Forklifts: Cold Weather Operations and Safety Guide
Heavy machinery like forklifts require constant care and precautions even in the best weather conditions. And as far as workplace safety is concerned, winter is probably the most hazardous season in a calendar year, especially when handling and movement of heavy materials are involved. If you want your business to weather this winter without any adverse impact on your workforce or your assets/equipment, constant vigilance and awareness of potential dangers is essential. Read on for an in-depth overview of cold weather safety challenges and necessary precautions.
Winters and Forklift Handling: Indoors vs Outdoor Environments
If the handling of the forklift is exclusively confined to well insulated and illuminated indoor environments like large warehouses, then weather conditions will pose less risk. But serious challenges arise when the job involves handling forklifts outdoors as well. The cold weather can affect the operational capabilities of the operator as well as the actual machinery. The effects can be even more marked if the operator is forced to switch between indoors and outdoors, for instance, moving cargo from outside into a warehouse. The fluctuations in temperature, humidity and light can wreak havoc on the hardware as well as your employee’s vision and handling abilities.
Common Mishaps Involving Forklifts in Winter
Forklifts can be potentially hazardous to the operator as well as any nearby bystanders. Incidents can also lead to equipment and cargo damages. Forklift-related accidents account for a significant number of workplace injuries and fatalities every year. And winters can drastically increase the chances of any incident/accident. The most common incidents include:
- Collision with other vehicles or structures
- Collision or run-overs involving bystanders (can lead to fatalities)
- Damage and injury caused by falling loads (a common cause of fatalities)
- Damage and injury due to any fall/toppling over of the fork lift truck and machinery (can be fatal)
Challenges Caused By Cold Weather
These can be broadly classified into the following main categories. They include:
- Surface Conditions: The road or surface on which the forklift is supposed to travel can have a huge impact on safety. Depending on the severity of the winter and the type of surface, conditions can range from wetness and puddles to thick snow and even highly dangerous ice and sleet. This will severely affect how the forklift behaves during the driving phase, especially when carrying heavy loads. It will also cause potential hazards for employees on foot near a working forklift.
- Temperature: The most readily apparent challenge is of course, the debilitating impact of low temperatures on your employees. Cold adversely affects our movement and motor skills. Operating heavy machinery can be a serious challenge in low temperatures.
- Precipitation/Atmospheric Conditions: Heavy snow, sleet and hail are all very common during winter months. Even light snowfall can render forklift operations completely unviable and dangerous. The lack of visibility and wet conditions can severely affect an operator as well as the forklift machinery.
Winter Safety Precautions for Employees
If you are an employer, you are bound by Federal Law to safeguard workplace safety and ensure that only qualified personnel can operate heavy machinery, at all times, including inclement weather like during winters. OSHA outlines the law for powered industrial trucks here. The following precautions can help minimize the risk of accidents involving operators and bystanders:
- Adequate training of workforce, including both operators as well as any employees involved in working near forklifts. Teach them to perform mandatory equipment checks of tires, chains, studs, fuel and hydraulic fluid levels.
- Well-insulated and closed warehouses can raise the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning from emissions from gas powered machinery. Install proper ventilation equipment as well as frequent air quality tests to avoid this risk.
- Adequate protective clothing is essential for employees working with forklifts in winters, both outside as well as inside. Layered clothing is mandatory for health and safety. But heavy protective gear can cause added stress and increased fatigue. Make it a point to allow frequent rests and train your workers to identify any signs of fatigue.
- If at all possible, keep outside operations to a minimum in low light and low visibility conditions. If the employees will be working beyond day hours, install adequate light sources and supply high visibility gear for maximum safety. Working in snow or precipitation conditions is a recipe for disaster and should be avoided at all costs.
Winter Safety and Maintenance of Forklifts
According to experts and consultants on workplace safety, various steps are necessary to ensure the safety of forklifts in wintry conditions. They include:
- Attachments for Snow Control: As we already noted, surface snow and ice is a major safety hazard. Forklifts should NOT be used with snow plows. They aren’t designed for that purpose. To learn more, check out discussions here. Salters and sanders can also be used to deal with surface snow and ice. Remember to perform safety checks on all attachments prior to starting up the machinery. Always use the appropriate tire add-ons for improved traction on slippery surfaces. Never use a forklift outdoors in winter without these add-ons
- Regular Servicing and Load Tests: Heavy machinery can take a severe productivity hit in winter even when properly maintained. Forklifts are designed to lift and carry heavy loads. This involves heavy hydraulics, high capacity engines, electrical systems as well as batteries/fuel tanks. All these systems require constant maintenance and care. Timely service checks and load tests can help avoid any costly and potentially dangerous equipment failures.
- Fuel, Oil and Hydraulic Maintenance: Cold weather adversely affects battery performance, with performance degradation up to 25% quite common in battery powered forklifts. If your forklifts use any batteries, ensure their safe storage in a dry area. For optimal battery safety, keep them plugged in during storage, and use a battery warmer is extremely cold temperatures.
If the forklift is diesel powered, extreme cold temperatures will require winterized diesel to perform adequately. Normal #2 diesel is prone to gelling in temperatures around the 10-15 degrees F mark.
The same principle is applicable in the case of other engine and hydraulic fluids. Once they approach a molasses level consistency, which they will as the temperature plummets, performance and equipment safety can get compromised. Use high quality oils and fluids graded at the proper temperature levels to prevent this. Many other moving parts of a forklift also require proper lubrication. The mast is a case in point. Ask your operators to regularly check these important areas to ensure they are properly lubricated.
Without proper maintenance, precautions, and training, winters can become deadly for your employees, forklift equipment, as well as your business. Adequate preparation is the only true safeguard against accidents during winters. Lax adherence to safety standards can result in serious injury to limb and life and invite potentially damaging lawsuits as well as prosecution. Never compromise on safety.