Awareness Is Key to Avoid Lift Truck Accidents

What Hyster Co. learned about lift truck and pedestrian accidents can assist safety managers in deciding how to equip lift trucks for their particular needs, how to establish workplace rules for safe lift truck/pedestrian interaction and how to organize the physical workplace to reduce the potential for these accidents.

The study reinforced that lift trucks have good visibility, particularly to the rear. If an operator keeps a proper lookout in the direction of travel and maintains the lift truck under control, and if pedestrians are trained to maintain a proper lookout for their safety, there should be few, if any, lift truck/pedestrian accidents.

The Hyster study included an evaluation of a substantial number of reported accidents, as well as a comprehensive search to identify articles and studies concerning a means to prevent accidents involving a lift truck and pedestrian. The company surveyed lift truck users to identify the usage of optional audible and visible warning devices, and contacted manufacturers of these devices concerning the effectiveness of their products. Hyster also conducted field evaluations of pedestrian warning devices.

Accident Data

Lift truck accident data is published periodically by various sources, including state and federal government organizations. However, specific factual information concerning individual accidents often is vague, and the contributing factors are difficult to identify.

Hyster's evaluation of its own accident reports indicates that approximately as many of these accidents occurred while the lift truck was traveling forward (including tail-swing accidents) as in reverse. Most reverse-travel accidents occurred within the first 10 feet of travel, whereas most forward-travel accidents occurred after the first 25 feet.

Many of the accidents involved injury to pedestrians who were not only aware of the presence of the lift truck, but who were, in fact, working with the operator of the truck that struck them. Some lift trucks involved in these accidents were equipped with audible and visible alarms, and others were equipped with alarms that were non-operational at the time of the accidents.

Accident Causes

The lack of detailed information concerning specific incidents makes it impossible to isolate a common or predominant cause of accidents involving a lift truck and a pedestrian. However, some contributing factors may include:

  • Ambient noise or light levels
  • Number of lift trucks and pedestrians present
  • Lift truck operator's level of training
  • Pedestrians' education concerning lift truck operating characteristics and how to work around them
  • Physical workplace layout, including separate travel zones for pedestrians and lift trucks
  • Presence of audible or visible warning devices on lift trucks and other mobile equipment
  • Presence of audible or visible warning devices on cranes, conveyors or other stationary industrial equipment

Other contributing factors include lack of specific operating rules for lift truck travel, such as sounding the steering wheel horn at intersections or when changing directions, and a lack of enforcement by management of safe work procedures for lift truck operators and pedestrians.

OSHA regulations require specialized training and regular re-training for lift truck operators and remedial training for operators involved in accidents or near accidents. OSHA estimates that its current operator training requirements will prevent 11 deaths and 9,422 injuries per year.

Pedestrians should understand the operating characteristics of lift trucks when working in their proximity, and should understand and follow pedestrian rules established for their specific environment by their employers.

Another key issue is separation of lift truck and pedestrian traffic. Unlike automobile and pedestrian traffic, there are no universal “rules of the road” for the manner in which lift trucks and pedestrians interact. Many of the largest and most sophisticated lift truck users have concluded that the most effective way to reduce these accidents is to separate lift truck and pedestrian traffic to the greatest extent possible, using travel lanes dedicated to the trucks and separate travel lanes dedicated to pedestrian traffic.

Travel lanes may be marked with paint on the floor, or separated by physical barriers. Limitations also may be placed in travel areas for lift trucks to keep them away from high-density pedestrian traffic, such as near washrooms, break rooms or time clocks.

Rules to Increase Pedestrian Safety

Every lift truck application environment is unique. Yet when it comes to reducing or preventing accidents involving a lift truck and a pedestrian, they all have common resources, including independent safety consultants, employees and your company's workers' compensation insurance provider's loss control specialists. They all can assist you in developing appropriate rules that may help reduce or prevent the incidence of lift truck/pedestrian accidents in your particular workplace.

Here are some examples of workplace rules that are effective in many applications to reduce or prevent accidents:

  • Limit lift truck travel speed.
  • Use high-visibility work clothes or vests for pedestrians.
  • Restrict customers and non- employees from areas where lift trucks may be operating.
  • Require lift truck operators to stop and sound the steering wheel horn at intersections or before passing through plastic strip curtains.
  • Require pedestrians not to come closer than a predetermined distance from the lift truck, even when speaking to the operator.

Optional Alarms

Lift truck manufacturers offer standard or optional audible and visible warning devices. OSHA regulations and ASME B56.1 safety standards for lift trucks do not require the presence of warning devices on a truck other than the steering wheel horn, which is standard equipment.

Hyster's study of optional warning devices indicates that approximately 70 percent of current lift truck users equip their trucks with some form of audible or visible warning device. However, available accident data does not show that trucks equipped with optional warning devices are involved in a lower incidence of accidents than those without them. Many of the largest and most sophisticated users choose not to equip their trucks with such devices.

No manufacturer of audible or visible warning devices has undertaken a study on the effectiveness of their devices in reducing accidents, and no manufacturer could provide Hyster with any data concerning the effectiveness of their devices. In addition, the devices' instructions direct lift truck operators to always look in the direction of travel, regardless of the presence of a warning device.

For audible devices such as back-up or motion alarms, the sound produced must be loud enough to be heard over and distinguished from other noise in the operating area. Remember that these devices may contribute to employee noise exposure and exceed OSHA noise limitations, yet hearing protection makes it more difficult to hear the audible device and to determine the direction and distance from which the sound is coming. If operators or workers are annoyed by the devices, they may deactivate them, so be sure to inspect the devices on a regular basis.

Visible devices such as flashing, rotating and strobe lights should be placed based on lift truck use and workplace conditions. Lights must clear low overhead obstructions and must not shine or reflect excessively into the operator's eyes. Shielding may limit the light's visibility to pedestrians.

The color of the visible warning lights should be different from lights used on stationary equipment or background colors in the workplace. Brightly lit or outdoor areas may necessitate bright or intense strobe lights, or may make the use of lights ineffective.

Whether an optional warning device is beneficial is dependent on factors specific to your workplace, and may require the assistance of a qualified safety professional.

Making the Call

Safety professionals and workplace safety consultants are available to assist you in making decisions concerning workplace layout and the configuration of lift trucks and other equipment. Insurance companies, industrial safety consultants, workplace safety engineers and other safety professionals should be consulted by anyone who needs assistance in determining how best to meet their specific workplace requirements. If you are in need of a training program for your operators, Hyster offers “Productivity in Motion” through its authorized dealers.

Lift truck users must assess their own workplace when determining whether to equip trucks with optional warning devices or to change the layout of the physical workplace. While Hyster and other forklift truck manufacturers are experts in designing lift trucks to perform basic tasks in moving, stacking and handling materials, only you are the expert about your business.

You must decide how to equip your lift trucks, based on factors that are unique to your operation.


James Lyle, P.E., is chief engineer, global product assurance at Hyster Co. Based in Greenville, N.C., Hyster Co. (http://www.hysteramericas.com) is a leading lift truck designer and manufacturer in North America.

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