Forklift Pedestrian Training

Anyone who has delivered or received a forklift knows that trainers emphasize the importance of pedestrian safety, and deservedly so. Pedestrians represent a significant hazard to all vehicle operators, but because of the unique aspects of a forklift’s design and use, they represent a particularly high risk hazard to forklift operators.

Forklift operators regularly deal with restricted vision, load management, braking and steering, and other vehicles and equipment traffic. But when pedestrians are added to the mix, the hazards associated with their behavior causes the risk factor to increase exponentially from an operator’s perspective.

The unpredictable pedestrian

Pedestrians are human beings and capable of unpredictable and, from an operator’s perspective, irrational behavior. As a former forklift operator, I can recall pedestrians holding impromptu meetings directly behind a working forklift; squatting down behind a working forklift to tie a bootlace; making sudden changes of direction; and strolling across a busy loading dock or construction site completely oblivious to their surroundings. I could go on, but the main message is that pedestrians working around forklifts typically do not realize that their presence has a profound effect on a forklift operator’s ability to do his or her job.

Data from sources such as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reveal that on average 30 percent of all powered industrial truck (forklift) incidents involve a pedestrian. This is particularly disturbing when you consider that there are tens of thousands of forklift incidents every year in the United States alone. The degree of human injury is wide ranging, but you can imagine the damaging effect a forklift can have on the human body.

The plain truth is that pedestrians and forklifts must often work in close proximity to one other, each presenting unique and significant hazards and challenges to the other. So what can be done? The trick is not to eliminate the situation but to manage the associated risks. Wherever forklifts and pedestrians must work together, consider the following strategies.

Risk management techniques

Training

While much attention is given by forklift users and OSHA to operator training, very little, if any, training is given to the pedestrians working around forklifts. Pedestrians need to be educated about the basic functionality of a forklift in order to increase their awareness of the dangers. For example, they need to know that the back end of a forklift swings out during a turn; the operator cannot always clearly see the roadway; it’s hard to stop 15,000 pounds on a dime; and passing underneath an elevated load is not an option.

Communication

The ability to communicate is part of what makes humans great. But poor or insufficient communication is often the root cause of many tragedies. Remember, communication takes many forms besides speaking and listening. Studies show that things like eye contact, facial expression, body language, and physical gestures can—and often do—communicate as much if not more information than conventional verbal conversation.

Let’s look at a typical encounter between a forklift operator and a pedestrian at an intersection, a common situation that has produced countless injuries, and how it can be handled safely without any verbal communication. To make this scenario more poignant, let’s imagine that a forklift and a pedestrian are about to cross paths at a blind intersection, meaning neither of them can see the other as they approach.

  • A forklift operator reduces his/her speed upon approach in anticipation of a potential sudden and hard brake application.
  • A pedestrian also reduces speed and increases visual and auditory awareness.
  • The forklift operator sounds the machine’s horn before entering the intersection to warn others of his/her approach—NOT to tell others to clear out of the way.
  • The pedestrian hears the horn (because he/she is listening for it), moves to the side of the roadway, and STOPS.
  • The forklift enters the intersection, the operator spots the pedestrian, and STOPS.
  • The operator and pedestrian make a conscious effort to make eye contact.
  • Once eye contact is made, operator or pedestrian uses physical gestures to communicate their intentions. This may consist of one or both of them pointing in their intended direction of travel for the benefit of the other and must include one yielding the right of way by waving the other through.

Although this last step is a contentious issue, when push comes to shove, equipment (forklift) must yield to people (pedestrian) as life has the right of way over machinery. That being said, pedestrians should be encouraged to yield the right of way to forklifts since the laws of physics will apply in a collision before the laws of the land will—usually posthumously.

Visibility

As discussed earlier, a forklift operator’s view of the travel path is significantly degraded by the mast and lifting mechanism aswell as any load that may be engaged. Additionally, environmental factors such as poor lighting, buildings, materials, or other equipment also affect an operator’s ability to see a pedestrian. High visibility apparel and mirrors are two tools that help operators deal with blind corners and obstacles behind which pedestrians might emerge.

The good old Hi-viz vest that has been with us for decades is still one of the most effective ways for pedestrians to make themselves seen by vehicle operators.

Convex (outwardly curved) mirrors placed at strategic locations can dramatically improve the visual range of operators and pedestrians alike, even around blind corners. Another type of useful mirror is a rear view mirror mounted on the forklift. These mirrors are designed to aid the operator’s rear vision while driving forward. Since the human eye is sensitive to movement, any motion by pedestrians and/or vehicles milling about behind a forklift is reflected by the mirror and (hopefully) detected by the operator even if he/she is facing the opposite direction.

Designated walkways

It’s a fact that where companies provide clearly marked walkways and ensure they are used, there are less pedestrian incidents. Forklift operators expect to see pedestrian within walkways so that’s where they should be. If possible, establish walkways that route pedestrians away from forklift traffic as much as reasonably possible.

Signage

Well placed signs with bold written or graphic characters are another way to remind pedestrians and operators to stay alert. Be careful here though, an area that is plastered with signs may provide more information than can be reasonably absorbed while walking or driving by. Also make sure that signs are hung within the field of vision of whomever you want to see it. A forklift operator or pedestrian is far more likely to actually see and heed the warning of a sign hung 8 feet up the side of a 16-foot doorway than one hung at the middle top of the same doorway. Over the years, we have become conditioned to visually scan horizontally rather than vertically.

Speed management

As I review many incident reports each week I am astounded by how many of them are attributable in whole or in part to speed. A medium-duty forklift with a capacity of 5,000 pounds can weigh 8,000 to 10,000 pounds, unloaded. When that amount of weight gets up and moving it doesn’t take a lot of speed to generate a lot of impact. Operators and pedestrians that are made aware of the basic physics involved in moving weight over distance will likely develop a healthy respect for the process if not the consequences of interfering with it. In addition, as is the case with any vehicle operation, situations are more easily detected and reacted to if speed is minimized. Forklifts must always be operated at a speed that allows for a safe stop in all conditions.

The nature of human beings in a given setting introduces unpredictable elements that are virtually impossible to assess or anticipate. However, by implementing some or all of the guidelines discussed here, the degree of risk associated with the inherent hazards related to forklifts and pedestrians can be significantly reduced.

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About the Author: 

Robert Vetter

Robert Vetter is the director of training for IVES Training Group, a North American-based heavy equipment training provider with U.S. headquarters in Seattle, Wash., and Canadian offices in Vancouver, British Columbia. He can be contacted at rob@ivestraining.com.