Driving a Forklift for the First Time: (How To Get Experience)

A forklift is a powerful industrial vehicle used to lift and move heavy loads over short distances. It’s equipped with forks at the front, which can be raised and lowered to pick up materials like pallets. Forklifts are commonly found in warehouses, construction sites, and manufacturing plants, helping workers transport goods efficiently.

However, driving a forklift isn’t as simple as it looks. Proper training and safety are crucial to prevent accidents and ensure smooth operations. When you’re driving a forklift for the first time, understanding its controls and safety protocols is essential for your safety and the safety of those around you.

Understanding the Basics For First Timers

What is a Forklift?

A forklift is a powerful industrial vehicle used to lift and move heavy loads over short distances. It has several key components:

  • Mast: The vertical structure that raises and lowers the forks. It typically consists of two or more interlocking rails that provide the lifting motion, often powered by hydraulic cylinders. The mast height can vary but typically ranges from 8 feet to 20 feet.
  • Forks: The horizontal prongs that slide under and lift the load. Forks are usually made of high-strength steel and come in various lengths, commonly between 36 inches to 48 inches. They can also be adjusted to different widths to accommodate various load sizes.
  • Counterweight: A heavy weight at the back of the forklift to balance the load lifted by the forks. This weight ensures the forklift does not tip forward when lifting heavy loads. The counterweight can vary in weight depending on the forklift’s capacity, typically ranging from 2,000 to 10,000 pounds.
  • Cab: The area where the operator sits, containing the controls and steering wheel. The cab includes the seat, steering wheel, pedals, and various levers and buttons that control the forklift’s functions.

Types of Forklifts

There are several types of forklifts, each designed for specific tasks and environments:

driving forklift for the first time
  • Electric Forklifts: Powered by batteries, these forklifts are ideal for indoor use due to their quiet operation and lack of emissions. They are commonly used in warehouses and factories. The battery life can vary but typically lasts between 6 to 8 hours of continuous use.
  • Gas-Powered Forklifts: These use gasoline or diesel engines and are suitable for outdoor use where ventilation is not an issue. They provide more power and are better suited for rough terrain and heavy-duty tasks. Gas-powered forklifts can lift between 5,000 to 20,000 pounds, depending on the model.
  • Propane Forklifts: Powered by liquid propane gas, these forklifts can be used both indoors and outdoors and offer a good balance between power and emissions. They are versatile and can handle loads ranging from 3,000 to 15,000 pounds.

Forklift Terminology

Understanding basic forklift terms is essential for safe and efficient operation:

  • Lift Capacity: The maximum weight a forklift can lift, usually measured in pounds or kilograms. For example, a common forklift might have a lift capacity of 5,000 pounds (2,268 kilograms).
  • Load Center: The distance from the front face of the forks to the center of gravity of the load. A standard load center is 24 inches, which means the load’s center of gravity should be 24 inches from the front of the forks. Proper load center ensures stability and safe handling of the load.
  • Stability Triangle: The imaginary triangle formed between the front axle and the pivot point of the rear axle. Keeping the center of gravity within this triangle is crucial for preventing tip-overs. The stability triangle helps operators understand the balance and tipping points of the forklift during operation.

Knowing these basics will help you get started with operating a forklift and ensure you’re familiar with the essential components and terms.

Pre-Operational Checks

Inspection Checklist

Before using a forklift, it’s essential to conduct a thorough inspection to ensure it is in good working condition. Here are the key steps:

  1. Check Tires
    • Pneumatic Tires: Inspect for proper inflation, typically between 80-120 PSI. Ensure there are no signs of damage or excessive wear that could lead to a blowout or loss of traction.
    • Solid Tires: Look for cuts, chunks, or embedded objects that could affect performance or cause the tire to fail.
  2. Fluid Levels
    • Engine Oil: Check the dipstick to ensure oil is at the proper level, which is usually marked on the dipstick. Low oil levels can cause engine damage.
    • Hydraulic Fluid: Verify that the fluid level in the hydraulic tank is within the recommended range. Insufficient hydraulic fluid can affect the lifting and lowering functions.
    • Coolant: Ensure the coolant level is adequate to prevent overheating. The coolant should be filled up to the designated mark on the reservoir.
    • Brake Fluid: Check the brake fluid reservoir to ensure it is filled to the proper level. Low brake fluid can lead to brake failure.
  3. Forks
    • Inspect the forks for cracks, bends, or wear. The forks should be straight and free of damage to safely lift loads. The standard fork length is typically between 42-48 inches, but it can vary based on the forklift model.
  4. Mast
    • Check the mast for smooth operation and ensure there are no cracks or leaks in the hydraulic cylinders. Make sure the mast tilts and lifts correctly without any jerky movements or unusual noises.
  5. Chains and Hoses
    • Inspect chains for wear, damage, or improper tension. Chains should be properly lubricated and not too tight or too loose. Check hoses for leaks or signs of wear and ensure all fittings are secure.
  6. Lights and Indicators
    • Test all lights, including headlights, brake lights, and warning lights. Ensure dashboard indicators function correctly to provide important information about the forklift’s status.
  7. Brakes and Steering
    • Test the brakes to ensure they are responsive and can bring the forklift to a stop effectively. Check the steering for smooth operation without excessive play or stiffness.
  8. Seat and Seatbelt
    • Ensure the seat is securely attached and the seatbelt functions properly. A secure seat and functioning seatbelt are crucial for the operator’s safety.

What are the Different Forklift Controls?

1. Steering Wheel

  • Description: Similar to a car’s steering wheel, but often more sensitive.
  • Function: Controls the direction of the forklift. Turning the wheel to the left steers the forklift to the left, and turning it to the right steers it to the right.

2. Accelerator Pedal

  • Description: Located on the right side of the operator’s foot area.
  • Function: Pressing the pedal increases the speed of the forklift.

3. Brake Pedal

  • Description: Located next to the accelerator pedal.
  • Function: Pressing the brake pedal slows down or stops the forklift.

4. Inching Pedal

  • Description: Often found on the left side, separate from the brake and accelerator pedals.
  • Function: Allows for fine control of the forklift’s movement, useful when aligning forks with a load.

5. Directional Lever

  • Description: Usually located on the left side of the steering column.
  • Function: Switches the direction of the forklift between forward, neutral, and reverse.

6. Lift Lever

  • Description: One of the control levers, typically located to the right of the operator.
  • Function: Raises and lowers the forks. Pushing the lever forward lowers the forks, and pulling it back raises them.

7. Tilt Lever

  • Description: Another control lever, usually next to the lift lever.
  • Function: Tilts the mast forward and backward. Tilting forward helps to insert the forks under a load, while tilting backward stabilizes the load during transport.

8. Side Shift Lever (if equipped)

  • Description: Additional lever found on some forklifts.
  • Function: Moves the forks left and right without moving the entire forklift, allowing for precise positioning of the load.

9. Horn Button

  • Description: Located on the steering wheel or as a separate button.
  • Function: Used to alert others to the forklift’s presence, especially in busy areas or when reversing.

10. Parking Brake

  • Description: A hand-operated lever or foot pedal.
  • Function: Engages the brake to keep the forklift stationary when parked.

11. Mast Control Buttons (optional)

  • Description: Buttons or switches for advanced control features.
  • Function: Additional controls for functions like mast height adjustment, fork positioning, or other attachments.

Understanding and regularly checking these controls and components are crucial for safe and efficient forklift operation. Proper pre-operational checks can prevent accidents and extend the lifespan of the equipment.

Getting Started

Starting the Forklift

Starting a forklift correctly is essential for safe and efficient operation. Here’s a step-by-step guide:

  1. Conduct a Pre-Operational Check:
    • Before starting the forklift, perform a thorough inspection as outlined in the Pre-Operational Checks section. This includes checking tire pressure (80-120 PSI for pneumatic tires), fluid levels (engine oil, hydraulic fluid, coolant, and brake fluid), and ensuring all parts are in good working condition.
  2. Enter the Forklift Safely:
    • Use the three-point contact method (two hands and one foot, or two feet and one hand) to enter the cab safely. This method reduces the risk of slipping and falling.
  3. Fasten Your Seatbelt:
    • Ensure the seatbelt is securely fastened for your safety. A properly fastened seatbelt can prevent injury in case of sudden stops or accidents.
  4. Insert the Key:
    • Insert the ignition key into the slot and turn it to the ‘ON’ position. For electric forklifts, ensure the battery is connected and the power switch is turned on.
  5. Check Dashboard Indicators:
    • Wait for all dashboard indicators to light up and then turn off, indicating that the system checks are complete. Indicators include fuel gauge, temperature gauge, and any warning lights.
  6. Start the Engine:
    • Turn the key to the ‘START’ position. Hold it until the engine starts, then release it. For electric forklifts, press the start button or switch.
  7. Warm Up the Engine:
    • Allow the engine to warm up for a few minutes to ensure smooth operation, especially in cold weather. This helps in achieving optimal operating temperature for the engine and hydraulic systems.

Adjusting the Seat and Mirrors

Proper seating position and mirror adjustment are crucial for visibility and comfort, reducing the risk of accidents and operator fatigue.

  1. Adjust the Seat:
    • Seat Position: Slide the seat forward or backward so your feet can comfortably reach the pedals. Your legs should be slightly bent. Adjustments can range from a few inches forward or backward.
    • Backrest Angle: Adjust the backrest so that your back is fully supported and you can reach the controls without straining. Typically, a backrest angle of 90-100 degrees is comfortable.
    • Height Adjustment: Adjust the seat height so that you have a clear view of the forks and the load. Your eyes should be at a comfortable level with the dashboard, which is usually about 18-24 inches above the seat level.
  2. Adjust the Mirrors:
    • Side Mirrors: Adjust the side mirrors to give you a clear view of the area around the forklift, especially the rear. Ensure there are no blind spots. Side mirrors should cover a wide angle, typically around 120 degrees.
    • Rearview Mirror: If equipped, adjust the rearview mirror to maximize visibility behind the forklift.

Safety Gear

Wearing the correct safety gear is vital to protect yourself from potential hazards while operating a forklift.

  1. Helmet:
    • Purpose: Protects your head from falling objects and bumps.
    • Specification: Ensure the helmet meets safety standards (e.g., ANSI/ISEA Z89.1). Helmets should be made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and weigh around 350-400 grams.
  2. Safety Shoes:
    • Purpose: Protect your feet from heavy objects and provide slip-resistant traction.
    • Specification: Choose safety shoes with steel toes and non-slip soles. Steel toe caps should withstand impacts of up to 200 joules, and the sole should provide slip resistance with a coefficient of friction of at least 0.4 on dry surfaces.
  3. High-Visibility Vest:
    • Purpose: Makes you more visible to other operators and workers, reducing the risk of collisions.
    • Specification: Ensure the vest is bright (typically fluorescent yellow or orange) and has reflective strips for maximum visibility. Reflective strips should be at least 50 mm wide and cover the torso from all sides.

By following these steps and using the proper safety gear, you’ll ensure a safer and more comfortable experience while operating a forklift.

Basic Operating Procedures

Lifting and Lowering Loads

Correctly lifting and lowering loads with a forklift ensures safety and efficiency. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Approach the Load:
    • Position the Forklift: Ensure the forks are level and spaced properly to fit under the load. The load should be centered on the forks, which are typically spaced 18-36 inches apart, depending on the size of the load and the forklift model.
  2. Insert the Forks:
    • Drive Forward: Slowly drive forward until the forks are fully inserted under the load. The load center, which is the balance point of the load, should be at the standard 24 inches from the fork’s base. This ensures the load is balanced and stable.
  3. Lift the Load:
    • Raise the Forks: Use the lift lever to raise the forks. Lift the load to a height of about 4-6 inches above the ground to maintain stability. Ensure the mast is tilted slightly backward (about 5-10 degrees) to secure the load and prevent it from falling forward.
  4. Transporting the Load:
    • Keep the Load Low: While transporting, keep the load low to the ground to maintain the forklift’s center of gravity and prevent tipping. Avoid sudden starts, stops, or sharp turns that can destabilize the load. This is how high the forklifts should be driving or operating the trucks with load.
  5. Lowering the Load:
    • Position the Forklift: Move to the designated area where the load needs to be placed. Slowly lower the load by pushing the lift lever forward until the load is securely on the ground.
  6. Withdraw the Forks:
    • Back Away: Once the load is on the ground, tilt the mast slightly forward and slowly back the forklift away, ensuring the load remains stable and does not shift.

Driving the Forklift

Understanding the basic driving techniques is crucial for safe operation:

  1. Steering:
    • Rear-Wheel Steering: Forklifts typically have rear-wheel steering, which allows for tighter turns. Always steer smoothly to avoid tipping. The steering ratio varies, but it generally takes about 3-5 turns of the wheel to go from lock to lock.
  2. Accelerating:
    • Gradual Acceleration: Gradually press the accelerator pedal to move forward. Abrupt acceleration can cause instability, especially with a loaded forklift. The typical acceleration rate should allow the forklift to reach its operating speed (5-8 mph in warehouse settings) smoothly.
  3. Braking:
    • Gentle Braking: Gently press the brake pedal to slow down or stop. Sudden braking can cause the load to shift or the forklift to tip. The braking distance can vary but should be controlled within a few feet, typically 3-5 feet depending on the speed and load weight.

Turning and Maneuvering

Safely turning and maneuvering a forklift in tight spaces requires careful control:

  1. Turning:
    • Slow Down: When turning, always slow down and use the rear-wheel steering to navigate tight corners. Forklifts have a tight turning radius, often around 6-8 feet, which allows for better maneuverability in confined spaces.
  2. Maneuvering in Tight Spaces:
    • Speed Control: Maintain a slow, consistent speed. Speeds should generally not exceed 5 mph in tight areas to ensure control and prevent accidents.
    • Clearance: Always ensure you have enough clearance to make turns. The overall width of a standard forklift is typically around 3-4 feet, so ensure aisles and turning areas accommodate this.
    • Visibility: Use mirrors and lean out slightly to improve visibility around the forklift, especially when reversing or turning. Proper visibility helps in avoiding obstacles and ensuring safe navigation.
  3. Using the Inching Pedal:
    • Precise Movements: For precise movements, use the inching pedal. This allows for slow, controlled movements, ideal for aligning the forks with the load. The inching pedal disengages the transmission while allowing the engine to rev, providing better control during delicate operations.

By mastering these basic operating procedures, you’ll be able to lift and transport loads safely and efficiently while driving the forklift with confidence.

Handling Loads

Load Stability

Ensuring the load is stable and secure before moving is crucial for safety and efficiency. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Check Load Balance:
    • Center of Gravity: Ensure the load’s center of gravity is centered between the forks. An off-center load can cause the forklift to tip over.
    • Even Distribution: Distribute the weight evenly on both forks. If the load is unevenly distributed, adjust it or reposition it to achieve balance.
  2. Secure the Load:
    • Binding Materials: Use straps, ropes, or other binding materials to secure loose or irregularly shaped items. This prevents shifting during transport.
    • Fork Position: Ensure the forks are inserted fully under the load. The load should not be too far forward or backward on the forks.
  3. Tilt the Mast:
    • Backward Tilt: Tilt the mast slightly backward (about 5-10 degrees) to secure the load and prevent it from falling forward during movement.

Proper Load Placement

How to position the load on the forks and ensure even weight distribution:

  1. Approach the Load:
    • Level Forks: Ensure the forks are level and spaced properly to fit under the load. Adjust the fork width to match the load size.
    • Center the Load: The load should be centered between the forks to maintain balance. The standard load center distance is 24 inches from the fork’s base.
  2. Insert the Forks:
    • Fully Inserted Forks: Slowly drive forward until the forks are fully inserted under the load. Partial insertion can lead to instability and load shifting.
    • Equal Fork Height: Ensure both forks are at the same height to avoid tilting the load.
  3. Lift the Load:
    • Smooth Lifting: Use the lift lever to raise the forks smoothly. Lift the load to a height of about 4-6 inches above the ground for transport.
    • Backward Tilt: Tilt the mast slightly backward to secure the load. This is particularly important for loads that are tall or top-heavy.

Load Limits

Understanding the forklift’s load capacity and adhering to it:

  1. Check the Load Capacity:
    • Capacity Plate: Refer to the forklift’s data plate, usually located on the dashboard or near the operator’s seat. This plate provides information on the maximum load capacity at various lift heights and load center distances.
    • Weight Limits: Typical load capacities range from 3,000 to 6,000 pounds for standard forklifts. Ensure the load does not exceed these limits.
  2. Load Center:
    • Standard Load Center: The load center is typically 24 inches. If the load’s center of gravity exceeds this distance, the effective load capacity decreases. For example, a forklift rated for 5,000 pounds at a 24-inch load center may only be able to lift 3,500 pounds if the load center is 30 inches.
  3. Adhere to Capacity Limits:
    • Avoid Overloading: Never exceed the forklift’s rated load capacity. Overloading can cause tipping, mechanical failure, and accidents.
    • Stacking and Height Considerations: Consider the load height and stacking arrangement. Higher loads can shift the center of gravity and affect stability. Always lower the load before making turns or navigating inclines.

By following these guidelines for load stability, proper load placement, and adhering to load limits, you’ll ensure safe and efficient handling of loads with a forklift.

Parking and Shutdown

Parking the Forklift

How to safely park the forklift and lower the forks to the ground:

  1. Choose a Safe Parking Area:
    • Designated Area: Park the forklift in a designated area, away from high-traffic zones and emergency exits.
    • Flat Surface: Ensure the parking surface is flat and even to prevent the forklift from rolling or tipping.
  2. Lower the Forks:
    • Fork Positioning: Gradually lower the forks to the ground by pushing the lift lever forward. The forks should be flat on the ground to prevent tripping hazards and avoid damage.
    • Tilt Adjustment: Ensure the mast is vertical or slightly tilted forward to fully lower the forks.
  3. Neutral Gear:
    • Shift to Neutral: Place the directional lever in the neutral position to disengage the transmission. This ensures the forklift does not move unexpectedly.
  4. Apply the Parking Brake:
    • Engage Brake: Pull the parking brake lever or press the brake pedal to engage the parking brake. This locks the wheels and prevents the forklift from rolling.

Shutting Down the Forklift

Steps to properly shut down the forklift and secure it:

  1. Idle the Engine:
    • Cool Down: Let the engine idle for a minute to cool down, especially if it has been operating at high speeds or under heavy loads. This helps prevent engine damage.
  2. Turn Off Accessories:
    • Accessory Shutdown: Turn off all lights, heaters, and other electrical accessories to prevent battery drain.
  3. Turn Off the Engine:
    • Key Position: Turn the ignition key to the ‘OFF’ position to shut down the engine. For electric forklifts, switch off the power button or disconnect the battery.
  4. Remove the Key:
    • Key Removal: Remove the ignition key to prevent unauthorized use. Store it in a secure location.
  5. Disconnect the Battery (for Electric Forklifts):
    • Battery Disconnection: Disconnect the battery connector to cut off the power supply. This is a safety measure to prevent electrical issues or accidental startups.
  6. Secure the Forklift:
    • Steering Wheel Lock: If your forklift has a steering wheel lock, engage it to prevent unauthorized steering.
    • Chock the Wheels: Use wheel chocks if parking on an incline or if required by site safety protocols. Place the chocks in front of and behind the wheels to prevent movement.

By following these steps, you ensure the forklift is safely parked and properly shut down, reducing the risk of accidents and maintaining the equipment’s longevity.

How to Gain Operating Experience on a Forklift

Enroll in Certified Training Programs

  • Join accredited courses that combine classroom instruction with hands-on practice.
  • Gain foundational knowledge and practical skills under professional guidance.
    • Classroom Hours: Typically, 8-16 hours of theoretical instruction.
    • Practical Hours: 8-20 hours of hands-on practice with forklifts.

Complete Online Courses

  • Take online classes that cover forklift safety regulations, operating procedures, and basic controls.
  • Flexible learning that can be done at your own pace.
    • Course Length: Typically ranges from 4-8 hours.
    • Content: Includes OSHA regulations, load handling, and safety procedures.

Attend In-Person Training Sessions

  • Participate in training sessions at local training centers or vocational schools.
  • Hands-on experience with real forklifts in a controlled environment.
    • Training Duration: Usually 3-5 days.
    • Practical Training: Handling actual loads, navigating courses, and performing maneuvers.

Obtain Forklift Certification

  • Complete a certified training program and pass the necessary exams.
  • Meets legal requirements and improves job prospects.
    • Certification Validity: Typically valid for 3 years.
    • Exams: Includes both written and practical tests.

Participate in On-the-Job Training Programs

  • Gain practical experience through internships, apprenticeships, or entry-level positions.
  • Real-world experience in a work environment, often under the supervision of experienced operators.
    • Training Hours: Aim for at least 40 hours of on-the-job training.
    • Tasks: Includes transporting loads, stacking, and navigating workspaces.

Practice at Training Centers

  • Use facilities equipped with practice yards and simulation areas to refine your skills.
  • Safe environment to practice operating forklifts and handling loads.
    • Practice Sessions: Typically 2-4 hours per session.
    • Equipment: Includes different types of forklifts and various load scenarios.

Use Forklift Simulators

  • Utilize simulators to practice driving, lifting, and maneuvering forklifts without risk.
  • Risk-free environment to learn and correct mistakes.
    • Simulator Sessions: Typically 1-2 hours per session.
    • Scenarios: Simulate tight spaces, heavy loads, and emergency situations.

Find a Mentor

  • Seek guidance from experienced forklift operators who can provide tips and feedback.
  • Learn best practices and avoid common mistakes through direct mentorship.
    • Mentorship Duration: Continuous, with regular check-ins.
    • Feedback: Practical advice on techniques and safety practices.

Shadow Experienced Operators

  • Spend time observing and assisting experienced forklift drivers.
  • Gain insights into practical techniques and workplace procedures.
    • Shadowing Hours: 10-20 hours of observation and assistance.
    • Tasks: Includes load handling, navigating complex environments, and safety checks.

Join Professional Networks

  • Become a member of forklift operator associations or online forums.
  • Stay updated on industry standards and connect with professionals for advice and opportunities.
    • Membership: Annual memberships in professional associations.
    • Forums: Participate in discussions and access resources.

Attend Workshops and Seminars

  • Participate in educational events focused on advanced forklift skills and safety.
  • Continuous learning and exposure to the latest industry trends.
    • Workshop Duration: Typically 1-2 days.
    • Topics: Advanced techniques, new technologies, and regulatory updates.

Participate in Safety Drills

  • Engage in regular safety drills to practice emergency procedures.
  • Enhances readiness and ensures adherence to safety protocols.
    • Drill Frequency: Monthly or quarterly drills.
    • Scenarios: Includes fire drills, evacuation procedures, and emergency stops.

Conduct Safety Audits and Inspections

  • Regularly inspect the forklift and the work environment for potential hazards.
  • Promotes a culture of safety and prevents accidents.
    • Inspection Frequency: Daily pre-operation checks.
    • Audit Duration: Comprehensive audits every 3-6 months.

Document Your Experience

  • Keep a log of your operating hours, tasks performed, and training received.
  • Demonstrates your experience and helps identify areas for improvement.
    • Logbook: Record hours, tasks, and feedback.
    • Review: Regularly review and update your log.

Gather Recommendations

  • Obtain references from trainers, supervisors, and colleagues.
  • Builds credibility and supports your professional profile.
    • Reference Letters: Collect from reputable sources.
    • Testimonies: Include specific examples of your skills and performance.

Create a Portfolio

  • Compile your certifications, training records, and references into a portfolio.
  • A comprehensive portfolio showcases your qualifications to potential employers.
    • Portfolio Content: Include copies of certifications, training transcripts, and reference letters.
    • Presentation: Use a professional format, either digital or physical.

By following these detailed steps, you can gain the experience needed to operate a forklift safely and efficiently, enhancing your skills and career opportunities in the process.

To Make a Conclusion

Driving a forklift for the first time can be both exciting and challenging. By following the steps outlined above, you can gain the necessary experience and skills to operate a forklift safely and efficiently. Remember to start with certified training programs, obtain your certification, and seek hands-on practice through internships, apprenticeships, or entry-level positions.

Utilizing simulators, finding a mentor, and participating in workshops and seminars will further enhance your skills. Always prioritize safety by practicing safety protocols and conducting regular inspections. With dedication and continuous learning, you’ll become a proficient forklift operator, opening up new opportunities for career growth and ensuring a safer workplace for everyone.


Scroll to Top