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Protect Against Forklift Accidents

By: Brian Colburn, Contributor

Think back to the last long trip you took or even your drive to work today: How much of it do you really remember?  One study found 72% of drivers had recently experienced this same type of attention deficit during their last drive.

Over decades in the material handling industry, I have seen many near misses, accidents and injuries.  A universal thread I see in most of them is distracted driving and a lack of focus.  During normal times, forklift operators have plenty on their mind, and these are not normal times.  Coronavirus fears; scary economic/employment conditions; and companies in chaos are added to the normal, everyday distractions.

Since I have never seen a study of this type specific to forklift operators and industrial environments, many of the statistics you will see came from studies of automobile operators. However, there is no reason to believe much of what happens in a car would not apply directly to forklift operations.


You might think that the number one cause of auto accidents is drunk driving or speeding, but you would be wrong. Driver distraction is the leading cause of auto accidents and injuries; it is also the cause roughly 25% of auto accident fatalities.  Therefore, what are some common distractions?

  • General distraction, also known as “lost in thought or mind wandering.”
  • Outside people, objects or events. This involves looking at someone or something outside of the operator’s compartment or watching what a nearby pedestrian is doing. It can also mean looking at another vehicle or production process.
  • Electronics: this includes cell phones, earbuds, scanners, inventory management systems, etc.
  • Reaching for something; eating and drinking; adjustment of seatbelt; mirrors or other controls.

During forklift accident investigations, you should be asking the following questions:

  1. Was the forklift operator alert, and was their attention focused on their driving?
  2. Was the forklift operator alert, but their attention was distracted from their driving because they were doing other things or were lost in thought?
  3. Did the forklift operator look, but did not see, the danger?
  4. Was the forklift operator sleepy or did they fall asleep? How long had they been awake and how long had they been on the shift?


One study of 69 actual crashes and 761 near-crashes used cameras and other monitoring devices. It showed that, in 78% of the crashes and 65% of the near-crashes, the driver did not look in the direction of the arising conflict. We see this all the time in forklift-related forklift accidents: a simple failure of the operator to look in the direction the forklift is moving or lifting. This can result in costly damage, severe injury or death.

The study showed:

  • 24% of the time, the driver was occupied with things unrelated to the driving task.
  • 19% of the time, the driver was occupied with things related to the driving task, but these things took their focus from the arising conflict.
  • 9% of the time, the driver was tired.
  • 7% of the time, focus was not a factor.
  • In 20% of the cases, two or more of the above were combined to cause the situation.


What should be done?  Below are some suggestions that may help you create a safer environment:

  • Create a personal electronics policy for forklift operators. We would highly suggest cell phones not even be allowed to be carried by forklift operators. I am not saying you need to implement strip searches or metal detectors. However, simply clarify that cell phone and other electronic devices, such as iPods or earbuds, are to be kept in their car or locker and only used at lunch or breaks. You are paying operators to work; allowing electronics to be carried on a forklift means they have the potential to be used and/or abused.
  • Ensure your forklift operator training covers what can happen when operators lose focus—even for a second. Seconds cost lives in the material handling industry. Operators know that is the case on the road with a car, but you need to be sure they understand there is a direct carryover to the warehouse, manufacturing plant or construction site.
  • Look closely at the accessories on your forklifts. If you have inventory scanners, monitoring devices or other things of that nature which could distract operators while in motion, set a policy the forklift must be fully stopped when they are in use. I am not a huge fan of forklift mirrors, because I think operators get into a bad habit of not turning to look in the direction of their travel, as required by OSHA. If you decide to use mirrors, use a mirror design with one large center mirror vs. two small side mirrors, which can create blind spots.
  • Control pedestrian traffic. Limit their exposure to high forklift traffic areas, even if this creates some extra hassle for the pedestrians to reroute. The fewer pedestrians a forklift operator comes into close contact with, the better. The use of designated walkways, safety signage, crosswalks, etc., is all good.
  • Be mindful of the hours your forklift operators are working. As a company, we have seen our share of forklift accidents tied to fatigued operators. Afternoon and midnight shift operators suffer the most from fatigue. We have also seen a good number of accidents that have occurred during hot, humid days or in cooler/freezer conditions, where the operators have worked more than 10 hours. When operators are fatigued, they make mistakes—such as last-second, hard braking—which would not normally occur if the driver is properly rested.

About the Author:

Brian Colburn of Forklift Training Systems, a leader in forklift safety training and products.

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