Health & Safety

Lifting the safety standard – the forklift on a construction site

Safe use of forklifts in the construction industry

Muddy, rutted access routes, and tradesmen milling around, are just some of the challenges facing the forklift operator on a construction site. How does the health and safety professional reduce the risks and improve safety? Gay Sutton reports.

The construction industry is one of the most hazardous environments in which to work, and forklift drivers can find themselves under huge pressure. Their sole purpose in life can seem to be keeping all the other trades going. Bricklayers may need mortar top-ups over here, drain layers may need more pipes over there.

In addition to this, the construction environment presents the health and safety professional with a series of unique materials handling challenges. The destination for materials is continuously changing as the build progresses, the site is vulnerable to wind, rain and mud, and tradespeople are moving around continuously, many of them not employed by the principal contractor.

Thorough planning is key

Planning for materials handling safety begins at the very inception of a project. One effective way to do this, according to Paul Haxell, Chair of the IOSH (Institution of Occupational Safety and Health) Construction Group, is to translate the construction programme into a series of coloured layout drawings indicating the areas of construction activity, stage by stage. ‘

From this, the most appropriate material storage areas can be identified for each stage of the build. Haxell said: “Using these visual aids you can see the traffic routes starting to emerge between the work areas and material storage areas, and how these are likely to evolve with time.

“I liken this to a business model: you develop a strategic plan, then you come down into increasing detail with a tactical plan for traffic management, and materials delivery and handling,“ Haxell continued.

Leading construction company Skanska uses a technique called collaborative planning on all projects, and a key element of this is logistics. Once the construction programme has been developed, contractor and supply chain teams from across the project meet together to work through the plan.

Initially, this involves looking at it over an eight-to-12-week period, and then drilling down in greater detail at monthly, weekly and then daily intervals. These are then reviewed or updated frequently.


Paul Haxell, Chair of the IOSH (Institution of Occupational Safety and Health) Construction Group

“Health and safety is everyone's responsibility“

“The aim, from the logistics perspective, is to ensure that all trades can work effectively without treading on each other’s toes, and can move around the workplace safely,“ explained Skanska’s Senior Health and Safety Manager, Nick Wing. “It also helps to co-ordinate where materials are stored, and how and when they will be moved around the site. Outputs from the meetings are often visualised on site plans to help everyone to understand them.“

Once these routes have been identified, people and vehicle movements can be segregated using barriers and designated pedestrian crossings. The continuously evolving and changing nature of the construction site, however, can make it very tempting for pedestrians to take short cuts or for drivers to cut corners.

“If construction is progressing with good speed,“ Haxell said, “a vehicle route that existed one day may not be the best option the next day. The danger is that the workforce, being helpful and obliging, might think: ‘I can make a shorter route here if I move a few barriers and cut the corner.’ And that can then conspire to defeat the well-intended logistics plan.“ To overcome this issue it is important to be vigilant, and supervise and monitor behaviours across the site.


Good all-round vision, as provided by this Cat® DP70N forklift, is an essential of safe operation.

Risk assessment

The risk assessment plays a critical part in safety planning, and through all phases of construction.

Haxell has a word of caution. “It needs to be a living document. It should examine the problems, identify the right ways to control the risks, and then should be updated as things change or hazards emerge. How do you do that? Go talk with the machine operators or workers using the pedestrian routes etc.”

Site housekeeping

Materials being delivered to the site should be taken off the highway and unloaded in a carefully planned, prepared and controlled environment. On bigger building projects, suppliers and contractors are routinely assessed for their health and safety performance and processes. Safety standards are then built into their contracts, and performance is monitored.

Skanska takes this very seriously. “One of the key elements is then ensuring the plans we’ve put in place are adhered to,“ Wing said. This not only requires monitoring and supervision, but suitable training among the trades. “We are currently working with CITB (Construction Industry Training Board) to improve the education and training of those who receive and handle materials on site.“

Good housekeeping is essential across all areas of the industry. On some of the best sites, high-value materials are placed straight into containers and less weather-susceptible materials are stored in designated areas separated by barriers. Materials left in access routes or stored untidily are a hazard and should be avoided. “What we can’t safeguard against“, Haxell said, “is how much rain we get and how badly parts of the site may then rut through vehicle movements.“

Providing and maintaining a suitable surface for safety and efficiency in the delivery area and on routes to the construction area may seem obvious, but the cost of this has to be planned well ahead and included in the tender. And, as Haxell pointed out, the cost of an extra hundred tonnes of crushed concrete or hard-core for the repair and maintenance of vehicle routes could make the difference between the builder getting the job or not getting the job. So it comes down to planning, and to managing clients’ expectations.

The continuously evolving and changing nature of the construction site can make it very tempting for pedestrians to take short cuts or for drivers to cut corners.

Safety culture

Forklift truck operators are expected to undergo training and to demonstrate their competence. It is then the responsibility of the site manager to ensure they are performing in an appropriate manner and to promote an environment where operators are able to suggest improvements or report problems without penalty. They, after all, are at the sharp end and are most likely to spot a hazard or problem before anyone else.

At Skanska, there is what Wing describes as a behavioural safety programme which instils a culture of care and concern for everybody, and encourages people to speak up about issues and stop work if need be. “Health and safety“, he said, “is everyone’s responsibility, and this applies to anyone working on our projects.“

The tools

To operate safely, the forklift driver has to have good all-round vision, particularly when reversing or manoeuvring in tight areas. An array of mirrors and a rear-mounted CCTV camera can be helpful, but the industry has developed the use of banksmen to direct the driver and provide an extra level of safety while heavy vehicles are being loaded, manoeuvred and unloaded.

Another challenge is how to communicate with the driver, particularly across a large site that spans many acres. Many companies have prohibited the use of mobile phones by plant operators, and the reasoning is not hard to see.

“The last thing you want“, Haxell said, “is something beeping or flashing and distracting the operator as he’s placing a load high up on the scaffold, and he’s having to observe hand signals from the banksman.“ Many companies have chosen different technologies to solve this issue, but the technology then has to be supported by management so the drivers are not unintentionally encouraged to bend the rules.

Overcoming the unique safety hazards in the construction industry is a matter of thorough planning, continuous monitoring of site conditions and progress, and listening to those working in the field. With these elements of best practice in place, the industry can continue to improve its safety performance and the efficiency of its materials handling operation.