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Forklift Safety

Forklift Safety - Keys to Prevention


Forklift safetyWhen it comes to forklift safety, it's all a matter of perspective. Some companies view safety measures purely as a necessary operational expense while others see dollars spent on safety as an investment that yields a measurable ROI. Here, we review the argument that forklift safety equals a smart investment.

 1. Forklift Safety – An Opportunity to Gain a Competitive Edge

With the globalization of our economy the warehousing and storage industry has seen significant growth, a trend that does not appear to be changing anytime soon. As in any industry that attracts a high level of competition, margins tend to be tighter and control of operational costs is paramount.

To gain a competitive edge, the temptation is strong to push the productivity envelope of both men and machines beyond what they can safely sustain and that is particularly true of forklift operations. Companies taking short cuts or turning a blind eye to forklift safety practices may see a short term price advantage over the competition. However, unsafe practices encourage unsafe conditions and unsafe conditions cause preventable accidents. Accidents cost money…sometimes enough money to put a company out of business.

Think about it for a minute; what are the potential costs to a business for each preventable forklift accident?

Consider these:

  • Lost Time. Even the smallest accident with no operator injury takes time to clean up and report. Time that could have been spent productively. If outside medical care is required, the time lost will be multiplied exponentially as the flashing lights of the EMTs distract all the workers in the area.
  • Damaged Materials. Often, accidents will involve the dropping or bumping of customer materials. Depending on contracts the warehouse may be responsible for the replacement cost. A more significant loss could be the damage done to customer relations.
  • Damaged Equipment. If a forklift is damaged in an accident the business is responsible for the repair costs plus the productivity costs associated with having an active piece of equipment out of service.
  • And the Business Buster. A high frequency of forklift accidents that result in operator injury, or accidents that have high medical costs could cause your workman's compensation premiums for a forklift operator to double or triple. At a minimum they will invite the attention of your insurance company who may send an underwriter to observe the rest of your warehouse operations putting other job classifications at risk for a premium increase. Worker’s comp is a controllable expense and one that smart businesses use to lower their overall operating costs.
    • Additionally, OSHA requires that all forklift operators be certified. They are cracking down on construction companies, warehouses and other industries and the fines and down time can run in the tens of thousands of dollars.

2. Turning a Potential Liability into an Advantage

OSHA estimates that there are about 110,000 forklift accidents each year costing businesses $135,000,000. OSHA data reveals that every 3 days somebody dies from a forklift related death.

How much did your company pay out on forklift related accidents last year? How much could you save if you could slash those expenses in half or better? How much more competitive would that make you?

Forklift safety is principally designed to protect the operator and any pedestrians working around them. However it is also a profit multiplier when you consider the value of avoiding an expense that appears to be endemic in businesses that use the vehicles.

Forklift Safety Starts With Recognizing the Risks

The most common forklift accidents really depend on who you talk to. The actual event, like overturning, striking a pedestrian or seriously damaging material/merchandise, are probably caused by combination of factors.

If you want a safer, more productive operation it is important to recognize the environments and conditions that can contribute to forklift accidents in order to know what needs to be done to minimize their influence.

Workplace Design

  • Narrow aisles. This is basically a mismatch of equipment issue. Facilities who practice high density warehousing need the equipment that can safely maneuver in the narrow aisles associated with high density storage.
  • Poor housekeeping. Aisles that are cluttered create a hazard for drivers whose field of vision is often blocked by loads or the forks. Grease, oil and other liquids allowed to remain anywhere in the facility can cause a loss of control by the forklift driver.
  • Ramps with excessive grades can cause the driver to elevate the forks causing an unstable load.
  • Poor dock maintenance and warning signage. Uneven docks, docks without clear markings of edges and docks that are allowed to be used in icy conditions can all contribute to a forklift going off the edge.

Behavioral Factors

  • Inadequately trained operators.
  • Speeding, an element in 65% of all forklift accidents.
  • Providing rides for fellow workers on the forks or atop the load.
  • Riding with the load elevated.
  • Improper backing up technique.
  • Improper picking or dropping technique
  • Failure to use available safety equipment.

Equipment and Load Factors

  • Any mechanical malfunction. Unlike an automobile, there simply isn't a piece of equipment or system on a forklift that isn't vital to its safe operation.
  • Mismatched equipment. Using forklifts that don't "fit" the task either in load capability, reach or maneuverability.
  • Pallets in disrepair.
  • Poor design. Non-intuitive controls, poor fields of vision and poor ergonomic design are all contributors to accidents and workman's compensation claims.

Creating a Safe and Profitable Operation

Forklift safety, and safety in general begins with an informed policy that is backed and promoted by management and first line supervision. It won't take long for everybody to figure out that a safe environment is a more productive and enjoyable environment to work in.

If you're not an expert or if you are unsure of what a best practice should be, you have a resource in your insurance companies. Ironically, the people who could put you out of business will do everything they can to ensure you operate safely (and have minimal claims). Typically they have expert underwriters that they can send to survey your operation and offer suggestions.

Each facility or operation will be different but in general you can establish and enforce rules including:

  • Equip your forklift with the available safety features like lights for visibility, warning lights, horns, operator overhead cover and seat belts.
  • Inspect each forklift before starting the shift.
  • Separate forklifts and pedestrians by creating lanes or "forklift only" areas. Tape is the easiest way to create these spaces and the easiest to repair when it is damaged.
  • Where pedestrians (helpers) have to work near a forklift have them wear bright safety vests and refrain from balancing or moving the load on the forks.
  • Strictly enforce a 5 mph speed limit.
  • Correct any excessively steep ramps.
  • Work comp claims can be reduced by using ergonomically designed operator spaces that reduce vibration and back strain.

3. Training – Taming the Behavioral Factor

Training in forklift safety should not be restricted to forklift operators. Management has to be taught the economic importance of a safe forklift operation. Front line supervisors have to understand the role they play in enforcing policy and providing feedback on how to improve safety. Non-operators need to understand the dangers of working near or around forklifts and what their responsibilities are to keep themselves safe.

If management is uncertain how to go about managing this task they can turn to their insurance carrier for either direct support from underwriting or referral to industry experts.

And then there are the operators. OSHA requires that ALL persons operating a forklift complete a course of instruction that meets OSHA's standards. This certification can be accomplished off site at a certified training school, onsite by certified trainers, or even in-house providing the course meets the standards and the in-house instructor is competent.

The National Safety Council is an excellent resource for obtaining resources, as well as finding nearby classes and programs to provide your employees with.

There are pros and cons to each of these approaches. Off site or onsite there is going to be a loss of time. Costs will also vary with the type of training running from as little as $300 to several thousand. Keep in mind that the operator has to be certified on each type of forklift he or she operates.

The bottom line however, is that training is not an expense; it is an investment. The California insurance industry states that for every dollar invested in safety training there is a savings of $3 or more.

If you would like to learn more about operator certification, a key element in forklift safety, please visit our page on forklift training.

4. Why Forklift Safety is Essential for Successful Businesses

It really is a no-brainer. Accidents cost money and a reduction in efficiency which of course costs more money. Therefore it follows that avoiding accidents saves money.

According to OSHA "Workplaces that establish safety and health management systems can reduce their injury and illness costs by 20 to 40 percent."

If that's not enough to convince you of implementing a safety program, check out these additional benefits outlined by the NY State Labor Department:

  • On average, sales rose 7.5%
  • Manufacturing defects and waste dropped from $2.7 million in 2001 to $435,000 in 2005
  • Improved decision-making
  • Experience Modification Rate (used by insurance companies to forecast the risk of a business's future accidents) dropped by 45%.

Clearly, safety does pay.