Driving a forklift is a job that is in demand, both for full time workers and for people wanting a summer holiday job or a side gig. However, forklifts are inherently dangerous – they’re a heavy machine carrying heavy loads and it’s important that forklift drivers understand what the risks are.
The main risks when driving a forklift are:
- Blind spots – the mast creates areas that are difficult to see
- Stability – lifting heavy loads up high creates a massive amount of leverage on the forklift, and can lead to it toppling over
- Braking – forklifts can’t brake quickly due to their weight and the fact they any load would fly off forwards
- Steering – forklifts steer from the rear, unlike a car. This requires some getting used to, and forklifts have no suspension and are easy to tip even when unloaded
- Physiological effects – warehouses can be noisy, a forklift operator is sitting all day but also looking up to place loads on a stack which can cause aches and pains in the back and neck
- Dangerous goods – if working in a warehouse with dangerous goods, additional qualifications might be needed
Forklift operators can learn the requirements by doing a forklift course. These can be done in a classroom or online. The advantage of an online course is that it can be paced at your level of learning, you can watch the materials as many times as you need to, it’s often in multiple languages and could have subtitles to help you understand. Online courses can contain 3D animation to help explain difficult concepts, plus as it’s only you doing the course, you won’t be distracted by other people in the room, held back at their pace, or forced to go faster than you are comfortable with. Online courses are usually cheaper, too.
A new driver will need a forklift to practice on in order to pass the practical assessment. The practical assessment usually consists of a pre-start check, doing a low, medium and high lift, driving while loaded, and shutting down the machine safely.
When learning to drive a forklift, there are many variations. It’s likely that a driver will learn on one type, but then have to drive another type. Variations include:
- Fuel type – battery, LPG, diesel, petrol or hydrogen all require different fueling methods and determine where the forklift can be used (for example, you can’t use forklifts that create noxious fumes in enclosed spaces)
- Lifting capacity – the load chart outlines the lifting capacity, but there are multiple different layouts and presentations, and understanding them is not always easy
- Method of control – this relates both to the pedal configuration and the method of controlling the mast and forks.
A lot of forklift work is shift work so drivers need to be aware of their body clock. Driving tired is like driving drunk: reactions are slower and judgements are worse.
When driving a forklift in a warehouse, there is not usually a requirement to have a driver’s licence, but if driving it on a road or what your local authority considers is a road (e.g. a car park open to the public), then you might need a driver’s licence or a special endorsement on your licence. If you lose your driver’s licence, you will still be able to drive a forklift on private property, as long as the owner agrees.
The most important thing to remember when driving a forklift is safety. Thousands of people are injured every year driving forklifts; some are killed. Observing safe driving practices reduces this risk.