The title may seem out of place, after all, a modern warehouse simply cannot function without a forklift. But the headline is referring not to the practical and indispensable use of a forklift, if rather refers to the woeful track record of forklift safety in the workplace.

No one will deny that a forklift, as any high-powered piece of machinery is dangerous and needs to be approached with the proper level of competence. However, reading through accident reports involving forklift accidents, one is left with a plethora of questions that actually do have answers, it just appears to have occurred too late to the people in charge of the equipment.

Statistics for forklift accidents are difficult to come by but looking at the numbers from the USA the realisations are staggering. Forklift accidents accounts for only 1% of warehouse or factory accidents, but account for 10% of all physical injuries in those workplaces. Furthermore, forklift accidents are the cause of about 85 deaths from 34,900 serious injuries every year. Non-serious injuries due to forklift accidents stand at around 61,800 per year.

The truly eye-opening statistic, however, is that it is estimated that if warehouse and factory health and safety policies are more stringently applied, especially with regards to training, at least 70% of forklift accidents could be prevented. That would mean that per year there would be:

  • 60 less deaths
  • 24,430 less serious injuries
  • 43,260 less non-serious injuries

What makes forklifts so dangerous?

The short and most correct answer is always that they are dangerous because of the human element. Forklifts can reach up to 40 km/h speeds and weigh up to 4 000 kilograms. (IMPORTANT: This speed is what it can reach but it should never be operated at this speed.) Unlike a car, a forklift only has brakes in the front and is heavier in the rear half to compensate for the heavy loads on the front. This uneven weight distribution makes a forklift unwieldy to say the least and requires a deft, well-trained, and experienced hand to manoeuvre. A forklift turns on its rear wheels which means that during a turn, the rear-end swings outward which increases the changes of the forklift tipping over during tight turns – which is the cause of 24% of all forklift accidents per year. Large loads on a forklift often obstructs the view of the forklift operator, making it dangerous for the driver and any pedestrians in the path of travel. Lastly, forklifts often lift substantial loads to great heights which is a hazard on its own.

What are the most typical forklift accidents, and how can they be prevented?

  • Crushing, striking, or pinning of a pedestrian

This most common accident occurs when pedestrians are not fully cognisant of the dangers surrounding forklifts as highlighted above, or they become unobservant to the posted signs of operating forklift zones. Accidents like these can be prevented through regular training of both the operators and pedestrians who work in the vicinity of a forklift. Accidents like these can be avoided by the regular training of the operator and pedestrians, posting clearly visible warning signs and speed limits as well as the application of floor tape to designate forklift zones. A red light zone surrounding the forklift operating zone can also remind pedestrians to keep a safe distance and be vigilant of the forklift operating in the area, which can also help prevent foot injuries and collisions from rear-end swings. In addition, a sensor back up alarm can audibly alert pedestrians that the forklift may on the approach.

  • Workers falling from forks

No one should ever stand on the forks of a forklift while elevated, be raised on the forks for any high-reach work, or be transported while standing on the forks. This practise is sometimes called “riding the forks” but must be avoided at all cost. It may be tempting for the sake of expediency; however, the risk of falling is acutely high.

  • Forklift Overturning

The overturning of forklifts is the leading cause of accidental deaths due to forklift operation. Overturns can be caused by:

  • Equipment malfunction
  • Improper turning
  • Turning or stopping too quickly
  • Driving with an elevated load
  • Excessive speed
  • Operating on an incline
  • Uneven driving surfaces
  • Unstable loads / Instability

Unstable loads or Instability could be caused by many factors ranging from an off-centre load to a damaged or loose load. Such unstable loads can cause a forklift to tip over or drop the load.

Unfortunately, people often underestimate the operation of a forklift. 88% of forklift accidents are due to employee actions or lack of corrective actions. Experience and training are required to operate the machinery safely – as it is vital for all machinery. The operator must have the knowledge and understanding of both the capabilities and the limitations of the forklift. An inexperienced operator presents a danger to themselves as well as the pedestrians around the machine and the risk of damage to the load and property.

*This article was inspired by, and is dedicated to, an unknown security guard who tragically lost his life in a forklift accident known to the author. May the awareness brought by this information save lives in your honour.