At packing shed and distribution center, the ubiquitous forklift is essential to palletized handling in the perishable supply chain. It also quietly shoulders the load at the retail dock in the form of the nondescript Class III low-lift electric hand truck, a type of forklift commonly called a "Walkie." And while the emergence of self-driving vehicles and other automation technologies may or may not be around the corner, forklift operators and pedestrians still need to work together alertly to safely deliver the goods.
The consequences of unsafe interaction can be catastrophic. There are as many as 100,000 workplace accidents involving forklifts annually in the United States, with about 20% of those involving pedestrians. Those accidents result in upwards of 100 fatalities, with pedestrians accounting for 36% of the victims. And while forklift drivers are required by OSHA to be trained and certified in safe operation, the importance of training pedestrians in basic safety precautions can be easily overlooked. In the absence of specific requirements, however, the safeguarding of worker safety is mandated under OSHA’s General Duty Clause, which requires employers to maintain a place of employment "free from recognized hazards."
When it comes to forklift awareness training, also consider that some pedestrians may not be at top of mind. Such infrequent visitors to the production area or warehouse can include office staff, sales representatives or others.
The major types of pedestrian injuries caused by forklifts include being struck by one, hit by a falling load, or crushed between a lift truck and an object. At retail, foot injuries are most common, resulting from walkies rolling over feet.
Steps toward safety
In addition to the required training and certification of operators, here are some ideas that can help:
Establish and enforce pedestrian-only routes; make use of physical barriers. Where possible, create pedestrian-only routes through the facility. These typically involve a painted pathway and signage. Physical barriers such as guard rails can also be useful in keeping lift trucks from encroaching upon the pedestrian-only route or conversely, to prevent pedestrians from entering a busy loading dock area.
Utilize safety equipment. Many facilities can be a cacophony of sound and motion, including the whine of passing mobile equipment, honking horns, and the other sounds that encompass a material handling operation in action. Consistently staying alerted to forklift hazards and pedestrians can be a challenge. Consider personal protective equipment such as high visibility vests and approved safety footwear. Forklift features such as flashing lights, back up warning indicators and proximity alert sensors are also important aids in raising awareness.
Train pedestrians. While the keys to staying safe around forklifts are not exhaustive, it is important that facility personnel are provided such instruction, and additionally, that a site orientation for visitors also cover such risks. Aside from the obvious reminders of not being raised on forks or riding as a passenger, here are some of the key points:
- Keep a safe distance from forklifts. As a rule of thumb, the combination of a forklift, the battery, and its load weighs three times as much as a car. Stopping takes time, and impact can be devastating. Also, remember, that unlike a car, the steering tires are at the rear, so back end can swing surprisingly quickly.
- Never walk near or under raised forks.
- Exercise extreme caution at blind corners, doorways or other trouble spots. Make use of convex mirrors to check for traffic. Remember that electric forklifts can be difficult to hear.
- Make eye contact with operators. Never assume that they see you. The position of the forklift mast or the load being carried may impede the driver's vision.
- If a forklift driver is performing a lift nearby, wait for it to be completed before passing.
- Even if you have the right of way on a pedestrian path, be prepared to yield. Do not assume that an encroaching forklift operator can see you, or that the machine will be able to stop in time.
- Never step over the lowered forks of a parked lift truck. Walk around them.
Effectively supervise. Prompt feedback from supervisors plays a major role in making sure that training is consistently put into action by operators and pedestrians. Typical trouble spots to monitor include safely compliance at intersections and blind spots, as well as ensuring that pedestrian paths remain clear. When storage space runs out, it is all too easy for an operator to block the path with pallets of product, forcing pedestrians into a mobile equipment traffic area. Pedestrian paths are never a storage option.
Unlike oil and vinegar, pedestrians and forklifts can mix effectively with the right combination of site design, safety equipment, training, and supervision. Just never leave the safety of pedestrians for granted.