Forklifts & pedestrians: how close is too close on your site?

8th February 2018

One look at the frequency and severity of recent forklift accidents should be enough to convince anyone that wherever possible, lift trucks and pedestrians should be kept apart. Each year, 1300 workers in the UK are seriously injured following accidents involving lift trucks. And according to HSE figures, in 57% of cases, the victim is on foot at the time of impact.

Wherever it’s feasible to segregate your operating areas, it's best practice to do so. But how do we deal with areas that can’t be physically segregated? It’s here that life-changing accidents and injuries too often occur.

To try to minimise the risk, many companies opt for a generic safe distance rule across their entire site. This might be a set distance, or a minimum number of pick points that are expected to be maintained at all times.

But the danger of fixed-distance rules is that not all tasks carried out on your site are necessarily the same... and neither are the associated risks. Every lift must be judged on its own merits, if the chance of an accident is to be adequately reduced.

Lost loads: from near miss to dangerous occurrence

Unfortunately, a recent trend in the news is pedestrians suffering life-changing, even fatal, injuries as a result of lost loads during forklift operation. In one recent case, a colleague working close to a forklift truck suffered serious injuries when its concrete load slipped and fell onto him, resulting in amputation to part of his leg. In another, a delivery driver was fatally crushed when an overloaded forklift became unstable and tipped over. In both instances, there was no safe distance kept between the forklift and pedestrian.

Should a forklift lose its load with no pedestrians in proximity, the worst case scenario is damage to your stock or equipment. This is still an issue for budget-conscious businesses, but far preferable to the devastating consequences should a pedestrian become involved. Tragically, injuries to pedestrians caused by lost loads are almost always avoidable because the pedestrian should never need to be in the operating area in the first place.

Think about it like this, it’s often the difference between a ‘near miss’ (reportable internally) and a ‘dangerous occurrence’ (reportable to the HSE as it could lead to serious or fatal injury). The severity shifts massively if a safe distance is not maintained.

So when forklifts and pedestrians must operate in proximity, how close is too close? Well, there’s certainly no one-size-fits-all answer…

A safe distance for your operations

The best approach is to create separate safe systems of work for the different forklift operations carried out on your site, each taking into account the specific risks that the task presents. A good start is to consider the following:

  • Width of the load – the longer the load, the wider the area of impact, should it fall
  • Picking height – the higher the operating height, the wider the area at risk below
  • Load structure, make up and contents - if potentially volatile/high-risk, keep further distance. Live loads prone to swinging/unpredictable movement also present added risk
  • Driver distraction – if the proximity of pedestrians could affect driver concentration, consider putting more distance between them

Make sure a safe distance is kept

Once you’ve assessed safe distance throughout your operations, the next step is to communicate it, and be sure to include everyone who may need to access an area where forklifts operate, however rarely this may be. This shouldn’t just include staff but contractors and visitors, particularly delivery drivers whose vehicles become part of your operations during the loading/unloading process. Then, once shared, take steps to ensure policies are enforced – remember, your safety measures are only effective if they’re being followed.

You can help maintain safe operating distances on your site with our simple, 3-step signaling system for operators and pedestrians. The ‘Show Your Hand’ method is easy to implement with our free safety packs, available here, which have already been downloaded by hundreds of UK businesses who want to benefit from a reduced risk of accidents and injuries on their sites. Join them and find out more here.


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