The rate of forklift-related accidents has increased over the past year, rising from 1,000 per annum to 1,300 in the last 12 months. Search for ‘UK forklift truck accidents’ in Google News, and you’ll get a long page of results that show how frequently forklift truck accidents occur and how serious they can be. Twelve fatalities in the last two years were related to the use of forklift trucks, and approximately five people are hospitalised every single day with life-changing injuries through accidents related to forklifts. More than half of those injured are pedestrians or drivers who have stepped down from the vehicle.
Over the past fifty years, the number of fatal injuries related to the use of forklift truck accidents has decreased. In the early 1970s, there were about thirty fatal accidents per year. By 2013 the number had fallen to just six. However recently the numbers of accidents have started to increase.
According to previous HSE statistics, there appears to be a clear North-South divide with workers in the north of England and Scotland twice as likely to be injured or killed in accidents involving forklift trucks as their counterparts further south. Men, older workers and lorry drivers are the groups most at risk, with the highest fatality rates occurring amongst workers over 45 and HGV drivers waiting while their lorries are loaded and unloaded.
The statistics also show that the rate of severe injuries among men was up to five times higher than for women, even accounting for the uneven split in the industry’s employment figures.
Of all vehicles used in the workplace, the forklift truck is probably one of the most dangerous because it is often in use around pedestrians, and it is more likely to become unstable, particularly if it is not loaded and operated correctly. Statistics show that 42% of fatalities are due to being crushed by the vehicle tipping over.
Another contributing factor could be the often repetitive nature of operating a forklift which leads to operator error. Forklift operators tend to drive around the same work environment every day. They become very familiar with the task, which can lead to a lack of proper care and attention. Forklift operators can fall into bad habits and operate their vehicle incorrectly, often without any consequence until the one time when there is an accident.
Work targets are another possible contributing factor to accidents. Distribution companies, supermarkets and other forklift truck users have deadlines for goods leaving and entering their premises. If the targets are not realistic, it could force a driver to rush their job.
Lack of communication is another possible contributing factor. There have been cases where companies have fulfilled their legal obligation by completing risk assessments, but then have put them in a filing cabinet or on the company intranet and failed to check that forklift operators have read them. Policies should be in place, communicated, and checks made that people understand what is required of them to operate safely.
Other contributory factors to a forklift accident are lack of sufficient operator training, a lack of knowledge about the vehicle and the working environment, small gangways, poor lighting conditions, inadequate truck maintenance and using forklift trucks in unsuitable premises.
The 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act clearly states that it is an employer’s responsibility to ensure that all machinery used by staff and in the workplace is appropriately maintained. They must also ensure that all necessary measures are taken to ensure employees operating machinery are protected to a reasonable degree from the risk of accidents. The employer also has a legal duty to provide employees with an appropriate level of training that will enable them to fulfil their daily tasks safely. All these points apply to forklift trucks and the workers who operate them.
It is against the law for a person below school leaving age to operate a forklift truck. The operator of a truck used on a public highway is subject to the legislation which applies to all road users with regards to the legal minimum age. Operators must receive adequate training which must be administered by an accredited trainer. The training should be broken down into several stages and should initially be carried out in a safe area and not in a ‘real work operation’ situation. The training should include basic knowledge and skills required to operate a forklift truck safely. Basic training should be followed by any specific training related to the work environment, like highlighting blind corners and familiarisation with any traffic systems around the site. There should also be further training ‘on the job’ under close supervision.
Once a forklift operator is considered to be fully competent, they should be offered further training at regular intervals in the form of refresher courses and whenever the role of the operator changes. Training records for each operator must be kept and updated regularly.
Considering the number of pedestrian-related forklift truck accidents, it is also essential to address the issue of forklift awareness for everyone on-site, including visitors.
In addition to training, several measures can be taken to reduce the likelihood of accidents involving forklift trucks. The vehicles themselves should ideally have flashing lights and audible warning devices. The operators should have seat belts or restraints and wear adequate protective clothing, like fluorescent jackets, safety footwear and hard hats.
All areas in which the forklift trucks operate should remain clear from obstructions and be as flat as possible to reduce the possibility of the vehicle tipping over. Roads, aisles and gangways where forklifts operate should be sufficiently wide enough with adequate clearance room overhead. Ideally, forklift routes should be free of sharp bends which could be precarious if the operator is carrying a large and heavy load and, where possible, a one-way system should be introduced to avoid the risk of collisions. The area in which forklift trucks operate should be free of pedestrians. However, if this is not possible practical signs and warning notices should be in place.
Other steps include the regular maintenance of the trucks and the addressing of issues following the reporting of accidents or near misses.
Costs Of An Accident
An accident will involve a human cost. There will also be consequences for the business that operates with forklift trucks. Fines and penalties can be enforced by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) if employees are involved in an accident as a result of insufficient or non-existent training. If an employer is found to have been grossly negligent in their duty of care, there could be a criminal conviction and even imprisonment.
Even if the HSE cannot enforce penalties, an employee injured at work can make a claim against their employer in the civil courts. If they are successful, the employer will have to pay compensation, court costs and fines.
Another possible cost is related to the forklift itself. Forklift trucks are often a substantial investment for most businesses. If an accident means the vehicle has to be written off or require significant repairs, it can be a considerable loss for the company. Costs and damage are unlikely to be limited to the forklift. These are heavy vehicles so a crash can cause substantial damage to other machinery, equipment, goods and even the structure of a property.
Another type of cost is related to reputation. A prosecution related to a forklift accident can seriously affect the standing of a business with current and potential suppliers, partners, customers, and employees. This change of status can have a considerable impact on profit and revenue, and can ultimately lead to a loss from which a business is unable to recover.
Forklifts work on an estimated one hundred thousand sites in the UK, and forklift truck accidents happen practically every day. Consequently, the safety of both the operators and of any nearby pedestrians is paramount. The correct safety measures and monitoring of standards should help prevent these avoidable accidents.