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Do I need a forklift operator license?

forklift products
(© Robert Kneschke –

One of the most common questions asked about operating forklifts is “Do I need a forklift operator license?”

For most of the US: Yes, forklift certification is required. Manufacturing, distribution, delivery, warehouse, and wholesale businesses need employees to operate power-driven forklifts to move goods around. The operators must have skill and knowledge of each machine and its components, otherwise they are dangerous to themselves and others. Accidents are mostly due to operator carelessness and mistakes made by operators who are unfamiliar with the equipment. For that reason, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires all forklift operators in the United States to obtain safety and proficiency training before operating any.

How to get a forklift license

Each employer must teach its employees the proper way to operate each type of forklift, evaluate their proficiency on each, and then issue certificates on satisfactory completion of the training. Only certified operators are allowed to operate a forklift in the workplace.

It should be noted that certification does not automatically transfer from job to job because there are different types of forklifts (e.g. indoor, pallet jacks and order pickers) and each workplace uses whatever suits it. Also, environments differ from workplace to workplace and operators must be trained to operate forklifts in any new environment. Anyone who changes jobs should be trained, evaluated and certified afresh by the new employer before he can operate a forklift at the new workplace.

Those who know how to operate a forklift can also get certified by taking an online training course and writing a test. Once they pass, they can print their certificates immediately.

The forklift license is valid for three years. After three years the operator must go through renewal training before getting re-certified.

What are the benefits of forklift certification?

By getting employees certified, an employer complies with the health and safety requirements of OSHA. Trained employees are aware of dangers and risks posed by forklifts within their environment and they take due care while operating them. As a result, the number of work-related accidents and injuries goes down, the cost of insurance goes down and there is no damage to equipment and property.

OSHA standards for forklift certification

Certification. OSHA occupational health and safety standards require each employer to certify that each forklift operator has been trained and evaluated. The certificate should have the name of the operator, the date of training, the date of evaluation, and the name of the trainer/evaluator.

Certification requirements. A forklift operator only gets certified after going through training and evaluation by the employer or a third party acting on behalf of the employer. Training includes classroom and practical instruction which can be done in one or more days at the employer’s site. OSHA standards do not recognize offsite practical training.

Training focus. The training program should focus on equipment, environment, products, and OSHA standards. Equipment: the employer should train employees on the specific type of forklift they will operate. Employees who are going to operate different types will have to be trained on each one. Environment: the employer has to teach workers how to operate the equipment in dangerous environments like ramps and areas with high foot traffic. Product: this section must focus on unique ways of moving particular types of products. OSHA standards: training must include information on OSHA standards for operating the equipment.

Evaluation. After training, the employee must demonstrate the ability to operate the forklift safely and proficiently while the trainer observes and evaluates.

Record keeping. Each employer must maintain records of all certification.

Age limit. The law requires that only people over 18 years of age are certified.

Periodic evaluation. OSHA requires employers to evaluate employee performance periodically.

Retraining. OSHA standards require employers to retrain forklift drivers when they perform poorly on periodic evaluations, when they are involved in an accident or a near miss, or when they are known to operate the equipment in an unsafe way. Retraining is also necessary when new types of equipment are brought in that are significantly different from the ones they usually operate or when the environment changes.

Non-compliance. If an employee is found operating a forklift without certification, the employer faces fines and other penalties.

Is forklift certification the same in all states?

Each state has the equivalent of OSHA which sets and administers occupational health and safety standards. However, they are free to add to the federal requirements. Twenty-eight states have OSHA-approved health and safety programs whose standards are either the same as OSHA or are more stringent. The rest of the states have specific unique programs.