Operating the Forklift

forklift driving
The back wheels of the forklift do the turning.

In a car or truck, the front wheels steer the vehicle. However, a forklift has the steering wheels in the rear end of the forklift so it can swing in a circle around the front wheels that support most of the load. This allows the forklift to rotate the load into the correct position.

The operator must check that there is room for the rear end to swing when making turns. This clearance can be maintained in your workplace by permanently marking aisles with painted lines or arranging storage racks in a way that creates obvious aisles for travel. However, these marked aisles will only be effective if you keep them clear of stored materials, which can gradually encroach as space is needed.

A forklift is not as responsive as a car when turning the steering wheel. Rear steering makes it difficult to stop a forklift quickly or swerve and still maintain control. As a result, it is important not to drive a forklift fast or round corners quickly.

Workplace Conditions

workplace conditions
Make sure you have adequate clearances when operating a forklift.

Workplace surface and overhead conditions are an important part of safe lift truck operation. Operating surfaces must be strong enough to support the forklift, its load and its operator. They must also be free of holes, grease, oil or obstructions that could cause the lift truck to skid, bounce, and/or possibly tip over.

Workplace surface and overhead conditions and factors to consider when traveling include:

  • Slippery Conditions: There is a danger of skidding when traveling on oil, grease, water or other spills. A forklift could tip over when traveling on ice, snow, mud, gravel and uneven areas.
  • Obstructions and Uneven Surfaces: There is a danger of tip over when traveling over obstructions, holes and bumps.
  • Floor Loading Limits: There is a danger of the floor collapsing if it’s unable to support the weight of the forklift, load, and operator.
  • Overhead Clearance: There is a chance of damage to lights, stacks, doors, sprinklers and pipes. Damage to the load may also occur, and the forklift may tip over when traveling and hitting an overhead obstruction.

1. A forklift has the steering wheels _____ so it can rotate the load into the correct position.

a. in four-wheel drive mode
b. locked by special mechanisms
c. in the front
d. in the rear

Pre-Use Inspection

Careful forklift inspection by competent persons is required.

The forklift should be checked for defects before initial use, usually by the operator before beginning a work shift. If someone else has used the forklift during a shift, it’s a good idea to check it for defects again.

Even if you operate a forklift safely, a defect can cause or contribute to a serious accident. Any defects that would affect safety must be corrected before the forklift is returned to service.

Look at the following items for things to look for during an inspection:

  • Is the horn working? Sound the horn at intersections and wherever vision is obstructed.
  • Are there hydraulic leaks in the mast or elsewhere? These could cause slipping hazards or lead to hydraulic failure.
  • Are fuel connections tight and battery terminals covered? Dropping a piece of metal across battery terminals can cause an explosion.
  • Check out this short video on Pre-Shift Forklift Inspections.
    Click to View
  • Is there a lot of lint, grease, oil or other material on the forklift that could catch on fire?
  • Do sparks or flames come out from the exhaust system?
  • Does the engine show signs of overheating?
  • Are tires at proper pressure and free of damage? A tire with low pressure or a tire failure can cause a forklift to tip or fall when a load is high.
  • Do all controls such as lift, lower, and tilt work smoothly? Are they labeled?
  • Is there any deformation or cracks in the forks, mast, overhead guard, or backrest?
  • Are lights operating if used at night or in dark locations?
  • Is steering responsive? A lot of play or hard steering will reduce your control.
  • Do brakes stop smoothly and reliably? Sudden stops can cause tipping.
  • Does the parking brake hold the forklift on an incline?
  • Are seat belts (if equipped) working and accessible?
  • Is the load capacity plate readable?

2. What is the proper action if a defect that could contribute to an accident is found when inspecting the forklift?

a. Write a work order to have the night crew look at it
b. Take the forklift out of service until it is fixed
c. Be aware of the hazard and tell the oncoming operator
d. Always use common sense in these situations


Pedestrians and Forklifts - Washington State L&I

Precautions and best practices while traveling in a forklift include:

  • The most basic rule for traveling is that you maintain control of your forklift at all times.
  • Operate a forklift only while in the seat or operator’s station.
  • Never start it or operate the controls while standing beside the forklift.
  • Never allow passengers unless the forklift was designed for a passenger.
  • Do not put any part of your body between the uprights of the mast or when traveling, outside of the forklift frame.
  • Never drive with wet or greasy hands. If necessary, keep a towel or rag handy at all times.
  • Whether loaded or empty, carry forks and platforms on lift trucks as low as possible. This lowers the center of gravity and reduces the possibility of overturning the truck or dumping the load.
  • traveling
    Always look in the direction of travel when operating a forklift.
  • Always look in the direction of travel and keep a clear view of the travel path. Travel in reverse if the load blocks your view.
  • Always observe posted speed limits (usually 5 mph) at your workplace. A forklift should not be driven faster than a quick walking pace.
  • Keep a distance of at least three forklift lengths between you and any forklift traveling in front of you.
  • Do not pass a forklift traveling in the same direction if it is at a blind spot, intersection or other dangerous location.
  • Never drive a forklift up to anyone in front of a bench or other fixed object.
  • Never allow anyone to walk or stand under the elevated forks—even if the forks are not carrying a load.
  • Check that there is adequate clearance under beams, lights, sprinklers, and pipes for the forklift and load to pass.
  • Never engage in stunt driving or horseplay.

3. Whether loaded or empty, carry forks and platforms on lift trucks _____.

a. at least six inches above floor level
b. as low as possible
c. allowing no more tolerance than 12 inches
d. keep the center of gravity high
When loaded keep forks on the uphill side. When not loaded, keep forks downhill.
(click to enlarge)

Driving on Ramps and Grades

Forklift operators should follow certain general rules of the road when traveling on ramps and other inclines. Traveling up and down ramps and grades can be quite dangerous because the forklift can more easily tip over. Be sure to follow these safety practices when operating the forklift on ramps and grades:

  • Always look in the direction of travel.
  • Never turn on a ramp or incline. Turn prior to the ramp or incline to place forks in proper direction.
  • Keep a safe distance from the edge of a ramp.
  • Do not travel on ramps with slopes or other conditions that exceed the manufacturer's recommendation.
  • When traveling with a load, the load should point up the incline, regardless of direction of travel.
  • When traveling without a load, the forks should point downgrade, regardless of direction of travel.
Click to see what happens when the truck is not chocked.

Driving onto Trucks, Trailers, and Railroad Cars

Forklifts are often driven onto trucks, trailers, or railroad cars over a dock board (also known as a bridge plate) at loading docks. If the truck, trailer or car is not secured to the dock or otherwise chocked, it may move forward. The dock board can then fall between the trailer and the dock as the forklift crosses it.

You can secure wheel chocks with chains at each loading dock bay and tell truck drivers that they must place them in front of the rear wheels. Another way of securing the trailer is to use a vehicle restraint system mounted to the dock that clamps onto a bar below the trailer as it backs into place. This system will signal when the restraint is engaged or if there is a problem.

The pavement at some loading docks slopes downhill toward the loading dock. This is not a substitute for chocking wheels.

4. Where should the forks be located when traveling with an empty load on a ramp?

a. They should always point up the ramp
b. They must be pointed up the ramp when traveling upgrade
c. They should always point down the ramp
d. They must be pointed up the ramp when traveling downgrade

Driving onto Trucks, Trailers, and Railroad Cars (Continued)

This forklift operator is using a spotter to load into a truck.

Sometimes a trailer is left at a loading dock without the tractor attached. Use trailer jacks to prevent the trailer from up-ending when a forklift drives to the front of the trailer to load or unload. Here are some additional loading and unloading procedures:

  • Inspect the floor of the trailer to be sure that it will support the forklift and load.
  • Ensure that the height of the entry door is adequate to clear the height of your vehicle, taking into consideration the height of the loading platform.
  • Drive straight across the bridge plates when entering or exiting the truck trailer or railroad car.
  • Use dock lights and headlights when working in a dark trailer.
  • Sound the horn when entering or exiting the trailer.
  • In determining the capacity of the trailer floor to support a forklift, consider various factors, including floor thickness and cross-member spacing or unsupported floor area. In general, the larger the unsupported area, the lower the forklift capacity the trailer will have for the same floor thickness.
  • railroad
    The edge of the dock must be identified with a yellow line.
  • Never use the forklift to open railroad car doors unless:
    • It has a device designed for that purpose.
    • The operator is trained in the use of the device.
    • All other employees stand clear.
  • Keep a safe distance from the edge of a loading dock or a ramp. The edge must be painted yellow or with alternating yellow and black diagonal stripes to warn of both the fall hazard and the potential to be crushed by a trailer backing into the dock.
  • A portable dock board must be secured in place to prevent it from moving. Some boards have pins that are inserted into the sides and project below the board. This prevents the board from moving toward the dock or toward the trailer. To prevent crushed fingers and make for safe handling, a portable dock board must also have handholds or lugs that allow the forklift to pick it up.
  • bull rail
    The bull rail is used to prevent the forklift from going over the side.
  • Some loading docks have a bull rail that prevents a wheel from slipping off the sides of ramps or edges of the dock where a forklift would not have to cross to enter a trailer.
  • Any part of the dock edge that is four feet or more above the adjacent surface must have a standard guardrail. Removable rails (such as chain rails) and posts can be used at the place where trucks or trailers will be loaded.
  • Use rail mounted chocks to secure a railroad car. Also, prevent anyone from moving the rail car while the forklift is working. A blue sign with the word “STOP” attached to the track is one way of signaling that the car must not be moved. A special attachment must be used if a forklift is used to open a rail car door.

5. When must dock edges have guardrails installed?

a. When they are above 5 feet in height
b. When they are 4 feet or higher
c. When they are over 6 feet high
d. When they are above 10 feet in height

Loading and Unloading the Forklift

Because of the wide variety of equipment used and the different kinds of stock and materials handled, each company must form additional rules for loading and unloading to fit the needs of its facilities. Know the maximum load that each truck can carry safely; do not overload it. An overloaded truck will not operate in a safe manner.

Answer the following questions and check the load before you pick it up.

  • Is it stable or will parts slide or fall during transit? Secure it as necessary.
  • Do the dimensions and weight of the load fall within the capacity rating of the forklift at the highest elevation and maximum extension you will handle the load? If not, can you break the load into smaller parts?

When you pick up the load:

picking up
Note how the load is tilted slightly backward for stability.
  • Move squarely into position in front of the load.
  • Make sure your view is not obstructed.
  • Do not permit anyone to stand under or too close to a load that is being hoisted or lowered.
  • Position the forks wide apart to keep the load balanced.
  • Drive the forks fully under the load.
  • Tilt the mast backward slightly to stabilize the load and lift. Check the destination before you place the load.

6. What should be done to stabilize the load and lift?

a. Tilt the forks forward
b. Move the forks to the front of the load
c. Tilt the mast backward slightly
d. Adjust the forks to the left or right

Loading and Unloading the Forklift (Continued)

When unloading, be sure to check platforms to make sure they are adequate.

Check out the destination:

  • Is the destination flat and stable—or, will the load rock, tilt or lean?
  • Never place heavy loads on top of light loads.
  • Observe maximum stacking quantities and orientation if printed on cartons.
  • Do you know the load bearing capacity of your rack or storage loft destination?
  • Are rack legs or support members bent or disconnected? The load bearing capacity of a damaged rack is unknown. Wait until the damaged component has been replaced before loading.
  • Are racks arranged back to back with a stock behind where you will place the load? Someone may need to be in the next aisle to control access while you place the load.
  • Are wooden stringers or decking laid between front and rear rack beams in good condition? They may support the load if the pallet is not properly placed on both front and rear rails.
  • If you are stacking, are other pallets in the stack in good condition and capable of supporting the load in addition to what they are already supporting?

7. When using a forklift to transfer a load, check out the destination _____.

a. visually to ensure adequate space for contraband
b. to ensure it is properly logged and designated
c. by making sure all loads are of the required size and shape
d. to make sure you're not stacking heavy loads on lighter loads
placing load
Move slowly and carefully into position to unload.

Loading and Unloading the Forklift (Continued)

When you place the load at its destination:

  • Move squarely into position in front of the rack or stack where the load will be placed.
  • When ready to place the load, tilt the mast to level. Only tilt forward when the load is over the spot where it will be placed.
  • Lower the forks and back away.
  • Visually verify that the load is stable.

Leaving a Forklift Unattended

Do not leave the forklift unattended.

A forklift is considered to be unattended when it is not in view of the operator or if it is in view, the operator is 25 feet or more away.

If you leave a forklift unattended:

  1. Select a secure location on level ground.
  2. Set the brakes.
  3. Set the controls to neutral.
  4. Tilt the forks forward and lower them to the ground.
  5. Turn off the power and remove the key.
  6. If the forklift is parked on an incline, block the wheels.
  7. If you dismount a forklift and stay within 25 feet, you must at least lower the forks to the ground, set the controls to neutral, and set the brakes.

8. A forklift is considered "unattended" when the operator is ______ away.

a. at least 15 feet
b. over 10 feet
c. 25 feet or more
d. 10 feet or more

Lifting and Lowering People

Lifting or lowering a person on forks or a pallet can result in a fall injury or fingers caught in moving parts of the mast.

lifting people
This is an imminent danger situation. NEVER do this.

No worker should be allowed to be lifted while standing on the forks or on a pallet lifted by the forks. The image to the right is a good example of what should never be done. These workers in the photo are lucky they did not get hurt or killed.

If you want to use a forklift to raise an employee to an elevated position, use a platform or structure specifically built for this purpose that meets the conditions described below.

  • The platform must have standard guardrails which include a top rail 36” to 42” above the platform (39” to 45” on a construction site), midrail and toeboard. It must also prevent contact with chains and shear points on the mast. See the illustration for an example.
  • The platform must be securely attached to the forks such as by a clamp or chain.
  • Check with the forklift manufacturer to verify that the hydraulic system will not allow the lift mechanism to drop faster than 135 feet per minute in the event of a system failure. Identify the forklift as approved for use with the platform.
  • Lock or secure the tilt control to prevent the boom from tilting.
  • A forklift operator must be at the normal operating position when lifting and lowering the platform. The operator must be near the forklift while a worker is elevated.
  • Except to inch forward/backward or maneuver at low speeds, do not move the forklift between two points when a worker is on the platform.

Order picker forklifts are designed to allow the operator to be lifted along with the controls to an elevated location. However, if the operator station does not have standard guardrails on all open sides, then the operator must wear a full body harness with lanyard attached to a manufacturer approved anchor.

9. How many workers may the forklift operator hoist on the forks?

a. None
b. No more than one on each fork
c. No more than a total of three workers
d. Only the number approved by safety staff

Traffic Patterns

Make sure isles are free from obstruction and clearly marked.

The first step to prevent powered industrial truck accidents in a facility is to establish a traffic pattern. This is management’s responsibility.

Management must ensure:

  • Aisles are well-lighted and free from obstructions.
  • Floors are sound and in good shape. Wet, oily or icy surfaces should be avoided. Clean them up as soon as possible.
  • Aisles are marked clearly. When they are wide enough for two trucks to pass each other, the center of the aisle and the two extreme edges should be marked with painted lines. In some plants, the aisles are wide enough for two truck lanes and a pedestrian lane.
  • Do not allow for two trucks to run side by side in the same direction.
  • A truck must never pass another truck at an intersection, blind spot or other dangerous location. In areas where there is high concentration of truck traffic, it may be best to have one-way aisles.
  • Speed limits are set and strictly enforced. A few speed limit signs at strategic points serve as constant reminders to truck operations.
  • Prominently display stop signs at all crossings. These may be regular stop signs or signs painted or set into the floor. You can also use stripes and discs as indicators.
  • Each plant must set up its own rules regarding traffic control, but a required four-way stop at every intersection is a wise way to avoid collisions. Plants that have adopted the four-way stop requirements have found that no significant time is lost by this extra precautionary measure.

10. What is the first step in preventing forklift accidents in a facility?

a. Have a zero tolerance for accidents policy
b. Designate approved forklift operators
c. Establish a traffic pattern
d. Write safety rules

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