What does a Forklift Operator do?

Whitney Coy

On the most basic level, a forklift operator uses a powered industrial truck known as a forklift to move heavy or otherwise bulky materials from one place to another. Forklifts are specialized types of vehicles that get their name from a large pronged “fork” that protrudes from the front that can lift, rotate, or otherwise move cargo according to the operator’s directions. These sorts of machines are useful in a variety of settings, but are often the most popular in warehouses and factories, and are also widely used in supply yards and on loading docks. Operators are usually primarily responsible for driving these machines and moving cargo according to specific instructions provided by supply managers. They may also be in charge of performing basic inspections on their machinery and doing simple maintenance-related tasks like keeping joints lubricated. In some places they must be licensed, and they usually have to undergo at least basic training before beginning work.

A forklift operator can usually be found in a warehouse setting.
A forklift operator can usually be found in a warehouse setting.

Primary Responsibilities

Forklift operators are often responsible for loading and unloading trucks and freight train cars. Depending on where they work, they might also unload ships or airplane cargo holds. Most freight is loaded onto pallets, which are usually grooved specifically for the fork’s prongs; as a result loading and unloading is usually pretty easy. From time to time, though, especially heavy or unusually shaped freight may not be on a pallet, and in these cases it may need to be picked up directly with the fork. This can take some expertise when it comes to aligning the prongs properly and applying the right amount of force. Overall speed is also important. Move too fast and the target can slip, but too slow and the machine can strain.

Forklift drivers are the people who operate forklifts.
Forklift drivers are the people who operate forklifts.

Inspection Duties

These inventory movers sometimes also serve as the front line of damage control. Depending on the setting, operators may be required to inspect all inbound and outbound packages, keeping an eye out for things like damaged packaging or faulty labeling. They might also be responsible for picking orders or ensuring that all inbound freight is stocked properly. A person in this position may be also required to keep track of paperwork related to the materials they move.

A forklift operator may unload ship or aircraft cargo holds.
A forklift operator may unload ship or aircraft cargo holds.

Safety Precautions

A forklift is a heavy piece of machinery and can cause property damage, injury, and even death if not operated properly. It is important for operators to follow all safety rules provided by their workplace. They should not only be knowledgeable in the correct operation of a forklift, but must also be very aware of their surroundings. Ramp condition, aisle width, and enclosed areas can all create hazardous conditions for the operator. Drivers must also always be on the lookout for people walking on the floors who may or may not be in the direct line of sight from the operator’s chair.

Training Requirements

A license or some type of specialized training may be required to hold this job, though a lot of this depends on the workplace as well as the specific location. In the US, the government-sponsored Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires that no operator be under the age of 18. OSHA provides rules and guidelines for people in this position to follow, such as requiring each operator to inspect his or her machinery at least once per day, including checking fluid levels, tires, and safety features. Agency rules also govern mounting and dismounting, starting and stopping, speed, maneuvering, parking, and visibility. Most countries have similar governing rules and training requirements, and employers are usually required to provide paperwork showing that all operators are complying with the local and national laws regarding safety and other precautions.

Employers may also have training requirements that go above and beyond those required by law, and commonly require familiarity with the specific setting. On-the-job practice will ensure that an operator can not only drive the machinery safely, but is also specifically trained on the surroundings of his or her day-to-day routes and tasks. Many on-the-job training courses also provide information about how to wreck a forklift as safely as possible if the situation becomes dire. Wrecks and crashes are can at times be unavoidable on any type of powered industrial truck, and training should teach operators to handle those situations, should they arise, as safely as possible.

Getting This Job

There isn’t usually any special education or experience needed to get a job as a forklift operator, and the work is classed as “entry level” in most places. Some employers want workers to have a high school diploma or equivalent, but not always. The most important skills are usually the ability to take directions, execute orders, and work long hours in conditions that are sometimes very cold, sometimes very hot, and sometimes hindered by dim or overly bright lighting. Schedule flexibility is usually also a must, as these workers rarely have regular 9-5 hours. Experience with machinery is helpful but not usually essential, as a lot can be learned on the job.

Forklift certifications are used to ensure safe operation of the vehicle.
Forklift certifications are used to ensure safe operation of the vehicle.

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