How to Operate a Forklift: A Basic Guide to Controls

Learn the basics of how to operate a forklift, what safety procedures are required, and how to successfully train your team.

The information contained in this piece does not constitute forklift operator certification. We are not responsible for any burst of confidence resulting in you hopping behind the wheel and accidentally “domino-ing” 20 stocked warehouse shelves. Be smart and safe!

Is there still a demand for forklift operators?

young woman operating a forklift
While many jobs are vanishing (we’re looking at you, travel agents), forklift operator does not appear to be one of them. Even if you’re not looking for a dedicated role as a forklift operator, knowing your way around a forklift (preferably with a certification) can make you a valuable worker in the world of manufacturing, construction, shipping, and beyond.

What are the main differences between gas-powered and electric forklifts?

The two main types of forklifts are those powered by gas using an internal combustion engine or via electricity. Gas-powered forklifts may be powered by propane, gasoline, diesel, or compressed natural gas. Electric forklifts may be used in areas more sensitive to exhaust—such as in tighter indoor areas or where food items are stored. Though these two types of forklifts may differ in how they’re powered, the operation of said forklifts is largely the same.

What are some of the most common forklift attachments? 

There are a wide variety of forklift attachments available depending on the application. These range from swivel hooks to chain hoists, box clamps to push-pull attachments that allow for moving loads that are not loaded on pallets. For this piece, we’re going to focus on the standard two-fork configuration forklift attachment.

What should I do before driving a forklift? 

Before hopping behind the wheel of a forklift and getting to work, it is important to perform a safety inspection of the forklift. Using a guided checklist, the operator will perform a visual inspection of equipment—including checking fuel levels, tire condition, the forks, the chains or belts associated with the lift system, and the overall condition of the forklift. Other safety precautions may include donning a highly visible vest and wearing your seat belt once seated.

How does one drive a forklift? 

Most forklifts drive much like a typical automatic-transmission automobile—with a key-start ignition, steering wheel in the center (A.), accelerator pedal on the right (B.), and brake pedal (C.) on the left or center. Depending on the model, the emergency/parking brake will either be a larger lever on the left side (D.) or floor pedal. 

What is an inching pedal on a forklift?

There may also be a third pedal on the far left known as the inching pedal (E). An inching pedal will disengage the transmission without the need to shift the forklift into neutral during a lift—somewhat like a clutch on a standard-transmission automobile. This allows the operator to “inch” up to a load without needing to ride the main brake pedal. Not all models will have an inching pedal or some operators may not prefer to use them.

How do I shift gears on a forklift?

Changing driving gears on a forklift typically takes place using an arm on the left side of the steering wheel (F.)—usually where a turn indicator would be on a left-side drive automobile. Moving the lever upwards shifts the forklift into drive, the middle position is neutral, and the downward position puts the forklift into reverse—which should activate an audible beeping.

Despite a very tight rear-steering axle, steering wheel controls are the same as a standard automobile—clockwise to turn right, counterclockwise to turn left. 

How do I operate a forklift’s lifting controls? 

To the operator’s right side, there will be a series of either three or four levers. 

  • (G.) The first lever from the left is for vertical lifting control—allowing the operator to pull back on the lever to lift, pushing it forward to lower the front attachment.
  • (H.) The second lever from the left is tilt control—allowing the operator to pull back on the lever to tilt the entire attachment assembly to tilt backward/toward the forklift, pushing forward on the lever to tilt it forward/away from the forklift. Some forklifts also have a button on this lever which allows the operator to automatically level out the fork attachment.
  • (I.) The third lever from the left is the side-shifter—allowing the operator to move the fork attachment horizontally, pulling it back to move the fork to the right, and pushing it forward to move the fork to the left. 
  • (J.) If the forklift has a fourth lever to the left, this would be used to control another attachment—such as a clamp. 

How do I safely drive a forklift while carrying a load? 

man operating yellow forklift
While driving a forklift that contains a load, caution is key.

  • Make sure you’re wearing your seatbelt. 
  • When backing up, always look behind you—not simply trusting your mirrors (which may contain blindspots). 
  • When backing up, allow for a few beeps to ring out before moving backward to give those around you the opportunity to hear and take any necessary evasive action. 
  • Approach any load squarely to avoid tipping upon loading.
  • Make sure your forks are spread apart as wide as possible to balance the load.
  • Position the load is as close to the front wheels as possible to avoid frontward tipping.
  • Lower the load between four and six inches from the ground while driving to lower your center of gravity and avoid side-to-side tipping. 
  • Be aware of your surroundings to avoid colliding with any people or structures. 
  • Make sure any loads are not overly obstructing your view of where you’re driving. If they are, consider traveling carefully in reverse up to your destination.
  • Travel at speeds that will accommodate a safe immediate stop. 
  • Be mindful to slow down considerably when going around corners to avoid tipping or colliding with people or structures.

Why is important to become a licensed/certified forklift operator? 

Carrying heavy loads around warehouses, construction sites, and other close-quarter job sites can be very dangerous for those not equipped with the necessary operation and safety knowledge or experience. Not only is operating a forklift without a license potentially dangerous to workers and costly in the event of damage to structures and inventory, but it is also expensive to employers—with fines from OSHA ranging from the tens-thousands to up over $100,000

Insurance companies may also greatly increase company rates after reports of unlicensed forklift operations or refusing coverage altogether. 

How can I become a licensed forklift operator? 

Acquiring forklift certification as an individual or for your workers can be done in a few different ways.

How to Acquire a Forklift Operator’s License as a Worker
  • Seek employment with a company that is willing to supply you with OSHA-accredited forklift training and certification
  • Seek OSHA-accredited forklift training and certification from your existing employer
  • Acquire OSHA-approved forklift training and accreditation for yourself through an existing third-party training company near you
How to Acquire a Forklift Operator’s License for Your Employers

And it’s that easy!

You’re well on your way to becoming a certified forklift operator or acquiring the necessary training for your employees. 

Where can I buy forklifts from dealerships near me? 

If you’re in the market for a quality forklift, you’re invited to look through the vast inventory of forklifts for sale from a variety of dealers through My Little Salesman. Search by postal code to see forklifts for sale near you.

Find Your Next Forklift For Sale Today

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About Ken Lane
Ken’s affinity for the heavy equipment industry was fostered as a curious youngster—becoming happily lost on his grandfather’s tractor sales and service lot (his favorite color is still Allis-Chalmers Orange). Since then, he’s perfected the art of turning black coffee into helpful buyer resources and marketing materials for My Little Salesman.
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