This article originally appeared in Workplace Material Handling and Safety.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, forklifts were involved in 9,050 nonfatal workplace injuries that resulted in lost time in 2017. Understanding basic movements and how to appropriately interact with this type of equipment is key to reducing injuries while performing with optimal efficiency. Most injuries that occur while operating a forklift can be easily prevented by simply understanding how seated posture affects the body.
One of the painful mistakes among workers is weak positioning of the spine while operating seated equipment. Sitting in a slouched position creates a gradual bend of the spine from the hips up through the neck and often leads to musculoskeletal injuries over time.
Below are a few simple techniques to help workers understand how to quickly organize their bodies and maintain the strongest possible positions when operating forklifts.
As surveyed within Human Factors and Ergonomics in Manufacturing, there is a direct relationship between lower back pain, seated posture, and the vibrations experienced while operating the equipment. To find a healthy position when controlling a forklift, start by moving the butt to the back of the seat. The operator should be able to feel the weight of the body right where the hamstrings meet the bottoms of the glutes. Sitting in this manner creates the foundation for an aligned spine. Next, squeeze the glutes with 10-20% of tension as this rotates your hips into a stable position, which creates a strong base for the spine. The operator of the forklift should sit up straight and engage their core by squeezing the abs slightly to reduce the risk of injury to the lower back. Aligning the chin is also essential to protect the neck from harm. Tuck the chin in slightly to keep the neck aligned with the rest of the spine. Finally, shrug the shoulders up, roll them back, and then let them settle down. Maintaining this strong position while sitting will protect the spine from unexpected bumps, as well as reduce the common strain that results from long periods of operating a forklift.
Standing forklifts present a slightly different set of challenges. Many standing forklift operators tend to experience knee pain after a full day’s work. In order to avoid injuries while working with the constant movement and sudden stops associated with the equipment, operators must stand in a way that fully supports the weight of the body. Be sure to keep the feet forward and to avoid “duck feet,” or the feet pointing outward. The positioning of the feet directly impacts how the rest of the legs absorb shock to the body. Turned out feet creates a less stable knee position and the sudden stopping of the forklift can cause weakly positioned knees to bend inward, which can lead to painful injuries.
How the operator enters and exits the forklift could also be the reason behind knee pain. Of course, maintaining three points of contact is important because of the increase in stability and control whether stepping up or down. But positionally, it's important to prioritize keeping both feet straight with knees aligned outside of the big toes to prevent nagging knee pain or injury. When exiting, always descend backward and land on the ball of the back foot, as this provides more stability for the body.
Looking over the shoulder is another common cause of injury because it involves twisting. While not ideal, a forklift operator can still check the surroundings and reduce the risk of injury when looking over the shoulder. As before, the operator should start by setting the spine into its strongest position and adjusting their place in the seat to help reduce the rotation needed. Next, turn through the entire body rather than solely relying on the neck to reduce unnecessary strain in this area.
As slouching is a familiar behavior, the most difficult challenge of maintaining proper seated posture is actively remembering to do so. As any professional athlete will say, practice makes permanent! Set and reset into a strong braced position as often as needed, and, with time, this will create stronger movement habits that can get employees home feeling just as strong when they arrived at work.