The Small But Mighty Pallet Jack

By: Maureen Paraventi

© Paul Bradbury/KOTO –

It’s no secret that automation is transforming operations in warehouses, distribution centers, factories and other facilities where large quantities of good are moved from one location to another. Amid all of the complex new systems being rapidly rolled out and adopted, though, is a relatively simple piece of equipment that many companies find indispensable: the pallet jack.

Despite its humble status as the most basic form of a forklift, the pallet jack has somehow been able to accumulate many names – or nicknames, if you will. It is also known as a hand forklift, pallet pump, pallet truck, pump truck, scooter, dog or jigger. Exactly how the hand forklift came to have so many monikers is a mystery, at least to Google. What is known is that a crude pallet jack that allowed a user to elevate a skid manually was invented in 18871. It evolved into a labor-saving device glowingly described in a 1918 issue of Popular Science magazine as having “ingenious features,” – one “that helps women tackle men’s jobs” in factories, because it could be unloaded by simply pressing a lever2. These days, a hand-pumped hydraulic jack does the work.

Why bother with pallet jack for lifting, lowering and moving pallets when there are more sophisticated versions of forklifts available?

  • They are a cost-effective and reliable option for small businesses whose material handling needs consist mainly of moving heavy pallets a short distance.
  • Pallet jacks are smaller than conventional forklifts, so they take up less storage space. This is an important consideration in warehouses, where space is vital.
  • They can be used to lift pallets and boxes to heights that people can’t reach.
  • Like conventional forklifts, they move heavy loads that could cause ergonomic injuries if moved by workers.
  • Certain models come with accessories, like printers (for printing the weights of loads) and scales that enable loads to be weighed while they are on the hand forklift.
  • They are easy to use, requiring minimal training.
  • They move items efficiently, from semi-trucks, through warehouses, up or down dock ramps or wherever else you need them to go.
  • Some models can lift loads weighing up to 11,000 lbs.
  • Pallet jacks are ideal for moving pallets inside a trailer, where space is tight.

The parts of a typical pallet jack

  • The direction in which the pallet jack goes is controlled by a handle that can be rotated to the left or right.
  • The pallet jack’s two forks are raised or lowered using a control lever on the handle. Squeezing the lever releases hydraulic fluid and lowers the forks. Pushing the lever forward raises them – just enough to clear the floor and enable the pallet jack to be moved.
  • Pallet jacks generally have nylon or polyurethane steer wheels. Polyurethane wheels are preferable in environments shared by customers, such as retail establishments, because they are quiet and won’t scratch or mark floors. Nylon wheels are extremely durable. They are a good choice in facilities with harsh environments and wet or rough-textured floors.
  • Load wheels are under the tips of the forks. Because they must fit into the openings under a pallet, these are smaller than steer wheels. Load wheels are available in polyurethane, nylon and steel. The weight of the loads that will be moved, in addition to the conditions to which the pallet jack will be exposed, should factor into the decision about which wheel material to use.

Pallet jack variations

Electric or powered pallet jacks are – as their name suggests – motorized, which allows them to move very heavy pallets or stacks of pallets. Electric pallet jacks have large, lead-acid batteries which must be charged regularly, a process that can take anywhere from four to 16 hours. They are steered by a throttle on the handle. Some models have a platform for the user to stand on and systems for stopping the vehicle quickly.

Rough terrain or all terrain pallet jacks have heavy-duty frames and pneumatic tires, so that they can roll easily over uneven surfaces and withstand harsh conditions. They are used extensively at construction sites, lumber yards and other outdoor operations.

Pallet jack safety

While they may not present the obvious hazards that larger, more complex pieces of machinery may have, pallet jacks are nonetheless capable of causing injuries to users. In an incident3 in Washington state, a worker’s ankle was crushed when he was struck by a pallet jack operated by a co-worker.

Following some basic guidelines will go a long way ensuring that both pallet jack users and others in their vicinity are safe:

  • Load the heaviest items first.
  • Make sure the forks are centered evenly under the load, for good balance.
  • Make sure that the forks are completely under the load.
  • Avoid overloading the pallet jack; pay attention to the maximum rated lifting capacity.
  • Be especially careful when moving loads up and down ramps. If the user releases his or her grip, the pallet truck can reverse and strike something – or someone.
  • Wearing steel-toed footwear will help protect against foot injuries. WMHS


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