Watch that load!

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Keep in mind these basic material handling safety practices when moving material into, around and out of your facility.

As recycling continues to grow, the demands placed on recyclers to handle and process recyclable material has increased as well. Material handling is needed to transfer the recyclables to sorting and processing facilities as well as to our customers.

As a safety consultant with more than 26 years of occupational safety experience, I believe safe material handling work practices to be one of the cornerstones of an effective safety and health program. Regardless of the type of material your company is processing—paper, plastic, electronics or metal—material handling is involved.

In this article, I will detail safe work practices while moving the recyclable material within your facility with powered industrial trucks, such as forklifts, as well as proper cargo weight and balance loading practices for trucks shipping finished products to your customers. I also will detail additional material handling practices that may be applicable to some recycling operations.

Forklift safety

In following the flow of material at your facility, the best place to start is the loading and unloading of vehicles. This is typically accomplished with a forklift. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), each year in the United States nearly 100 workers are killed and another 20,000 workers are seriously injured in forklift-related incidents. At approximately 25 percent, forklift overturns are the leading cause of these fatalities, according to NIOSH.

OSHA’s 1910.178 Powered Industrial Trucks standard outlines employer requirements regarding forklift safe work practices. Arguably the most important aspect of forklift safety is employee training. OSHA 1910.178 (l)(1)(i) requires all forklift operators to be trained, which consists of a combination of classroom and hands-on training. OSHA also requires employers to evaluate forklift drivers’ performance a minimum of every three years. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Labor forbids anyone under the age of 18 from operating a forklift in the workplace.

Once forklift operators are properly trained, the next step is confirming the forklift is safe to operate. OSHA 1910.178 (q)(7) requires the vehicle be inspected prior to use. A detailed forklift inspection should be completed based upon manufacturer recommendations. Unsafe forklifts must be repaired prior to being placed in service at the facility.

Once the inspection is complete, it is imperative to chock the wheels of the trailer that is to be loaded. This should be done by the forklift operator to verify it is safe to enter the trailer bed.

OSHA allows the use of a trailer restraint system, such as a Dok-Lok® system, to secure the trailer by attaching it to the ICC bar (rear impact guard). However, I have witnessed trucks pulling away from a loading dock, ripping the ICC bar from the truck as it remained attached to the trailer restraint system. If you use one of these systems, I also strongly recommend chocking the wheels. This will better protect the forklift operator, who could be inside the truck at the time the truck driver attempts to leave the dock.

Once the trailer is secured, we need to inspect the flooring for breaks and weaknesses (such as rotten wood). Forklift drivers are routinely injured when attempting to enter a trailer bed that is damaged, causing the trailer floor to collapse.

Cargo weight & balance practices

It is now time to load the recyclable material onto the trailer. To ensure the trailer is safe for across-the-road use, it is crucial to follow proper cargo weight and balance practices. The vehicles’ maximum weight limits must be adhered to; an overloaded vehicle can affect braking, steering and overall performance. During loading, the heaviest cargo should be placed on the bottom and lightest cargo on top; this is the safest way to evenly distribute the cargo. A load with a high center of gravity (top heavy) can affect overall drivability of a vehicle and could cause the truck to tip or roll over.

Once the vehicle has been loaded, the truck driver is responsible for making sure it is not overloaded and the load is secure and safe for transport.

It also is the driver’s responsibility to be familiar with a number of terms, including:

  • axle weight – the weight on the ground at one or more sets of axles;
  • coupling device capacity – rated for the maximum weight the device is capable of pulling or carrying;
  • gross combination weight (GCW) – the total weight of a combination of vehicles including the load;
  • gross vehicle weight (GVW) – the total weight of a single vehicle, including its load;
  • gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) – the maximum weight rating specified by the manufacturer for a single vehicle, including its load;
  • gross combination weight rating (GCWR) – the total GVWRs for the power unit and any towed vehicles (This is not the same as the GVWR specified by a manufacturer for the towing capacity of a vehicle.);
  • suspension systems – have a manufacturer’s weight capacity rating; and
  • tire load – the maximum safe-weight rating a tire can carry at a specified pressure that is stated on the side of each tire.


Other areas of concern

Depending on your work practices, additional OSHA mechanical handling regulations may apply. For instance, if you need to stack bundled material, such as cardboard, OSHA 1910.176 (b)(1) requires employers to properly secure the material to ensure it is stable to prevent sliding or collapse. Does your facility use cranes to move heavier material, such as scrap metal? If so, OSHA’s 1910.179 Over-head and Gantry Cranes standard also will apply.

Critical advice

Proper material handling work practices are critical for the safety of your workers as well as for reducing the likelihood of extensive property or equipment damage. To avoid damage and to protect your workers, remember these key points to guarantee material handling safety:

  • Only permit trained workers to use forklift trucks.
  • Inspect forklift trucks prior to use.
  • Secure the trailer prior to loading and unloading vehicle.
  • Inspect the trailer bed to verify it is safe for loading.
  • Use proper cargo weight and balance loading techniques to ensure the vehicle is properly loaded.

Following these numerous work practices will help ensure you safely move your material.


W. Jon Wallace, CSP, MBA, is a safety consultant with more than 26 years of occupational safety experience. He also is an adjunct assistant professor at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He can be reached at or by phone at 919-933-5548.

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