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8 essentials of safe forklift operation

By Stefan Dubowski

Forklifts have been an integral part of industrial work for more than a century. Improvements in forklift technology over the years have enabled individual employees to lift and move thousands of pounds of material more quickly and efficiently in different work environments from warehouses and mines to airports and construction sites.

Sadly, despite the advancements, these devices continue to figure in numerous accidents. In October, an employee at a Lethbridge, Alta., tire company was killed after he was pinned by a forklift. Safety experts can give countless examples of injuries and fatalities related to

forklift use.

Forklifts will likely continue to be important tools in retail, distribution and manufacturing operations. So what can health and safety professionals do to ensure forklifts at their organizations are operated safely? We asked forklift trainers across Canada for their insights and uncovered eight key tips for safe operation.

Understand what ‘safety training’ really means

An employee may arrive at a new workplace saying he is already trained to operate a forklift. The company might then dispense with the usual training program for new hires and get him on the job immediately. However, according to Jim Hambrook, instructional services regional manager at Liftow in Mississauga, Ont., it pays to take a moment and consider what the employee is actually telling you.

“When someone says, ‘I’ve been trained already,’ it’s an open comment. My questions (would be), ‘When and by whom?’ You might say your uncle Dave gave you a few pointers over a few days back in 1996,” Hambrook says.

Technically, it may be possible for a company to immediately put a new employee to work driving a forklift if the worker has already taken a forklift operation and safety course. However, Hambrook points out Canadian Standards Association (CSA) guidelines suggest doing that would be a mistake.

According to the CSA, employers must retrain a worker whenever the operator is introduced to new equipment, if he begins working in a different environment or if he’s asked to use the vehicle to carry different items. Chances are at least one of those fits every new worker.

“I’m going to recommend you have this person recertified,” Hambrook says.

Invest in new technology

Companies such as Toyota and Flow-Rite Safety Solutions offer forklift collision-avoidance systems, which alert drivers if another forklift is approaching or a pedestrian is standing around a blind corner. Yet the experts we interviewed say simpler equipment-monitoring systems are more common. These units, attached to vehicles, cut the power to the forklift if the vehicle bumps into something.

According to Rob Cook, owner of Province Wide Safety Training in Winnipeg, many organizations find safety shut-offs useful even if they’re never tripped.

“Once people know they’re being monitored, they drive more safely than they would otherwise. It’s like having a supervisor watching over your shoulder,” Cook says.

Take your time

It’s important to give trainees enough time to become familiar with the equipment before they’re sent to the workplace, says Cook. Mark Perry agrees. Owner of MRP Equipment and a forklift instructor at Nova Scotia Community College in Halifax, he finds some people catch on faster than others, but it doesn’t make sense to push someone into the work environment if he isn’t ready.

“You have to have the time behind the wheel to really get good at operating. Some guys pick it up in five or 10 minutes. Others are still having trouble days later,” says Perry.

Slow down

Following the same principle above, it doesn’t make sense for operators to rush in their work — especially while driving a forklift.

“Ninety per cent of the problems with forklifts are caused by speed,” Perry says. “Slow down. A lot of operators try to get work done too quickly and accidents happen.”

Perry recently travelled to Labrador City, N.L., to help retrain forklift operators following a speed-related accident — the vehicle tipped over while being driven to a different job site.

Size up the risk

Is a 5,000-lb.-capacity electric forklift as dangerous as a 30,000-lb.-capacity diesel machine? While it is true the latter carries much heavier loads, it isn’t the only issue, according to forklift safety experts. In fact, the smaller equipment may even be the bigger concern.

Consider the small electric hand pallet you might see used in a home-improvement store.

“That is one of the most dangerous as far as injuries go,” Hambrook says. It’s a fairly common device, so the chances that it will be used unsafely are relatively high. It is also used in well-populated areas such as store aisles, where there are customers and salespeople. Hambrook says the electric hand pallet is often the cause of bruised ankles and feet.

“All of the equipment is very dangerous, especially if you’re not trained on it,” Hambrook says.

Expect a visit

Governments are keen to ensure workers operate forklifts safely, Perry says.

“The Nova Scotia Department of Labour is going around to construction sites now. If people don’t have a certificate or some sort of safety program, they’re shutting the job sites down.”

The entire forklift training industry is healthier today than it used to be, he says. In the past, particularly in the East Coast, the offshore oil industry seemed the only sector interested in providing forklift safety courses to workers.

Perry explains previously the subcontractors on a job — at a construction site, for instance — were expected to train employees on forklift safety, but rarely did the general contractors in charge of the project check to make sure the subcontractors’ workers had safety certificates. That was then.

“Today the site foreman says, ‘Give me their papers,’” Perry says. “He’s recording everything. That makes people more aware of the safety requirements.”

Train everyone

“Train all personnel, including supervisors,” Hambrook says.

Supervisors may not necessarily operate the equipment. But if only the operators are trained, the supervisors may not be as astute about catching unsafe driver behaviour because they simply don’t know what to watch for.

Find resources

WorkSafeBC offers a series of forklift safety tips on its website. They cover issues such as carrying loads safely, preventing vehicles from tipping over and operating forklifts when pedestrians are present.

The Canadian Centre of Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) also provides forklift safety tips online, including information such as a sample visual inspection checklist, advice for forklift operation and how to load the vehicle safely.

Helpful resources are also available from labour ministries across Canada.


Stefan Dubowski is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. You may reach him through email at [a href="" target="_blank"]


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