How Do I Get a Forklift License?

Sandi Johnson

Getting a forklift license or forklift certification in the United States involves classroom and practical training, as well as requirements for recertification every three years. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, better known as OSHA, oversees and establishes regulatory control over powered industrial truck operator training, or forklift licensing and certification. OSHA provides two options for operators to get a license: employer administered training or third party certification. Both options must meet OSHA requirements in terms of training, testing, and recertifying.

The best forklift training programs include both classroom and hands-on training with forklifts.
The best forklift training programs include both classroom and hands-on training with forklifts.

Powered industrial trucks, the generic term for all forklifts and similar equipment, include a variety of sit-down and stand-up options, fuel usage types, sizes, and industrial applications. As such, an operator licensed to use a sit-down, gas-powered forklift in a warehouse setting is not necessarily knowledgeable enough to operate a stand-up, heavy duty, propane-powered lift in a shipyard. Different types of forklifts are used in different types of industrial settings, which makes it difficult for OSHA to provide universal licensing requirements to meet all equipment and industries. It is therefore understandable that most OSHA standards focus on the results of individual training programs, rather than detailed program requirements.

Students earning a forklift license must first learn the safety procedures and rules of operation in the classroom.
Students earning a forklift license must first learn the safety procedures and rules of operation in the classroom.

The most common method for industrial truck operators to receive their forklift license or certification is employer-provided training. With this method of certification, the employer provides classroom learning opportunities in addition to practical training on specific equipment within the facility. Classroom education includes proper safety procedures, forklift operation principles based on the equipment each company uses, company policies, vehicle maintenance schedules, and training for site-specific topics such as hazardous conditions or materials within the facility. Practical training includes hands-on instruction to teach each operator how to safely use and operate each type of forklift on the job site.

Employers may elect to train operators on each type of vehicle separately, or elect for comprehensive training on all equipment combined. Since OSHA mandates that site-specific training be provided by each employer, receiving a forklift license through employer-provided training allows the operator to run a forklift only for that employer. Such certifications do not transfer from one employer to the next. For an experienced operator, a new employer may credit past experience and certifications towards completion of new certification, but only after ensuring the operator meets criteria for OSHA compliance.

Third-party training, according to OSHA standards, must meet the same requirements as employer-provided training. If an employer accepts an operator with third-party training, or elicits the assistance of a third-party training provider for on-staff forklift operators, the employer remains responsible for the quality of an operators’ training under OSHA guidelines. Every operator must have a forklift license or certification based on training that meets OSHA standards. It is the responsibility of the employer to fill any gaps between third-party training and job site-specific knowledge.

Forklift safety, one of the primary criteria of OSHA’s forklift license training requirements, varies from equipment to equipment, employer to employer, and industry to industry. Where appropriate, such as in marine industries and offshore industrial operations, OSHA regulations specifically address additional requirements for both employer-provided training and third-party providers. Even with these additional requirements, from an operator's standpoint, obtaining a forklift license involves the same two choices: training on the job or certification through a third-party vendor with additional employer training on site specifics.

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