With the number of transient workers that come through warehouses, the hustle and bustle of getting orders shipped out and deliveries onto the racks, and a variety of other concerns, having a strong forklift safety program is essential. A quick walk through many warehouses will show machines being driven faster than they should be, unsecured or uneven loads, forks being raised and lowered as lifts are turning, and random foot-traffic. Remember, you, as a pedestrian, will not win against a machine that weighs thousands of pounds! So, where can we focus our attention?
No article can substitute for forklift operator training, which you know, all of your operators MUST have, right? AND that they must be reevaluated at least every three years, right? OK, good. Just checking. Too often, I have seen new warehouse workers put in a situation where they are just expected to figure it out. Train your employees properly. Observe them while they’re working. Are they constantly going too fast, coming around corners or into intersections without slowing down or beeping, driving with their view obstructed, or raising/lowering loads while they’re moving? That employee may need to be retrained. If you don’t have somebody who is able to do that ongoing evaluation, you need to properly prepare somebody to fill that role.
So, what should training and evaluation of safe forklift operation focus on? Speed (no faster than a person walking quickly), following distance (three forklift lengths), knowing the capacity of your lift and checking the load to ensure its within that capacity, stability of loads, stability of the lift and how it changes as the center of gravity changes, not raising or lowering forks while moving or turning, lift inspections, traveling backward and/or spotters, unattended lifts, use of lifts on slopes, lifting and setting of material, and fuel safety precautions. After reading that list, are you still comfortable telling an untrained person to “just do it”?
It’s hard to operate a forklift safely if you have to constantly dodge unexpected pedestrians. People randomly wandering the floor of your warehouse pose both a threat to themselves and a threat to the men and women on your forklifts. In order to avoid this, you should have designated walkways and a restriction on who can be on the warehouse floor. Sure, they will not be able to stay within these walkways 100% of the time, but if you have a restricted group that is allowed to be there, you can train them to take extra precautions when they have to leave the area. Railing and safety gates may also be a viable option, restricting foot traffic to the designated walkways in certain high traffic areas. Meanwhile, forklift operators know to take extra precautions around the walkways. Also, make your pedestrians visible; require reflective vests or high visibility shirts for anybody who needs to be on foot.
Pallet Racks and Shelving
The ends of pallet racks are often damaged when a driver attempts to turn down an aisle and accidently clips or runs into a rack, resulting in significant damage to the rack and potential damage to the goods being stored on the rack.
Making sure your aisles are wide enough is a helpful first step when trying to avoid these types of accidents. Your driver may simply not have enough space to perform the maneuvers he needs to get around the warehouse.
Enforcing the speed limit we talked about earlier is also important. If the driver is going a reasonable speed, he is more likely to be able to correct a miscalculation before he actually collides with the rack.
Bollards and impact barriers are also a good way to protect the corners of your racks. Not only by providing a barrier between the forklift and the rack, but also providing higher visibility.
Some of the biggest hazards associated with forklift usage aren’t necessarily always from the forklifts themselves. How are the forklifts in your warehouse powered? Propane? Electric? Diesel? You’ll have a variety of reasons behind your choice, but be aware that each one poses a hazard that you must consider. Diesel, gasoline, or any other internal combustion is probably a bad choice for most indoor uses. We all know the byproduct of incomplete combustion, right? Carbon Monoxide. And while open overhead doors, ventilation, and large spaces may help mitigate the amount of carbon monoxide your employees are exposed to, what about the employee who takes that forklift into the back of a truck and leaves it running while they secure the load? If you need to use this type of forklift, you’ll probably want to ensure you have the proper scrubbers on the exhaust, train your employees to recognize signs of carbon monoxide exposure, and prohibit running the engine in trailers or other confined areas.
LPG or propane burn cleaner, but pose their own hazards, flammability and skin exposure among them. Propane and LPG are flammable and, being heavier than air, will seep along the floor until possibly finding an ignition source, rather than disperse up into the air. Precautions need to be taken not just during their use, but also in the area in which you’re storing them to ensure you have proper firefighting methods available.
So with all the hazards that those fuels create, why not just go electric? Keep it simple, right? No fumes to worry about. But, the reality is, of course, that electric forklifts have their own set of issues. Now you have to worry about charging stations, ventilation of those stations, eye wash stations, training your people to properly handle the batteries and more.
Unless you’re using manual lifts, you’re going to have fuel-related hazards and you’re going to have to train your people on those hazards and how to work safely.
If you have areas in your warehouse that are classified as hazardous locations, you need to ensure that your forklift is designed to be operated in that area. 29 CFR 1910.178(b) and (c) designate 11 forklift classifications and a listing of classified locations in which each type of lift can be used.
Inspect, Inspect, Inspect
Just like any other piece of equipment, forklifts need to be inspected prior to use. How are the tires? Is there a properly charged fire extinguisher? Do all of the controls work properly? Do your blinkers and horn function properly? Are your mirrors in place? Are there any leaks?
But inspections are not just limited to the equipment itself. What about the conditions of the warehouse you’re working in? Is the floor level? Are there any overhead obstacles you need to be concerned with? Are there any ramps you will have to traverse? Pipe leaks, leaks from other machines, or any other spill that could cause a problem for you?
And don’t forget trailers. If you’re about to load or unload a truck, you have more inspections to do. Is the floor of the trailer capable of supporting the weight of the lift and load? Is it in good condition? Are the wheels chocked or is the trailer otherwise secured?
Never take for granted that somebody else has checked the things that your safety and well-being depend on. Inspect, inspect, inspect.
There is no lack of danger in a warehouse. Forklifts will always pose some danger to warehouse workers, but that danger can be exponentially increased if the lift isn’t being operated properly. Train your operators how to safely handle the machines and train your people on the floor how to behave around lifts. If everyone works together, everyone goes home safe at the end of the shift.