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A Step-by-Step Safety Process for Forklifts and Pedestrians

46% of forklift accidents involve someone on the ground. Here's how to attack that statistic

Forklift Safety Inquiry

forklifts and pedestrians near a dock door

When it comes to protecting pedestrians from forklift accidents, focus on processes—the ways you segment, train, manage and work on a daily basis. Preventable accidents happen when a process is absent. When it comes to forklifts and pedestrians, accidents are far too common and frequently serious.

If you operate forklifts in your facility, you need to focus on foot traffic

OSHA statistics tell us that Americans suffer 85 deaths, 35,000 serious injuries and another 62,000 non-serious injuries every year related to forklifts. Of those, 46% involve people being crushed between trucks, run over by a forklift, or crushed between a forklift and a surface. The thing about these grim numbers is that they represent largely avoidable events.

Laying out the steps

Comprehensive plans require forethought, buy-in and analysis. They cannot be forced from above, and must involve more than just the EHS team if they are to succeed. To start your process, you must factor in all stakeholders and their needs.

#1: Create a cross-functional forklift safety team

This team should include safety personnel, plant operations and people who work in the plant. There isn’t any set number of members, but the team should be comprehensive and empowered by senior management. Forklift safety can become contentious when it’s forced by the safety team, as operations managers and workers are focused on—and graded by—productivity. Including all the relevant personnel reduces conflict and helps you get a better solution.

This team can have as many members as desired, but should be manageable and should include people of varying points of view. A strong team could include personnel who serve in these functions:

  • Forklift operators
  • Supervisors and foremen
  • Safety & EHS personnel
  • Warehousing employees, including shipping/receiving staff, order pickers and others impacted by changes

If you are dealing with multiple facilities, you should have a team from each site, using the same processes. You will get a better, more broad-based solution that way.

#2: Create a baseline assessment

warehouse traffic management
Now, it’s time for the team to go to work and document the current condition. The factors should include cross-functional information that helps you determine facility-wide issues, what assets you have in place and what processes or behaviors currently exist, including:

  • The current situation in general, with all background information
  • What controls or processes exist today that segregate vehicles from pedestrians? What are the current visual and audible control systems?
  • What on-board controls are installed on your forklifts?
  • What are the current behaviors (of drivers and pedestrians)?

Assessments may differ from company to company (and even site-to-site) but should be somewhat universal in nature.

Focus on the following factors:

Elimination: In this scenario, an area is set up for foot traffic only. Forklifts are not allowed at all. These areas should be delineated with guardrails or other physical barriers. You can also employ painted or taped crosswalks or other visual methods to mark these zones when necessary.

Alternative pallet handling methods: Identify areas where foot traffic is constant, forklift traffic is not desirable, but pallet movement is necessary. You might handle pallets with stackers, pallet jacks, conveyors, pallet dollies or other means rather than forklift.

See: How to go Forklift Free

Barriers & physical controls: Are physical controls such as guard rails, bollards, curbs, gate systems or other solid separation means present? Can they be installed to improve the situation?

Warning systems: Consider protective systems like sensors, mirrors, signs, warning lights or proximity detection technologies. Score your facility on the presence or absence of these warning systems.

Training & processes: What has the plant put into place in terms of training, rules and processes that impact forklift safety? (Example: require dedicated crossing points, or exclusion zones.) Are workers allowed to use smart phones in the facility? Are they paying attention to the pathways? How are egress points into the facility handled? How are guests and visitors protected?

#3: Define “mingle points” for forklifts and pedestrians

sample diagram of warehouse layout
It’s critical to understand where your pedestrians and forklifts interact. When you create a safety plan, you will segregate people from forklifts as much as possible, and then focus on interaction zones where separation it isn’t possible.

To do this, print a drawing of your facility and map these mingle points. Create a color-coded visual representation of pedestrian traffic aisles and then use a different color to represent forklift areas (in the example above, pedestrian areas are yellow, forklift lanes are green, and interaction zones are red dots). The points where pedestrians and forklifts intersect are your interaction zones. Mark and number these interaction zones.

#4: Define the risk levels in each forklift/pedestrian interaction zone

Once you’ve identified the at-risk areas, you should rate each of them. This risk assessment will help you prioritize each intersection or crossing and suggest a course of action to reduce the risks in that zone. The assessment should include the following factors in some form:

  • Accident probability: How close will forklifts and pedestrians get to each other? How tight is the area? What speed are the forklifts traveling? Is visibility adequate for safe operations? Are pedestrians paying attention to their surroundings? Are drivers honking horns and actively looking for pedestrians?
  • Traffic levels at the interaction point: How often do people pass through or work in the area? How frequently do forklifts run through? Is it infrequent, constant or somewhere in between?
  • Frequency of pedestrian/forklift conflict: Count the number of times per day that forklifts and pedestrians intersect, or are both present in an area that lacks guardrails or other physical barriers. This does not have to be direct contact. It can be the simple presence of both types of traffic in an area where an accident is possible.

Once you have profiled each mingle point, it’s time to address that particular point, with a plan and priority.

#5: Implement safety upgrades

At this point, you have a team, a baseline assessment, a list of areas where people and lifts interact and a risk score for each of those areas. It’s time to build a solution. These solutions can vary from zone to zone, based on the factors in your assessment.

If that’s not possible, move toward solutions that address the area’s safety concern. Those may include:
warning light mounted on forklift

  • Whenever possible, create exclusion zones where people and forklifts aren’t allowed to mingle. Decide whether or not the zone can be changed into an exclusion zone, where there is no interaction between people and forklifts. You will want to create as many exclusion zones as possible, since they are the safest alternative. For instance, many companies build pallet rack systems with carton picking on the floor level (or with integrated carton flow) and bulk pallet storage in higher bays. This is an efficient way to use space, but it does create a full aisle where people and lift trucks frequently share space. This may change plant layout and routes a bit, but the safety gains are always worth it.
  • Implement hard barrier controls, such as guardrails, bollards or gates. These should be used to create areas where people are physically separated from lift truck traffic.
  • Use visual controls, such as floor striping, signage, forklift warning lights, mirrors or paint lines. These are relatively passive methods, but they are necessary to help reinforce expected behavior and make people aware of the potential dangers.
  • Make it a process: Implement administrative controls, such as training, process improvements and new policies.
  • Consider automation: In addition to non-interactive safety systems, evaluate automated controls, such as warning sensors, automated gates, backup sensors, onboard speed controls, cameras and other methods for managing forklifts and pedestrians.

#6: Measure your progress

At this point, you have made changes in the way people and forklifts interact. Over time, you’ll need to re-asses the situation, using the same criteria you used above. If certain zones are still problematic, further changes must be made.

Final thoughts

Forklift safety is a process, and as such it can always be measured and improved. Companies that invest in it may avoid crippling–or even fatal–accidents. These are mostly avoidable accidents with the right processes, training and safety systems. Your team, scoring system and risk assessments should be specific to your company, your plant situations and other factors you decide on as you move forward, but making pedestrians safe around forklifts should be your true north as you make decisions.

More information:

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Scott Stone is Cisco-Eagle's Vice President of Marketing with more than thirty years of experience in material handling, warehousing and industrial operations. His work is published in multiple industry journals an websites on a variety of warehousing topics. He writes about automation, warehousing, safety, manufacturing and other areas of concern for industrial operations and those who operate them.

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