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For many businesses, forklifts are an essential tool that help facilitate the efficient transport of products, parts, supplies, and other materials.
But by their very nature, forklifts are potentially dangerous. According to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration, more than 96,000 people per year are injured in forklift-related accidents. Considering that there about 855,900 forklifts in the US, that means roughly 1 in 10 vehicles will be involved in some sort of injury accident each year.
So what makes forklifts one of the most potentially dangerous pieces of equipment in the workplace? There are a number of different factors at work here.
Most forklifts can lift thousands of pounds with their mast and fork assemblies. They have high lifting capacity because of the counterweight usually located behind the driver’s seat, which creates a cantilevered system.
The combination of the counterweight and the forklift’s other equipment means that they are very heavy, often weighing 9,000 lbs or more, or about three times the weight of the typical passenger car.
The rest is simple physics. When a vehicle that heavy collides with something much lighter, such as a human body, even the slightest collision can result in serious injuries.
Another consideration is forklift speed. Many forklifts can travel relatively fast for such a heavy vehicle, often topping out at around 18 mph. While that’s a lot slower than a car or truck can travel, when you consider the combined weight of the forklift and its payload and the fact that the driver can’t always see directly in front or behind the vehicle, in this instance speed really can kill.
Plus, rather than traveling on open roads like cars where the driver can see miles ahead of their vehicle, forklifts generally operate in cramped warehouses or docks, where there are plenty of blind corners, tall rows of shelving, and other obstacles to a clear path of vision.
By design, many forklifts have only front brakes. While this makes them safer for parking on ramps and other uneven surfaces, these brakes can also make it difficult for drivers to stop on a dime.
Forklifts also are engineered to be rear balanced. Thanks to their heavy counterweight, they carry a lot of momentum when moving forward or backward, further inhibiting their stopping ability.
Finally, many forklifts use their rear wheels (or single wheel, depending on the model) to turn. This lets them make tight turns, but also can cause the vehicles back end to swing out, increasing the chances of a collision, especially with an inexperienced operator.
While forklifts have the potential to be dangerous, when operators are properly trained and work rules are clearly explained and universally enforced, they offer a safe, reliable way to move things around.