Industrial lift trucks, also known as forklifts, are one of the manufacturing industry's most valuable assets. The ability to move large products and loads across warehouses and yards is essential for supply chain efficiency.

However, the reliance on forklifts can have serious consequences on worker health and safety, as these machines pose many potential risks.

It is therefore important that any business using forklifts accesses adequate training, licences and permits before undertaking work involving industrial lift trucks. This includes, but is not limited to, traffic control and management training to protect operators and pedestrians.

To help employers understand the risks of using forklifts in the workplace, here are four factors that need to be considered to upkeep work health and safety standards.

Overweight or unbalanced loads

While many people assume forklifts are most dangerous when moving, employees can still face serious hazards when the equipment is stationary. In particular, when industrial lift trucks are in the process of loading and unloading, incorrect use and practices can lead to accidents, injuries and even death.

A significant number of workplace accidents involving forklifts are caused by unbalanced or overweight loads. Forklifts should all come with very clear manufacturing instructions related to maximum weights and best practice loading. Following these instructions is key to ensuring workers, operators and pedestrians are safe from tipping and falling objects.

One example of this was recently highlighted by WorkSafe Western Australia, resulting in a $30,000 fine. The accident involved untrained employees standing on a lifted platform when the truck toppled over.

The workers each sustained injuries when the elevated work platform tipped forward due to an unsafe loading. One of the men suffered minor injuries, including cuts and bruising, while the other sustained significant harm and was unable to work for two months.

When the accident occurred, the employees were in the process of moving a heavy load between shelves. They climbed onto the elevated platform in order to move beds onto the platform, which was raised six metres. Although the forklift was limited to a lifting capacity of 500kg, the employees did not realise that the platform was fabricated and attached after the forklift was purchased.

When the 200kg platform was taken into consideration, the true lifting capacity was actually only 300kg. However, the untrained workers were not aware of this and had loaded the platform with 362kg worth of product. On top of this, the employees failed to take into account their own weight, estimated at 150-200kg. This meant that the equipment was overloaded by a combined 532kg at the time of the accident.

"It is crucial that written safe work procedures are in place in workplaces such as this one, and that employers ensure employees are aware of them and putting them into practice," WorkSafe WA Commissioner Lex McCulloch said.

"Subsequent to this incident, the employer had the relevant employees from its four WA stores trained to obtain high risk work licences, and had weight sensor devices fitted to all order pickers in operation."

Mr McCulloch shared his belief that if training had been undertaken much earlier, the employees would have avoided the incident and not been subjected to their injuries and suffering.

In addition to protecting those individuals working on top of forklifts, unstable loads can often put pedestrians and other visitors at risk. If a machine carrying too much was to turn a corner or tip at the wrong moment, the load could potentially fall onto a nearby worker, causing serious injuries.

Traffic management

When forklifts and other elevated platform machinery are being used in the same space as other equipment and pedestrian traffic, collisions can easily occur. Avoiding these accidents is relatively simple, when the right traffic management systems are in place.

For instance, control plans should always ensure that, whenever possible, pedestrians and trucks are kept separate. This could include creating independent roadways for each form of traffic, or installing elevated walking paths to keep employees off factory floors.

Additionally, employers need to make sure the warehouse is well-lit and has adequate line of sight, to avoid collisions occurring when forklift operators fail to see oncoming traffic.

Training is a crucial part of protecting employee health and safety, which is why traffic control and management courses are recommended for all workers who are required to share space with forklifts and other vehicles.

This undertaking will ensure individuals are aware of their risks in the workplace, as well as giving them the tools and knowledge to control and mitigate these hazards.

Maintenance and storage

In addition to protecting worker health and safety while forklifts are in use, ensuring these essential pieces of machinery are well taken care of is also important.

Correct storage is one area where many people fail to make adequate provisions, as the industrial equipment looks sturdy enough to be left in factory spaces. However, exposure to the elements over an extended time can lead to advanced wear and tear, such as rust, which can cause accidents due to the truck not performing as it should.

Parking a forklift can also pose problems for other individuals as, if not correctly stored, the forklift can create a hazard in the workplace by posing as an unnecessary and unexpected obstacle for other vehicles.  Additionally, leaving the key in or the brakes disengaged could cause accidental collisions if a forklift was to become mobile for any reason.

Furthermore, if you allow a forklift to sit idling for a long period of time in an enclosed area, the resulting fumes could cause employees to become disorientated, light-headed or sick. Carbon monoxide is a serious issue in small work spaces, so it is important to ensure areas are well ventilated and forklifts are shut off when not in use.

Maintenance is also a serious consideration for any workers operating a forklift, as wear and tear can lead to serious accidents. Any person required to operate a forklift or other elevated platform machinery should undertake the adequate training and obtain any relevant information regarding maintenance.

Without the proper inspections and services, forklifts can pose very serious risks to employees and pedestrians. A worn or damaged component could easily lead to loads being tipped or mechanisms failing, putting everyone in close vicinity in danger of falling debris or collision.

Fortunately, it is not difficult to avoid these kinds of incidents. With regular and thorough inspections, drivers and operators can identify and address any issues before they become larger problems. A forklift should be subjected to an inspection before every use.

If you need further guidance on controlling forklift risks in warehouses, take a look at our previous article – Key tips for minimising traffic management risks in warehouses.

For more information on traffic management training or any other work health and safety courses, get in touch with the AlertForce team today.

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