Used to move heavy loads in various industries, forklifts are key pieces of equipment that require training and skill to operate safely. Forklift operators must be over the age of 18 and have certification as required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) under standard OSHA 29 CFR 1910.
In this article, we explain the essentials of how to drive a forklift and give you some tips for safe operation.
Table of contents
- How to Operate a Forklift (Video Tutorial)
- 4 Key Tips for Safe Forklift Driving
- Getting Forklift Certified
- Drive a Well-Maintained Forklift
How to Operate a Forklift (Video Tutorial)
Knowing how to operate a forklift is a useful skill in many industries and on all kinds of jobsites. The following step-by-step guide gives you the basics of forklift operation, from identifying common components and conducting safety inspections to maneuvering the machine and avoiding accidents.
1. Familiarize Yourself with the Forklift
Because there are many different types of forklifts, you should always study the operator’s manual of the model you’re operating to fully understand each component. The following image illustrates the common parts of a forklift.
While the exact components may vary by model, the following are the major parts of the common type of forklift.
- Mast: The mast is the vertical structure that enables forklifts to raise and lower via hydraulic pistons as well as tilt loads.
- Carriage: The metal-plate structure on the front of a forklift is the carriage, which moves along the mast and provides a support platform to connect the mast and forks.
- Lift cylinder: The hydraulic lift cylinder provides the power to raise and lower the load on the carriage.
- Forks: Also called tines or blades, the forks consist of L-shaped arms that carry the load.
- Backrest: The backrest supports the the load, preventing it from falling toward the operator.
- Overheard guard: Overhead guards are safety structures designed to protect the forklift operator from falling objects and other obstructions.
- Controls: Control levers and pedals allow the operator to move and stop the forklift, lift and lower loads, and tilt the forks.
- Tires: Common forklift tires include pneumatic, solid, and polyurethane. The ideal type depends on how the forklift is used.
- Nameplate: Mounted on the forklift, a nameplate provides important information like weight, mast height, and lift capacity.
- Seat: If operating a sit-down forklift rather than a stand-up forklift, the operator cab will have a seat.
Now that you’re familiar with the main components of a forklift, you can learn more about forklift operation.
2. Conduct Safety Checks
A key part of operating a forklift is learning to perform safety checks before operation. This ensures the forklift is safe to use and protects drivers from accidents and injuries. A daily, pre-shift inspection of all forklifts is required by OSHA standard number 29 CFR 1910.178(q)(7).
You need to perform two main checks:
- A visual pre-operational inspection with the engine off
- An operational inspection with the engine on
Forklift inspection includes examining the machine (such as the parts discussed above) for damage or visible defects and ensuring all fluid levels are satisfactory. You can use a forklift daily inspection checklist to help you complete your safety checks.
3. Check the Forklift Controls
Some aspects of driving a forklift are similar to driving a car. While forklifts are slower, harder to steer, and less stable than automobiles, some of the controls should look familiar to you.
Prior to driving the machine, you’ll want to get to know the following forklift controls:
- Forward/reverse directional controls: You use this to move the forklift forward and backward. The control may be mounted on the column or operated by foot.
- Hydraulic lift controls: Most types of forklift have three levers for the lift controls. Use these to raise and lower loads:
- Raise and lower — moves the forks up and down
- Tilt — moves the mast forward and backward
- Auxiliary — controls an attachment, usually a side shifter that moves the load side to side
- Pedals: Like in other vehicles, forklifts have an accelerator pedal and a brake pedal. Some forklifts also have a clutch or inching pedal that gives the driver more control in tight spaces.
- Parking brake: Forklifts come equipped with a parking brake to use when starting or exiting the vehicle.
- Steering wheel: Steering wheels allow you to control the direction of the forklift.
4. Maneuver the Lift
- Safely enter the forklift using the grip handle. Don’t hold the steering wheel as you could lose balance if it moves. Fasten the seatbelt.
- Make sure the parking brake is on and the directional control is in neutral, and then turn the key to start.
- Use the lift controls to raise the forks at least 2 to 4 inches from the ground and then tilt the mast backward to stabilize the load.
- Check the surrounding area for safety, and then with your foot on the brake, put the direction lever into forward.
- Release the parking brake and take your foot off the brake pedal, and then press the gas pedal to move forward.
- Proceed forward and use the steering wheel to turn. Remember that the rear wheels are the ones that turn (allowing you to make 90-degree turns), so keep the front of the forklift close to the inside of the turn and be aware of the back swinging out.
- To stop the forklift, lower the forks to the ground, put the control in neutral, and turn off the engine. Remember to apply the parking brake before leaving and exit using the grip handle rather than the steering wheel.
5. Raise and Lower Loads
- To raise a load, approach it and stop at an even angle 8 to 12 inches in front of the load. Put on the parking brake and put the directional control into neutral before operating the forks.
- Use the lift controls to put the mast in a horizontal position and lift the forks to the height of the pallet opening.
- Check your surroundings and overhead clearance and then move forward to carefully insert the forks into the pallet. Make sure the forks don’t go too far through to the next pallet. Adjust the forks to distribute the weight evenly.
- Apply the parking brake and shift to neutral, and then use the lift controls to raise the load about 4 inches and tilt the mast fully backward. Drive the forklift to where you will unload.
- To unload, put the mast in the vertical position. Lift the pallet 6 inches above the surface then lower it into position.
- Once the pallet is positioned, reverse so that the front of the forks are 8 to 12 inches from the pallet.
- Repeat previous steps (tilting mast backward etc).
- Remember to always press the brake pedal and put the forklift in neutral when stationary and using the mast. Indicate with gestures and vocalization when loading/unloading.
6. Understand the Forklift Instruments
Forklift dashboards include an instrument panel with gauges and warning lights. They help you keep track of what is going on in your machine and be alerted of any problems. Common forklift instruments include the following:
- Fuel gauge: The fuel gauge indicates how much fuel you have left. Make sure to check the level during your inspection and avoid operating the forklift when very low on fuel.
- Oil pressure gauge: This gauge shows the oil pressure within the forklift engine. If the light comes on or the gauge indicates problems with oil pressure.
- Temperature gauge/light: The transmission temperature gauge or warning light shows you when the temperature is too high. Do not operate the forklift if the temperature instruments indicate an overheated transmission.
- Hour meter: This meter records the number of hours the forklift has been in use. Because forklift maintenance is often scheduled by hours, it’s important to note this number in your daily inspection log.
- Battery discharge indicator: Electric forklifts include battery indicators on the instrument panel. If you see a warning light indicator, a gauge needle in the warning zone, or a percentage indicator that shows a low battery, you may need to return to the battery charging area.
Remember that the exact instruments you see will depend on the forklift type and brand, so check the user manual to be sure.
4 Key Tips for Safe Forklift Driving
Following good forklift safety practices can help you avoid potentially costly and dangerous accidents. While OSHA requires drivers to undergo forklift operator training and certification, the following safety tips can help you steer clear of common mishaps.
1. Ensure the Forklift Is Stable
Overturned vehicles are the leading cause of forklift fatalities. Forklifts drive in a similar way to a car, but are less stable. To avoid tip-overs, always make sure the forklift is stable and loads are secure and properly balanced. Never exceed the load capacity of the forklift.
2. Maintain Visibility
When the forks are raised, they affect visibility for the forklift driver. Keeping the forks low to the ground (2 to 4 inches) when you move will help you see. Always look in the direction of travel and use your mirrors to avoid obstacles. Make sure you have enough clearance when raising and loading pallets.
3. Keep a Safe Distance
A key strategy for avoiding forklift accidents is always staying a safe distance away from platform and ramp edges. As mentioned earlier, when you lift a load, reverse and make sure you’re 8 to 12 inches from the pallet before lowering and continuing operation.
4. Watch Out for Other People
Always look out for other people in the workplace and pedestrians when in public. Use the horn at crossings and obstructed areas to alert others of your presence. Observe the designated speed limit. Don’t lift people with the forks or give rides on the forklift.
Getting Forklift Certified
Safety training is essential as forklifts are dangerous to operate. OSHA requires forklift certification under the regulations covering powered industrial trucks. Training and requirements may differ by state. Some employers provide forklift training for workers or you can take an OSHA-approved training course yourself either online or in person.
To earn your forklift certification, follow the steps below:
- Find out what type of forklift you need to be certified to use.
- Undergo formal instruction (online or in person).
- Pass a written examination about the forklift parts, using the controls, and safety procedures.
- Practice using a forklift with a certified instructor.
- Get a final evaluation and potentially receive your forklift license.
A training program can usually be completed in one to two days and typically costs $50 to $200. You may find free or discounted certification at your local community college.
Drive a Well-Maintained Forklift
For more information about forklift operation or to rent a forklift for your next project, check out BigRentz. Renting allows you to use a well-maintained forklift, which contributes to smooth and safe operation.