Lift trucks, known in common parlance as forklifts, are used in a greater variety of industrial and commercial settings than nearly any other type of industrial vehicle. Anywhere materials must be moved-in warehouses, industrial shops, construction sites, and beyond-lift trucks are a common sight.
Their utility and familiarity, combined with their relatively small size and non-threatening appearance, can give operators and nearby workers alike a false sense of security. They may incorrectly feel that driving a lift truck is no more complicated than driving the family car.
But each year in the United States, nearly 100 workers are killed and approximately 12,000 are injured in lift truck-related incidents, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2005). The biggest concerns are workers being struck by falling objects, caught between or in parts of the vehicle, falling from elevated platforms, being struck by a lift truck, and lift trucks colliding or overturning. Crushing and amputations are the two most worrisome types of injuries.
Unfortunately, these fatality rates have been borne out in at least one region of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Region 5, which consists of Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. The author was privileged to discuss the current level of lift truck fatalities with an OSHA administrator who shared OSHA's official but unpublished lift-truck-related fatality data for 2005 and 2006 in Region 5 (Table 1). Of these 28 fatalities, as many as 24 involved some element of crushing; the rest involved fall-protection issues. The administrator emphasized two key points: There is no reason to believe that the Region 5 numbers are not representative of the U.S. as a whole. Also, OSHA has made lift truck safety an area of emphasis in enforcement and training.
In the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) publication NIOSH Alert: Preventing Injuries and Deaths of Workers Who Operate or Work Near Forklifts, published in 2001 but the most current available, causes for this problem are made clear: "NIOSH investigations of forklift-related deaths indicate that many workers and employers (1) may not be aware of the risks of operating or working near forklifts and (2) are not following the procedures set forth in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards, consensus standards, or equipment manufacturer's guidelines (NIOSH 2001)."
This statement also hints at another reason why lift truck incidents are so distressingly common: Companies must adhere to a variety of standards, from OSHA's performance-based standard, CFR 29 1910.178, Powered Industrial Trucks, to other mandatory standards from the Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Department of Labor.
One example is the Department of Labor's Fair Labor Standards Act, which is the primary law governing the employment of youth under age 18. It prohibits workers under the age of 18 from using lift trucks and similar equipment in nonagricultural industries, (Hazardous Order No. 7 - Power-Driven Hoisting Apparatus Occupations). In agricultural industries, minors under age 16 are prohibited from using lift trucks.