How To Drive a Forklift

All - 85 Min read

May 14, 2024

Driving a forklift involves conducting a pre-operational check to ensure all vehicle functions are in proper working order. Operators must skillfully maneuver the vehicle, often in tight spaces, using its rear-wheel steering. Handling and transporting loads safely is crucial, requiring careful lifting, moving, and placement to maintain stability and prevent accidents. After use, the forklift should be securely parked with the parking brake applied. Safety and awareness are essential to prevent injuries and ensure a safe working environment.

Here are some general steps and tips on how to operate a forklift.

Operating a Forklift

Watch this video tutorial:

STEP 1: Knowing the Forklift Parts

Before you begin operating a forklift, it’s crucial to familiarize yourself with the machine to ensure safe and efficient usage. 

Here's a overview of the key components:


The mast serves as the backbone of the forklift, responsible for the crucial task of lifting, lowering, and tilting loads. Comprising vertical channels and cross members, the mast operates in tandem with hydraulic cylinders to execute precise movements. Variations in mast design include duplex, triplex, and quad, offering different lifting heights to accommodate diverse operational needs. To know more about forklift masts, click here.


Positioned at the front of the forklift, the forks are sturdy, horizontally aligned components designed to support and transport loads with efficiency and stability. Available in various lengths and widths, forks are tailored to specific applications, ensuring optimal load distribution and balance. Optional fork attachments such as extensions, clamps, and rotators further enhance versatility, allowing the forklift to handle a wide range of materials and shapes.


Situated at the rear of the forklift, the counterweight plays a pivotal role in maintaining stability and balance during lifting operations. Typically composed of dense materials such as cast iron or steel, the counterweight offsets the weight of the load at the front, preventing the forklift from tipping forward. Variations in counterweight design cater to different forklift configurations and load capacities, ensuring optimal performance across diverse operating conditions.

Overhead Guard

A critical safety feature, the overhead guard encloses the operator's compartment, shielding them from potential hazards such as falling objects or debris. Constructed from robust materials such as reinforced steel or aluminum, the overhead guard offers reliable protection without obstructing visibility or impeding operator comfort. Enhanced designs may incorporate additional features such as integrated lighting or sound-dampening materials for added safety and convenience.


The operator's sanctuary, the cab houses essential controls, instrumentation, and seating arrangements to facilitate comfortable and ergonomic operation. Designed with operator comfort and convenience in mind, the cab may feature adjustable seats, intuitive control layouts, and ergonomic amenities to reduce operator fatigue and enhance productivity. Variations in cab design may include open-air platforms for outdoor applications or enclosed cabins for indoor use, providing flexibility to suit diverse operating environments.

Load Backrest

Situated behind the forks, the load backrest serves as a protective barrier, preventing loads from shifting or falling backward during lifting and transport operations. Constructed from robust materials such as steel or reinforced plastic, the load backrest provides stability and support, ensuring secure load retention and operator safety. Variations in load backrest design may include adjustable or removable configurations to accommodate different load sizes and shapes, maximizing versatility and efficiency.

Power Source

The heart of the forklift, the power source provides the energy required to propel and operate the vehicle. Options may include internal combustion engines powered by gasoline, diesel, or propane, offering robust performance and extended range for outdoor applications. Alternatively, electric motors powered by batteries provide clean, quiet operation ideal for indoor environments, with options for fast-charging or battery swapping to minimize downtime and maximize productivity.


The interface between the forklift and the ground, tires play a critical role in providing traction, stability, and maneuverability across diverse operating conditions. Choose from cushion (solid) tires for smooth indoor surfaces or pneumatic (air-filled) tires for outdoor and rough terrain applications, each offering unique benefits and trade-offs. Advanced tire designs may incorporate features such as non-marking compounds, puncture-resistant materials, or deep tread patterns to enhance performance and longevity.

Tilt Cylinder

Integral to the mast assembly, tilt cylinders enable controlled tilting motions, allowing the forklift to adjust the angle of the forks for precise load handling. Powered by hydraulic fluid under pressure, tilt cylinders deliver smooth and responsive operation, enabling operators to tilt loads forward or backward with precision and control. Variations in tilt cylinder design may include single or double-acting configurations, offering flexibility to accommodate different load weights and operating conditions.

Lift Cylinder

Nestled within the mast structure, lift cylinders provide the vertical movement necessary for raising and lowering the forks during loading and unloading operations. Actuated by hydraulic fluid, lift cylinders extend and retract with precision, allowing the forklift to lift loads to desired heights with accuracy and efficiency. Advanced lift cylinder designs may incorporate features such as cushioning valves or load-sensing technology to enhance safety, comfort, and performance.

Steering Axle

The steering axle governs the direction of the rear wheels, enabling the forklift to maneuver with precision and agility across diverse operating environments. Unlike conventional vehicles where front wheels dominate steering, the rear-wheel steering configuration of forklifts offers unique advantages such as tighter turning radiuses and enhanced stability during operation. Variations in steering axle design may include articulated or crab-steering systems, providing flexibility to navigate tight spaces or challenging terrain with ease.

Hydraulic Fluid Reservoir

Serving as the lifeblood of the hydraulic system, the fluid reservoir stores the hydraulic fluid required to power the lift, tilt, and steering functions of the forklift. Constructed from durable materials such as steel or plastic, the reservoir ensures a constant supply of hydraulic fluid to the system, enabling smooth and reliable operation across diverse operating conditions. Advanced reservoir designs may incorporate features such as sight gauges, filters, or temperature sensors to enhance performance and reliability.

Control Levers

The nerve center of the forklift, control levers enable operators to manipulate mast functions such as lifting, lowering, and tilting, as well as auxiliary attachments or accessories. Positioned within easy reach of the operator's seat, control levers offer intuitive operation and precise control, allowing operators to perform complex maneuvers with confidence and efficiency. Variations in control lever design may include ergonomic grips, intuitive labeling, or customizable configurations to suit operator preferences and operating conditions.

Safety Lights and Horn

Essential safety features, safety lights, and horns ensure visibility and awareness of the forklift's presence and movements in busy work environments. Headlights and tail lights illuminate the forklift's path, enhancing visibility in low-light conditions or indoor settings. Meanwhile, a loud and audible horn alerts nearby workers of the forklift's presence, minimizing the risk of collisions or accidents. Advanced safety systems may incorporate features such as LED lighting, strobe lights, or backup alarms to further enhance safety and awareness on the job site.

Data Plate (or Capacity Plate)

A vital information plaque affixed to the forklift, the data plate provides critical details such as weight capacity, fuel type, and attachment specifications. Compliant with industry standards and regulations, the data plate ensures safe and efficient operation by providing operators and maintenance personnel with essential information necessary for proper usage and maintenance. Advanced data plate designs may incorporate QR codes or RFID tags for quick access to digital manuals or specifications, enhancing convenience and accessibility in the field.

STEP 2: Starting the Forklift

  1. Enter the forklift from the left side using the hand grip and step.

  2. Fasten your seatbelt before starting the forklift.

  3. Start the engine with the key or start button, ensuring the forklift is in neutral.

STEP 3: Basic Operation

  1. Use the steering wheel to direct the forklift. Remember that forklifts pivot on the rear wheels, so turning dynamics are different from cars.

  2. Adjust the fork height using the control lever; the forks should be just above the ground when traveling without a load.

  3. To lift a load, drive up to it straight center the forks under the load, and lift by pulling the appropriate lever.

  4. Keep the load low to the ground while moving to maintain stability.

Transporting Loads

Maintain Load Stability:

Always keep the load tilted back slightly towards the mast to enhance stability during transportation. This position helps distribute the weight evenly and prevents the load from shifting forward unexpectedly.

Adjust Speed Accordingly:

Drive at speeds appropriate for the operating environment and the stability of the load. Exercise caution when navigating corners, ramps, or uneven surfaces, and reduce speed to maintain control and prevent accidents.

Avoid Sudden Movements:

Minimize the risk of load shifts or forklift tipping by avoiding abrupt stops and sharp turns. Gradually decelerate when coming to a stop and use smooth, controlled movements to navigate turns, ensuring the load remains secure at all times.

Placing and Retrieving Loads

Approach Racking Safely:

When placing or retrieving loads from racking or storage areas, approach the designated location squarely to optimize positioning accuracy. Align the forklift parallel to the rack and ensure adequate clearance for safe maneuvering.

Position Forks Correctly:

Extend the mast to the appropriate height for the desired shelf or storage level, ensuring the forks are positioned correctly beneath the load. Use caution to avoid contact with surrounding obstacles or adjacent pallets during the lifting process.

Verify Load Stability:

Before disengaging the forks or moving away from the load, carefully assess its stability to prevent potential accidents or spills. Ensure the load is securely positioned and balanced on the forks before proceeding with placement or retrieval operations.

Parking the Forklift

Lower Forks and Neutralize Controls:

Prior to parking the forklift, lower the forks to the ground to minimize the risk of tripping hazards and maintain stability. Shift the transmission into neutral, disengage all operational controls, and deactivate hydraulic functions.

Shut Down Engine:

Turn off the engine to reduce fuel consumption and minimize noise pollution in the workplace. Follow manufacturer guidelines for proper engine shutdown procedures to ensure optimal performance and longevity of the equipment.

Secure Vehicle:

Apply the parking brake to immobilize the forklift and prevent unintended movement while parked. Remove the ignition key from the control panel and store it in a designated location to prevent unauthorized access or operation.

Safety Tips

  1. Never exceed the rated capacity of the forklift.

  2. Watch for pedestrians and obey all workplace traffic regulations.

  3. Perform regular maintenance checks to ensure the forklift remains safe to operate.

Getting a Forklift Certification

Getting forklift certified is an essential step for anyone looking to operate a forklift, as it ensures operators have the necessary skills and knowledge to use the equipment safely and effectively. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to get forklift certified:

1. Understand the Requirements

Familiarize yourself with the specific regulations governing forklift operation in your region or country. In the United States, compliance with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards is mandatory for forklift operators. Ensure you meet the prerequisites outlined by these regulatory bodies before proceeding.

2. Choose a Training Program

Opt for a training program that is accredited by reputable safety organizations and recognized by regulatory authorities. Consider factors such as program duration, flexibility, and instructor qualifications when making your selection. Look for comprehensive courses that cover both theoretical knowledge and practical skills.

Accredited Programs:

Seek out training providers with accreditation from recognized bodies such as the National Safety Council (NSC) or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Training Formats:

Choose between online, classroom-based, or on-site training, depending on your availability and learning preferences. Online courses offer flexibility, while classroom-based instruction provides interactive learning experiences.

Curriculum Content:

Ensure the training curriculum covers all essential topics mandated by regulatory standards, including safety protocols, operating procedures, and equipment maintenance. Verify that the program addresses both workplace-specific and vehicle-specific considerations to ensure comprehensive preparation.

3. Complete the Training Course

Engage actively in the training course to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills for safe forklift operation. Participate in lectures, demonstrations, and hands-on exercises to reinforce your understanding and proficiency.

Course Modules:

Participate in structured coursework covering fundamental concepts such as forklift components, pre-operation inspections, load handling techniques, and emergency procedures. Familiarize yourself with relevant safety regulations and industry best practices to ensure compliance and proficiency.

Hands-on Practice:

Take advantage of practical training sessions conducted under the guidance of experienced instructors. Practice operating different types of forklifts in simulated work environments to gain confidence and proficiency in real-world scenarios.

4. Pass the Evaluation

Demonstrate your mastery of forklift operation through written and practical assessments administered at the conclusion of the training course. Prepare thoroughly and approach each evaluation with focus and diligence.

Written Test:

Complete a comprehensive written exam covering topics such as safety guidelines, equipment operation, and hazard awareness. Review course materials and study guides to ensure readiness for the assessment.

Practical Assessment:

Showcase your ability to operate a forklift safely and efficiently during hands-on evaluations. Navigate through predetermined courses, perform load handling tasks, and execute emergency maneuvers under the supervision of certified instructors.

5. Receive Certification

Upon successful completion of the training program and evaluation process, you will be awarded a forklift operator certification. This official document serves as proof of your qualification and competence to operate forklifts in accordance with regulatory standards.

Certification Documentation:

Your forklift operator certification will include essential details such as your name, the date of training, the date of evaluation, and the credentials of the certifying authority. Keep this documentation readily accessible for verification purposes.

6. Keep Certification Current

Maintain the validity of your forklift operator certification by adhering to recertification requirements and staying updated on industry developments. Regularly refresh your skills and knowledge to ensure ongoing compliance and proficiency.

Recertification Period:

Monitor the expiration date of your certification and initiate the recertification process as required. Forklift certifications typically need to be renewed every three years, although specific requirements may vary by jurisdiction.

Continuing Education:

Stay abreast of emerging trends, technologies, and safety protocols through continuous learning initiatives. Participate in refresher courses, seminars, and workshops to expand your knowledge base and enhance your professional capabilities.

7. Maintain Compliance

Operate forklifts in accordance with established safety standards and guidelines to mitigate risks and ensure workplace safety. Adhere to operational protocols, conduct routine inspections, and report any safety concerns or incidents promptly to maintain a safe working environment.

Safety Culture:

Foster a culture of safety within your organization by promoting awareness, accountability, and proactive risk management practices. Encourage open communication, provide ongoing training opportunities, and recognize contributions to safety excellence.

By following these steps diligently and maintaining a commitment to safety and compliance, you can obtain and uphold your forklift operator certification effectively.

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