Since their introduction in the early decades of the 20th Century, lift trucks have increasingly played a powerful role in the recycling industry as well as more generally in materials handling. This article provides an overview of lift trucks, including their evolution, various types, and considerations for safe operation.
History of Lift Trucks
Powered industrial trucks, commonly called forklifts or lift trucks, first emerged in the late 19th Century. These were low lift trucks that raised platforms just a few inches high. Typically these were used for moving material within a shop, such as work-in-progress. High lift trucks first emerged in the late 1910s, and truck design improvements continued to take root. In the 1930s, tier trucks allowed the stacking of loads, allowing for greater storage efficiency.
Because of the tough economic times of the 1930s, however, labor was freely available while capital for investment was much harder to come by. This slowed the growth of forklift usage. Then in World War 2, the use of forklift trucks became a strategic part of the war effort. With manpower shortages resulting from wartime enlistment, the forklift and an operator (and increasingly female operators as the War progressed) could do the work of many men, dramatically increasing productivity. After the end of World War ll, lift trucks emerged as a mainstay of material handling equipment, particularly in the Pacific theatre of war. Leftover forklifts and pallets left behind by the U.S. military in Australia became the basis for the Commonwealth Handling Equipment Pool (CHEP), today known as the world’s largest pallet pooling company.
There is a broad selection of lift trucks, designed to best meet the needs of various material handling applications. The seven major lift truck classifications in the U.S. include:
- Class I: Electric Motor Rider Trucks
- Class II: Electric Motor Narrow Aisle Trucks
- Class III: Electric Motor Hand Trucks or Hand/Rider Trucks
- Class IV: Internal Combustion Engine Trucks (Solid/Cushion Tires)
- Class V: Internal Combustion Engine Trucks (Pneumatic Tires)
- Class VI: Electric and Internal Combustion Engine Tractors
- Class VII: Rough Terrain Forklift Trucks
The Importance of Training and Safe Operation
Operator training is a requirement in much of the world, and with good reason. It seems that almost daily there are reports of injuries or fatalities involving operators of lift trucks or pedestrians in their proximity. Data from the Bureau of Labor Standards (which always lags) indicated 54 forklift related fatalities in 2010 where the forklift was the primary injury source, and another 56 where the forklift was the secondary source.
OSHA requires employers to "develop and implement a training program based on the general principles of safe truck operation, the types of vehicle(s) being used in the workplace, the hazards of the workplace created by the use of the vehicle(s), and the general safety requirements of the OSHA standard." By the end of training, operators must demonstrate the ability to perform their job safely in their workplace evaluation. Training involves formal and practical components. OSHA requires refresher training every three years, as well as at any time that an operator demonstrates a deficiency in safe lift truck operation. More OSHA training assistance is available at its website.
Safe Lift Truck Operation
Safe lift truck operation involves several steps, including:
- Pre-Operation (pre-operation inspection and operational inspection, removal from service and maintenance requirements)
- Traveling & Maneuvering (safe travel practices and seatbelt use, tipover, mount/dismount, stop/start, speed, turning, navigating inclines, parking, and visibility.)
- Workplace Considerations (Physical conditions, ramps and grades, uneven terrain, loading docks, pedestrians, narrow aisles, elevators, and enclosed or hazardous areas.)
Maintaining Operator Safety After Training
The reality is that operators who are injured or killed on the job are usually trained. This is why effective supervision is an important component of safety programs, and that operator engagement be maintained through the development of an effective workplace safety culture, possibly including elements to build a sense of professionalism, such as through participating in a forklift rally.