Getting a Lift
Getting a Lift Forklift operation is one high risk task that should not be left to untrained amateurs.
According to data analysis conducted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the single largest cause of forklift accidents that result in fatalities is vehicle tip-overs. The second highest number of fatalities is caused by accidents where employees were crushed between a vehicle and a surface. In both cases, proper training could have helped to avoid those accidents in the first place.

“The dilemma is that without knowing the limitations of the equipment we are operating, we don’t know the dangers and we can cause harm to ourselves and others around us,” said Joe Watson of ABC Auto Parts. “There are still too many in our industry that operate forklifts without having the proper training. I know because that’s how I learned. It was a long time ago but I didn’t get proper OSHA training. I got hands-on training, not book training. So, I learned the dangers of operating forklifts through my own mistakes.”

Watson feels that training is necessary because it provides the baseline for safety for everyone.

“Let’s be honest. Most regulation exists because of stupid or ignorant people. Regulation attempts to keep us safe, from ourselves and others in the work place. I mean think about it, if you are going to have someone untrained operate a machine that has a good chance, if used improperly, to kill someone, that is either stupid or you just don’t know any better,” said Watson. “But, that’s the same with everything. Do we really need to drive just 55 mph? Most of the time probably not, but it’s the few that drive way too fast and way too reckless, that make it necessary to constantly remind us to drive slower.”

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With this in mind, OSHA was created over 40 years ago to set regulations and standards and provide training that would ensure a safe workplace.

“Under the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act, employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthful workplace,” said Ginny Whelan, Managing Director, ARA Educational Foundation. The ARA University ( is assisting with that process by offering training that will help ARA members to meet OSHA requirements and even more importantly, create a safe workplace for their employees.”

ARAU offers two forklift training courses. This is online training and certification that is required by OSHA of all operators of forklifts (rough terrain vehicle forklift) and the requirements include certification renewal every three years. 

Real Hands-On Training

Watson, who has been driving a forklift since he was a teen working at his Dad’s yard, has taught forklift training for many years. He uses a combination of the OSHA classroom training and practical hands-on training to ensure that all of his drivers are competent and safe drivers.

“If you are operating a forklift you should be OSHA-trained, whether it’s in the auto salvage industry or in your own backyard,” said Watson. “It doesn’t only protect you, but those around you. The way I have taught forklift training was to begin by admitting the mistakes I had made myself.

“I start off asking who in the room had ever put too much weight on the forklift. Everyone usually looks around at each other, then I put my hand up and say, ‘I have.’ Other hands follow. Then I would ask another mistake and put my hand up.”

Watson uses the OSHA Guidelines in the classroom setting first to acquire what he calls “dead knowledge;” then takes students out to the forklifts to gain what he calls “living knowledge.”

“In past classes, I took students out to the forklifts and got them to purposefully go against the guidelines until we reached the point of just before they would fail so they could see what that would feel like,” he said. “I wanted to create a fail-safe plan in a safe environment that would allow the driver to learn what they would do in the event that the machinery did start to tip or if they had loaded too much, what that would feel like and what they should do to correct it.

“Through this training, employees got to learn what it would feel like to have too heavy of a load and try to make a turn or if they had too high of a load how that changes the stability and how that feels, and believe me when it starts to fail, you feel it.”

Avoiding Accidents

Watson feels the biggest problems encountered are operating a forklift with an unsecured load where an operator will try to lift things and they fall off; trying to lift too heavy of a load; and having a load too high when turning.

He offers three warnings: First of all, make sure you secure your load as per OSHA guidelines. Next, make sure correct weights are lifted depending on the type of forklift you are operating; this is where classroom application comes in.

The instructor should review how to find the correct weights for each type of forklift. Practical experience and training also come into play here, because you can feel when you have loaded the forklift too heavy or high. For example, if you have loaded your pickup truck too much, it will drag the ground.

To address the problem of turning with too high of a load, he says it’s a marrying of the two, classroom and practical training to know when you are operating a forklift in an unsafe manner, which again depends on type of forklift you are operating.

Watson is pleased that he personally has never had accidents where people got hurt. However, he has had accidents that caused damage.

“Of the accidents you hear the most often, you hear of people dropping a vehicle while operating a forklift,” he said. “It’s easy to cause damage to your vehicle or building that way. I have dropped a car in an area where I wasn’t supposed to because I was going along and had it too high. It changed the center of gravity and bam, I dropped it. Most of the time, accidents like those occur because we’re under time constraints and pressure. We’re in a hurry.”

Plan, Train, and Maintain

Watson says that one way to avoid these type accidents is to put some time into planning and training.   

“Giving time to planning the layout of your yard, time management, and proper training is essential because it helps to avoid accidents,” he said. “In our yard forklift drivers get the right of way because their view is often obstructed and they are big. Training is a constant reminder. If you don’t know it’s dangerous then you’ll do it; if you know it’s dangerous you’re less likely to try it or do it. Taking simple measures like these will help reduce potential safety problems.”

Watson says the maintenance of the forklifts is also important, for example, tracking how often the fluids are changed or the lines are checked.  

“My belief is that there is a lot of machinery that is not maintained properly, so the training should highlight the dangers of unsafe machinery,” said Watson. “As you become more aware of the dangers you become more concerned with what could happen.”

Proper safety training helps employees to become aware of the potential danger in their surroundings. Watson says that even though you may get by doing things in an unsafe way, it’s not worth the risk. “Today OSHA has guidelines that state you can’t have a person under the car while it’s lifted on a forklift, but in the old days we used to cut the exhaust off a car while it was lifted up – today we would have been in clear violation of OSHA regulations,” said Watson.

“Did we have any problems back then with doing that? No, but since then we’ve become aware of the potential dangers in doing that and put measures in place that would prevent loss of life or injury to our workers, customers, or property.

“You can cut and cut and cut trying to save money but in the long run, you eventually have a horrible accident that ends up costing you more in workers compensation, paying someone else to work in their place, and holds you personally liable.

If you don’t think about safety as extremely important, you might unintentionally create an unsafe workplace, putting your business at risk. OSHA guidelines can help create a fail-safe environment that reduces injuries and accidents – which in the end saves you lives and money.” 

Michelle Keadle-Taylor is a freelance writer based in Northern Virginia

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