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Forklifts are a practical way to move and stack goods and materials, but they cause many workplace deaths and injuries every year. It’s important to understand how to operate forklifts safely to prevent incidents.

What is a forklift?

A forklift is a small industrial vehicle with a power-operated, forked platform attached at the front. This platform can be raised and lowered and inserted under a load to lift or move it.

They can be powered by electric motors or by internal-combustion engines running on petrol, diesel or LPG fuels. They’re either controlled by a licensed onboard operator or they’re pedestrian-operated forklifts (POFs) with no onboard operator.

What are the risks when using forklifts?

Even at low speeds, forklifts can cause serious injuries and fatalities. Pedestrians are at risk as well as the person using the forklift.

Forklifts are designed to be compact and easy to move and steer, but they can become unstable when carrying loads. A standard two-tonne forklift can weigh approximately five tonnes when fully loaded. With lower stability and greater manoeuvrability, forklifts are involved in many incidents, especially in uncontrolled traffic areas.

Examples of risks when using forklifts are:

  • instability—tipping over is the biggest danger. It can happen quite easily—for example, when carrying an uneven load, or braking or accelerating down a slope
  • speed and stopping distances—applying a forklift’s brakes inappropriately can cause the forklift to tip forward or lose its load
  • sprains and strains—operating a forklift can cause sprains, strains and other soft tissue injuries to the neck, back and arms. This can lead to long-term health problems.

How do I manage the risks?

It’s important to operate a forklift safely and create a safe work environment to minimise the risk of incidents. Simple measures that can make a big difference, are:

  • observing speed limits and stop signs
  • wearing correctly fitted seat belts
  • slowing down and sounding the horn at intersections.

The risk of forklift-related injuries can also be reduced by making sure employees are well trained, machinery is well maintained, and a traffic management plan is in place.

Be well prepared and properly trained

  • Only operate a forklift if you hold a high-risk work licence or are an authorised trainee.
  • Don’t operate a forklift when you’re tired.
  • Do what is reasonably practicable to be safe, such as wearing a seatbelt if one is provided. The only exception is if a risk assessment advises otherwise.
  • Use the forklift only for the purpose for which it was designed.
  • Read and follow the manufacturer’s specifications for the forklift you’re using.
  • Before driving a forklift onto a truck, trailer or rail wagon, check the brakes of the receiving vehicle are set, and the wheels are chocked.
  • Take care when loading a forklift

  • Make sure loads are within the rated load capacity of the forklift.
  • Carry loads as close to the ground as possible.
  • Place loads fully against the truck carriage or back rest. The mast should be tilted sufficiently backward to safeguard the load.
  • Drive safely

  • Don’t use a forklift to raise a person unless there’s an approved work platform attached.
  • Keep a clear view ahead and behind, using a correctly adjusted rear-view mirror.
  • Clearly indicate your intentions.
  • Keep a safe distance from other vehicles.
  • Observe speed limits and make sure you can stop safely at any time.
  • Don’t speed up or slow down quickly.
  • Slow down when turning.
  • Drive in reverse if you can’t see past a bulky load.
  • If you’re driving up an incline with a load:
    • make sure the load faces forward
    • tilt the mast back sufficiently to safeguard the load
    • raise the forks so they clear the ground.
  • If you’re driving up an incline with no load, place the forks on the downhill side of the forklift.
  • Remove the starter-switch key when you leave the forklift. Make sure the:
    • controls are in neutral
    • power is shut off
    • park brakes are applied
    • forks are fully lowered.
  • Be aware of your work environment

  • Drive carefully on wet or slippery surfaces or when pedestrians are nearby.
  • Take care that the tip of the fork, or load, or the rear side of the forklift, doesn’t touch a person or object.
  • Never park or leave the forklift in any doorway, entrance, or emergency exit, or in front of fire-extinguishing equipment.
  • Check for overhead obstructions, such as powerlines, loading docks and other mobile plant.

For more information, see the forklift safety guide.

Forklifts should be regularly inspected and maintained according to the manufacturer's instructions. If a forklift is flameproofed, maintenance should include the flameproofing features by a competent person in line with Australian standards.

Use qualified inspectors and repairers

  • Use only a trained, qualified person to inspect, maintain or repair forklifts. Use only licensed gas fitters to repair and/or replace parts on LP gas-powered forklift.
  • Use only qualified tyre fitters to remove and fit tyres.
  • Use only a qualified person to inspect and assess damage, and do not use an unsafe or damaged forklift until the qualified person has rendered it safe and removed the tags.
  • Develop maintenance procedures and keep records

Keep forklifts clean

  • Keep the forklift clean, so it’s easier to detect worn or defective parts.
  • Clean with water, not flammable liquids.
  • Keep detailed records of every inspection, service, maintenance, repair and modification carried out on a forklift. Record dates, names of authorised people involved, and meter readings.
  • Establish a procedure for dealing with unsafe or damaged forklifts. The procedure should include isolating and tagging the vehicle and reporting the problem to the appropriate person.
  • Document full details of damage—for example, the cause and type of damage, repairs required and assessment of the vehicle's safety. Include a copy of this should in the inspection and maintenance records.
  • Establish and maintain procedures to make sure the spark arrestor tank on the exhaust line of a diesel forklift is maintained according to recommendations of the flameproofing company.
  • For more information, see the forklift maintenance factsheet (PDF, 0.35 MB) and forklift safety guide (PDF, 0.27 MB).

POFs differ from forklift trucks because they’re not controlled by an operator riding on the vehicle and don’t require a licence/certificate to operate. While similar safe operating and maintenance procedures apply to all types of forklifts, the following control measures relate specifically to POFs.

Be well-prepared and properly trained

  • Only trained operators should operate a POF.
  • Do safety checks before and after operating the POF.
  • Ensure the POF is suitable for the grades you intend to travel on
  • Wear appropriate personal protective equipment, such as a high-visibility vest and steel-capped footwear.
  • Don’t operate a POF if your hands or footwear are greasy.
  • Check the work area for damaged flooring, overhead obstructions, ramps and docks. Don’t work too close to the edges of ramps or docks.

Drive the POF safely

  • If you’re travelling in reverse, take care not to bump into objects, run over loose objects, or trip over objects. Don’t use a POF in an unauthorised area or in explosive atmospheres.
  • Keep arms, hands, legs and feet away from the lifting mechanism and wheels.
  • Sound the horn when you approach intersecting aisles or blind corners.
  • When operating a POF on a ramp or incline, face the load uphill and don’t turn on the incline. If you need to park the POF on an incline, make sure the wheels are securely chocked.
  • Don’t ride on the POF or let anyone else ride on it.
  • When parking:
    • lower forks to the ground
    • tilt forward if possible
    • don’t leave the key in the ignition if unattended
    • don’t leave the POF in a thoroughfare, doorway, or emergency exit.

Load the POF safely

  • Don’t go over the safe lift limit of the POF when handling a load. These limits are specified on the data plate.
  • The forklift arm blades (tynes) should be long enough to support at least 75 per cent of the load (see figure below).
  • The load should be stable and evenly distributed on both fork arms before lifting and while travelling. Fork arms should far enough apart to ensure the load is stable.
  • Tilt the POF forward only when it is over a stack, rack or vehicle. Tilt the POF backwards only enough to stabilise the load.
  • Secure attachments according to the manufacturer's instructions and remember that attachments may affect the load centre of gravity.

For businesses

If you’re a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU), you have a legal obligation under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 to provide:

  • a safe work environment
  • safe systems of work
  • safe and well-maintained machinery
  • proper information, training and supervision.

Following a four-step risk-management process will help you meet these obligations.

The first step is to identify risks and hazards by taking a close look at the way forklifts are used in your workplace. Consider:

  • forklift drivers—for example, are they adequately trained?
  • forklifts—for example, are they properly maintained?
  • the environment—for example, are there physical barriers to keep people away from forklifts?

Talk to your forklift operators to help identify hazards and develop measures to keep everyone safe. They have firsthand knowledge of the equipment and the environment they work in. Read the forklift safety guide (PDF, 0.27 MB) for more information.

When you’ve identified risks, you need to assess how likely it is these will cause harm, what you should do if an incident occurs, and how quickly you need to act.

Once you’ve identified the risks, it’s your responsibility to put measures in place to control them and to protect your workers. You should make sure:

  • forklift operators are properly trained and qualified for the particular forklift and attachments they use
  • the forklifts you provide are comfortable and safe to use, to prevent unnecessary strains and injuries
  • you have procedures in place to maintain forklifts and to report and addressing any issues operators identify
  • you have a traffic management plan with rules for safe and efficient movement of traffic in the workplace.

Find more information on how to control the risks associated with forklifts in:

Risk management is an ongoing process. Circumstances can change and you need to regularly review the work environment to identify any new risks. You must review your risk control measures when:

  • you become aware a control measure is not working
  • there’s been a change that might give rise to a new risk
  • you identify a new hazard or risk
  • workers indicate a review is needed
  • a supervisor or health and safety representative requests a review
  • the dynamic and complexity of your business changes.

Codes of practice

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