How to Become a Forklift Operator

The material handling industry offers a number of opportunities, with unique rewards and challenges. With technology always evolving, so are the challenges. Material handling is a people-oriented business that’s always looking for hard-working, enthusiastic people who like solving problems and helping customers.

Material handling equipment is any equipment used for the storage, movement, control and protection of goods. Equipment falls into one of three categories:

  • Transport
  • Positioning unit load formation
  • Storage

Transport equipment, such as forklifts, moves material between locations. The three different kinds of transport equipment are as follows:

  • Conveyors– Conveyers are used when material must be moved frequently between specific points over a fixed path.
  • Cranes– Cranes transport loads over horizontal and vertical paths when there’s more intermittent flow volume.
  • Industrial Trucks – Industrial trucks are trucks that move materials over variable paths when there’s insufficient flow volume to justify use of a conveyer belt. Powered trucks can be ridden or controlled by a walking operator. Such trucks include hand trucks, such as carts and dollies, pallet jacks, which don’t stack pallets, automated guided vehicles, which transport loads but don’t require a human operator, and forklift Trucks (counterbalanced lift trucks), which transport and stack pallets and also allow the user to ride on the truck. Forklifts use hydraulic lifting mechanisms to move heavy and large objects.

What Does a Forklift Operator Do?

Forklift operators use forklifts to move materials at storage facilities, warehouses and construction sites. Depending on the materials to be moved, forklift operators may be around harmful chemicals, loud noises, odors and fumes.

As a forklift operator, you’ll be moving materials such as wood, cement, concrete blocks and dirt. You’ll also load and unload trucks and ships with building materials and merchandise. You may also be asked to inspect forklifts, perform basic maintenance, follow safety rules and report equipment damage or other unsafe conditions.

There are certain skills drivers must have while operating a forklift:

  • Manual Dexterity– Because forklift operators may need to navigate through narrow paths, it will help to have enough dexterity to handle challenging routes. It’s also important to operate heavy machinery accurately.
  • Visual Ability– Good vision will help you perform work safely and accurately.
  • Mechanical Ability– If you’re familiar with how a forklift works, you’ll be able to troubleshoot issues when they arise.
  • Alertness– It’s vital to be aware of your surroundings and have good instincts when it comes to avoiding accidents.

Although most forklift drivers work 8-hour shifts, they can work around the clock. In places open to customers, forklift work is often done after hours.

According to as of February 2015, most OSHA certified forklift operators earn between $9.95 and $16.78 per hour. An experienced forklift operator can earn closer to $20 an hour, although this still depends on location and employer.


Entry requirements for forklift operators are not too strict. To become a forklift operator, you need to be at least 18 years old and in good health. You should be able to carry medium-sized objects and turn around in the driver’s seat. There are no weight and height requirements. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) permits employers to adopt medical qualification requirements necessary to ensure that operators don’t pose a threat to health or safety, assuming reasonable efforts have been made to accommodate a disability.

Although there are no education requirements for it, many employers will still prefer a high school diploma or GED.


If you don’t have experience as a forklift operator, you will need to get trained. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) training and certification regulations establish two phases. The first phase involves trade school training, which is also available through online courses. This typically requires a multiple-choice exam. The second phase involves a practical, hand-on skills evaluation.

OSHA does not provide training to truck operators. Instead, it requires employers to provide site-specific training and equipment-specific training for forklift operators, along with certification of that training. Based on general principles of safe truck operation, training programs must ensure that operators perform jobs accurately and safely. This process can be as simple as observing the operator perform typical operations and asking questions related to safe operation.

Appendix C of this sample training documentation for powered industrial trucks details some of the behaviors an employer might examine. The document also establishes training program standards, employee responsibilities and also requirements for vehicle maintenance and inspections.

In addition to a discussion or observation, it can also involve written documentation of training and even a performance test. An employer should determine the best way to evaluate the competency of its forklift drivers.

Employers provide the government with proof of training at least once every 3 years, and can be fined $3,000 for each forklift operator without a license. Facilities that handle toxic chemicals or dangerous equipment may need to obtain additional certification.

OSHA established training requirements for forklifts and all other powered industrial trucks. These requirements are codified in the Code of Federal Regulations, title 29, section 1910.178. Any business — retail, warehousing, manufacturing or distribution — that employs people to operate powered industrial trucks must comply with these requirements.

29 C.F.R. 1910.178 applies to forklift trucks, as well as other powered industrial trucks such as:

  • Counter-balance trucks
  • Cantilevered trucks
  • High lift trucks
  • Low lift trucks
  • Motorized hand trucks
  • Order pickers
  • Pallet trucks
  • Reach trucks
  • Rider trucks
  • Straddle trucks
  • Rough terrain trucks

An employee will need to be trained on any vehicles that he or she is expected to operate.

Training consists of a combination of formal instruction, practical training and evaluation of operator performance at work. Operation training and evaluation will be conducted by people with the knowledge, training and experience to teach powered industrial truck operators and evaluate competence. A qualified trainer will have professional training, extensive knowledge and the ability to evaluate and train industrial truck operators.

Initial training will cover the following:

  • Truck control and instrumentation
  • Engine or motor operation
  • Steering and maneuvering
  • Visibility
  • Technical functions and forklift design
  • Types of forklifts (manual and motor-operated) such as basket lift machines, narrow aisle riders, reach forklifts, wheel loaders, stand-ups, pallet jacks and basket lifts
  • Forklift components
  • Differences between trucks and automobiles
  • Vehicle capacity
  • Operating instructions, warnings and precautions listed in the operating manual
  • Fork and attachment adaptation
  • Vehicle stability
  • Operating limitations
  • Required maintenance
  • Refueling requirements
  • Other work-related topics

Employers may exclude topics not relevant to site-specific forklift operations. If an operator has already operated the same type of equipment in the same type of environment, duplicative training and testing may not be necessary.

Once trained, an employee will be able to operate a vehicle without continual, direct supervision.

Refresher training should be offered to ensure that operators continue to demonstrate the knowledge and skills needed to operate forklifts. Refresher training should be provided when workplace conditions change, or the nature of the equipment changes. Refresher training is also needed if an operator demonstrates a failure to operate the truck safely, or if the operator was involved in an accident or near-accident. There’s no need for retraining if an employer certifies that an employee has proven competent to operate a particular kind of truck on a particular kind of route.

If an employer requires you to learn how to operate a forklift, the employer will either provide a certification course or advise you on how to complete one. If not currently employed, find a qualified school that teaches students how to operate heavy machinery and provides certification. The OSHA standard requires certification of training, and doesn’t require a license for trained operators.

Becoming a certified forklift driver, however, is not only about learning how to operate the vehicle. It’s also important to learn how to drive and operate it safely.


According to 29 C.F.R. 1910.178, employers (or trade schools) will also certify that forklift operators have been properly trained and evaluated. Verifiable completion of training will render applicants eligible for certification.

Certification includes the name of the operators, the date of the training, the date of the evaluation and the identity of the evaluator. As soon as training has been completed, an employer can print a temporary certificate and operator card.

Becoming certified and OSHA compliant may take about half a day. The benefit of OSHA-approved certification is the possibility of better pay as well as the possibility of employment at warehouses, seaports, airports and construction sites anywhere in the world.

Becoming a Certified Forklift Trainer

If you’re already a certified forklift operator, you might consider becoming a certified forklift trainer to help teach other forklift operators to be safe and knowledgeable. If interested in becoming a trainer, you might consider a continuing education course in forklift safety to ensure you’re up to date on forklift operating technology. There are no required classes to become a certified forklift trainer, but there are helpful skills:

  • Knowledge of forklifts and components
  • Ability to share information in a way that trainees can understand
  • Ability to answer trainee questions

Becoming a trainer can be as simple as making the request with your supervisor, but the above skills make it easier to convince an employer to certify you as a trainer. Specialized training will also increase the odds.

Safety Courses and Policies

According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, forklift operation is considered a “hazardous occupation.” Industrial equipment like forklifts can be very dangerous if used improperly, with almost 100 people getting hurt each year. This is why you need to take an OHSA-approved safety course, even after obtaining forklift driver training and certification. Although OSHA requirements help reduce the number of injuries in the workplace, they can also lower the cost of compensation insurance and reduce product and property damage in the workplace.

Employers can show employees videos on forklift safety, but it’s not enough to meet the full requirements of the OSHA standard. Employers must also provide site-specific safety information and evaluate the employee’s understanding of that information.

Forklift Safety Checklist

With 25% of forklift deaths caused by an overturned forklift, according to OSHA, it’s vital to follow safety guidelines and proper operating procedures. The following tips should help improve forklift safety on the job:

  • Qualified Operators– Drivers must have proper training and licensing to operate material handling transportation equipment. According to OSHA, only trained and authorized personnel may operate forklift equipment.
  • Daily Inspections– Forklift trucks require daily safety checks as well as inspection prior to use. Trucks that aren’t functioning properly should be removed from service.
  • Consider the Operating Environment– Forklift routes should always be inspected for hazards such as loose materials, low overhead clearance and unstable loading ramps and bridge plates. Avoid bumps, holes and wet areas. Train tracks, elevators and ramps should be navigated carefully.
  • Don’t Overload the Forklift– Operators should understand the load capacity for the forklift and be sure not to overload it.
  • Maintain Load Stability– Operators should inspect all loads for balance and stability. Loads need to be symmetrical with a low center of gravity. When driving on ramps, loads should be higher than the body of the forklift. Forklifts should be driven up ramps but driven down in reverse.
  • Maintain Visibility– Loads should be short and carried low to the ground to avoid restricting driver visibility. The forklift can be driven in reverse to improve visibility. A lookout may be needed to navigate around corners or when high stacks are necessary.
  • Follow Company Safety Rules– Forklift operators should obey all company regulations concerning material handling. They should also use Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), follow the speed limit and fasten their seatbelt.
  • Caution in Pedestrian Areas– Forklift drivers should exercise extreme caution when navigating pedestrian areas, intersections, corners, stairways, exitsand entrances.
  • Refuel Safely– Forklifts should be refueled at designated locations with the engine turned off and while avoiding open flames and sparks.
  • Shutting Down– If left unattended, forklifts should be parked in designated areas with the parking brake applied and keys removed from the ignition.

As a forklift operator, it’s vital to remain aware of your surroundings to ensure work is safely completed. Ongoing instruction in equipment safety is important even for certified forklift operators.

A Career in Material Handling

Before embarking on a career as a forklift operator, it’s wise to take some time to learn about the industry. The more you learn about it, and the kind of work you might be doing, the easier it will be to make an informed career choice. Learning about the industry will also make it easier to find solutions for customers, once you’ve begun a career in material handling.

Join the McCall Handling Team

McCall Handling offers the best forklifts for sale in the market, from manufacturers such as Bendi, DrexelHyster and CombiLift. We also back up all sales with quality customer service.

McCall Handling also needs talented staff for forklift operator jobs, as well as other positions in the material handling business such as forklift sales, preventative maintenance and service, administration, and parts and accessories. If you’re interested in a job as a forklift operator, call McCall Handling today, or fill out our online application form to submit your resume for consideration.