginning of each shift. The operator should inspect the forklift thoroughly making sure that there are no worn or broken parts, no leaks, the tires are in good condition, and it operates smoothly through the required functions.”

At Marsa, Inc., vice president Matt Scabilloni outlines their comprehensive procedures for using a forklift. The Pittsburgh, Penn., firm, named for his mom and dad, Mary and Sam Scabilloni, was founded by Sam in 1967 and is now run by their five sons. All forklift operators are trained in-house. Before operation, they must examine things like:

  • Engine and transmission oil
  • Radiator reservoir and hydraulic fluid
  • Fire extinguisher onboard and charged
  • Boom chain has no excessive sag
  • Safety and instrument decals are legible
  • Hydraulic fluid
  • Chain anchor pins
  • Model-specific manual is on the machine
  • Forks are not bent
  • Hydraulic hoses are secure
  • And more … leaks, tires, loose bolts, etc.

Have your hands clean and dry or in well-fitting grip gloves. Do not grab the steering wheel to pull yourself in after checking that you have no oil, grease or slippery stuff on your shoes or boots. Do not bump your head. It’s easier to bump or slip than you think, and it’s safer to climb incorrectly than take a spill that ends your forklift driving for good. 

Look around before starting and moving the machine, making a mental note where you intend to go and what or who is nearby. Like riding a horse, always look in the direction of travel while being acutely aware what is going on in the immediate vicinity. You cannot ever assume that other people know how to act or move appropriately or won’t do something stupid. 

Once on a forklift, Scabilloni relates that their drivers then check the horn, gauges, fuel, clutch, gearshift, control levers, foot brake, emergency brake, back-up alarm, steering and any unusual sounds. 

Once you know the load is packed well and that the weight is not too much for either the forklift or destination, position the forks to go under the load as far as possible. Drive forward and very slowly engage the lift mechanism to begin relocating the bricks, CMUs or materials. Never let a person sit or stand on the forks. 

Operating the Forklift

Training will have covered basic ignition and forward, reverse and turning movement for the brand and model of equipment owned. In the masonry arena, loads are especially heavy, and every driver must know from memory the load limits for the forklift AND the destination, particularly if it is scaffolding or a mast climber. And the same forklift operator must know the weight of the load being picked up and transported. For masonry job sites, forklift drivers need to have a working knowledge of how bricks and CMUs are organized on pallets, so they can refuse to lift a sloppy formation or unsecured material. 

“Too often when I hear about a fatality related to a forklift, it involves someone overturning the forklift, and more often than not, not wearing a seatbelt,” Everett says. “Crushing injuries snuff out the life of someone in a tragic way. Overturning forklifts can happen in many different ways: overloading beyond the equipment’s load limits and capacity, traveling while the load is elevated, moving too fast and losing control, turning too quickly or driving off an elevated surface, such as a loading dock, excavation or ditch.”

The main points of safety, which always bear posting and repeating, include:

  • Travel at slow speeds
  • Stay on the right as appropriate
  • Sound the horn turning corners
  • Refrain from turning on an incline
  • Drive loaded truck forward uphill with load upgrade
  • Operate machine in reverse going downhill with load upgrade
  • Move unloaded forklifts downhill forward with forks downgrade
  • Keep the masonry load level
  • Be super alert to floor and ground conditions, even small bumps
  • Come to a complete stop before changing direction
  • Avoid quick stops or turns
  • Wear a seat belt
  • Never picking up riders
  • Yield right-of-way to pedestrians
  • Use mirrors and spotters when necessary
  • Drive with great respect for the power of the machine.

Parking It

OSHA considers a forklift to be unattended when the driver is 25 feet away, even if it is in view, or when the forklift is no longer in sight of the driver, no matter how many feet away. Accordingly, OSHA has issued this directive: 

When a powered industrial truck is left unattended, load engaging means shall be fully lowered, controls shall be neutralized, power shall be shut off, and brakes set. Wheels shall be blocked if the truck is parked on an incline. [29 CFR 1910.178(m)(5)(i)

Each company, job site superintendent or project manager will have its own policies and procedures on how and where to park the forklift when it is not needed for a while. Martin Hanbury, owner of Blacksburg Feed & Seed in Blacksburg, Va., uses his forklift often moving pallets of feed and seed. “Park it where no one will hit it,” he solemnly advises. He wasn’t asked to elaborate, but it was noted that his forklift was parked safely inside the warehouse adjacent to his parking lot. Good advice.

Once at a complete stop, the controls must be neutralized, the parking brake set and the ignition turned off. Blocking the wheels is a good idea whether or not on an incline, as is removing the key so no one with an inkling to mess around with the machine gets the chance. Scabilloni likes to see the pedals and cab clean after every use as well. 

The forks should be entirely lowered and company procedures followed for lockout/Tagout (LOTO). OSHA has lockout/Tagout requirements to ensure that industrial equipment like forklifts are turned off and cannot be restarted by anyone sauntering by thinking about going for a joy ride. The lockout device renders a forklift temporarily inoperable with a padlock or other item. Tagout includes highly visible warning signs that equipment is not operating and awaiting maintenance, service, and repair. Places like and sell Forklift Lockout/Tagout Kits which include devices, locks, tags, hasps, labels and more that meet OSHA’s lockout/Tagout requirements. 

Along with all the safety precautions and procedures, driving a forklift is still fun. And it is the most fun when it is safe for the owner, the worksite, the loads, the operator, the equipment and anything or anyone else nearby. 

Joanne M. Anderson is a freelance writer in SW Virginia who has operated a forklift and found it fun, but prefers riding her horses – respecting their power, inspecting them in advance, facing the direction of travel and being aware of her immediate environment, much like forklift operation.

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