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  • Adele L. Abrams, Esq., CMSP

Forklifts & Worker Safety: OSHA Changes Are Coming!

More than 100 persons per year die in forklift accidents on the job, representing about a 30 percent increase over the past decade. Moreover, nearly 35,000 workers are injured in industrial forklift incidents each year that result in serious injury, and another 62,000 more receive non-serious injuries. This has focused attention on both prevention of workplace injuries arising from powered industrial trucks used in general industry operations, but also on enhanced enforcement. Now, the federal government has embarked on a new rulemaking to update current standards and powered industrial truck equipment specifications.


The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that about 70 percent of forklift accidents in the United States could be prevented, just by implementing more stringent training policies to ensure proper inspection, maintenance, and operation of forklifts. Situational awareness (or lack thereof) is also a factor in many forklift incidents, and workers can be injured when struck by or crushed by a forklift, sometimes because they are facing away from the moving forklift. In fact, pedestrians (those on foot in the workplace) account for 36 percent of forklift-related deaths!


Equipment design and safety are also considerations, especially since some forklifts can weigh up to 9,000 pounds, three times the weight of many cars, and older forklifts often were sold without installed seat belts. While forklifts are sometimes regarded as slow moving vehicles, and therefore less hazardous, they can travel up to 18 m.p.h. and only have front brakes, making them more difficult to stop in an emergency. Forklifts are also heavier in the rear to compensate for heavy front loads, but uneven weight distribution can create instability and forklift overturns are the primary cause of fatalities involving this equipment (25 percent). Another factor is that front loads can obstruct the view of the driver, including when loads are hoisted to heights or when traveling in areas where workers may be present.


OSHA’s Powered Industrial Truck rule (29 CFR 1910.178) came in at #9 in FY 2021 on the agency’s list of most-cited standards, and is always on the “Top 10” list. OSHA indicated that there were 1,420 violations cited under this standard in FY 2021. OSHA defines “Powered Industrial Truck” as a human-operated vehicle used to move, raise, lower, or remove large objects or a number of smaller objects on pallets or in boxes, crates, or other containers. Its standard covers fork trucks, tractors, platform lift trucks, motorized hand trucks, and other specialized industrial trucks powered by electric motors or internal combustion engines.


OSHA’s current standard requires regular assessment of work assignments involving powered industrial trucks, operator training (and retraining periodically, which must be documented), and inspection of the forklifts regularly. However, the “current” standard isn’t very current. In fact, it was promulgated in 1971, and requires that all “new” powered industrial trucks acquired and used by an employer meet the design and construction requirements established in the American National Standard for Powered Industrial Trucks, Part II, ANSI B56.1-1969. Yes, 1969!


In an effort to bring forklift requirements into the 21st century, OSHA published a proposed rule on February 16, 2022, which would update the consensus standard reference from the 1969 version of the ANSI B56 voluntary consensus standard to the 2020 iteration of B56.1 and the 2021 version of B56.6. The comment deadline is May 17, 2022. No big deal, right? Not so fast.


There have been significant changes to the ANSI standard over the past five decades (12 separate updates), and ANSI has expanded the B56 suite of consensus standards significantly, several of which would be adopted as part of this rulemaking. While the ANSI B56.1 rule covered all types of powered industrial trucks back in the day, it is now limited to high lift and low lift trucks only, while B56.5 (2019 version) was added to address driverless automatic industrial vehicles, and B56.6 was adopted to address rough terrain forklift trucks.

These are the standards concerning which OSHA seeks comment, and some of the individual B56 sections are nearly 100 pages each. Once a consensus standard such as the ANSI B56.6 is incorporated by reference by OSHA, the provisions become enforceable even though the text does not appear within the Code of Federal Regulations, with penalties of up to $145,027 per exposed worker. These consensus standards were developed over the years by ANSI in tandem with ITSDF, and they can be viewed for free on a temporary membership basis from the group’s website (www.itsdf.org), but which must otherwise be purchased from the organization, found at a public library, or by visiting OSHA’s area office. Normally, anything enforceable by OSHA is accessible on the agency’s website because it is part of the public “law” – but an exception is currently made for such consensus standards.


But wait, there’s more. The ANSI/ITSDF B56 rules also include:

B56.9-2019, covering operator controlled industrial tow tractors,

  • B56.10-2019, addressing manually propelled high lift industrial trucks,

  • B56.11-2018, covering double race or bi-level swivel and rigid industrial casters,

  • B56.11.5-2018, regulating the measure of sound emitted by powered industrial vehicles,

  • B56.11.6-2018, establishing conditions, procedures, equipment and acceptability criteria for evaluating visibility from powered industrial trucks,

  • B56.11.7-2020, establishing dimensions for LPG fuel cylinders used on powered industrial trucks,

  • B56.11.8-2019, providing performance and testing requirements for seat belt anchorage systems in these vehicles, and

  • B56.14-2020, defining safety requirements relating to elements of design, operation and maintenance of industrial and rough terrain vehicle mounted forklifts controlled by a riding operator.

While the rulemaking takes its course, employers and workers involved in forklift operations should be aware that they will be under heightened scrutiny from OSHA, especially if a reportable accident occurs (a fatality or incident requiring hospitalization or amputation). Prevention of incidents should be the goal, and near misses and minor injury cases should be investigated as they can be the precursor to more serious accidents. When assessing risks from forklifts and other powered industrial trucks, consider three key risk areas:


1. Physical Conditions: Examine the condition of the ground or floors where the equipment is operated, including structural strength, environmental conditions (ice, oil, mud), and load conditions including visibility for the operator. Be attentive to potential tipping hazards!

2. Pedestrians: Because workers (or third parties) who are on foot are disproportionately the victims in fatal forklift incidents, it is critical to have pedestrian-delineated areas (where feasible), train workers on situational awareness, and train forklift operators on watching for both obstructions and individuals, ensuring good illumination, and monitoring the load

3. Loading Docks: These can be especially hazardous due to the risk of falling off the edge of the dock, wet or icy conditions. You should be sure to maintain a safe distance from the edge, keep working surfaces clean and clear and paint the edges of the loading dock to help

with visibility.


OSHA is likely to proceed with updating its consensus standards that are incorporated into 29 CFR 1910.178, but it is critical that those impacted by the rule weigh in on the proposed changes before they become law. In the meantime, avoid injuries and citations by having solid worker training programs (including documentation), maintenance and inspection programs for forklifts, and sound work practices. The cheapest citation to defend is the one that is never issued!

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