Forklift Certification, Training, License, and Job Description Guide


Forklift Operator Job Description

Forklift drivers work in a variety of locations and environments, moving large and/or heavy objects from one point to another.  They will also be responsible for minor maintenance and a daily pre-shift inspection of the truck.  The need for skilled drivers isn’t isolated to factories with large warehouses.  Fork trucks may be used in big box stores around customers, lumber yards, or on construction sites.  While operators in warehouses may mainly move neatly stacked and shrink wrapped pallets of goods, other work sites may require the movement of irregular or difficult to maneuver objects such as metal drums or large rocks for landscaping.  Lift truck drivers will need to be able to operator and safely maneuver multiple types of forks and attachments on their truck.

And if they are really good, they may even do this just for fun:  ๐Ÿ™‚

There are many different types of forklifts that forklift operators may use.  These include electric pallet trucks, walk behind forklifts, rough terrain forklifts, and telescopic forklifts.  As a fork truck driver becomes more established in his or her role, they may move on to operating scissor lifts and boom lifts (sometimes called a cherry picker).  By demonstrating proficiency and safe work practices in their job, forklift operators may have the opportunity to learn to operate other material moving machines through their employers.  Other occupations that they may be able to move into include crane operator or excavating machine operator.  Because these occupations require more skill and experience they are generally higher earning positions and therefore desirable long term goals for someone just starting out.

Skills and Education

To become a forklift operator, there is no education requirement although many employers will require you to have either a high school diploma or GED.  There are, however, certain skills that you will need to be successful. Because a forklift (also called a fork truck or lift truck) is potentially hazardous, the driver needs to be cautious and constantly aware of their surroundings and the actions of others.  (Think about the operator in a warehouse store where a small child or distracted parent may walk in front of the machine’s path.)  This is not the profession for people who tend to perform their jobs on “autopilot”.

Additionally, forklifts are often operated in tight spaces and to move expensive products.  Therefore, operators should have exceptional eye to hand/foot coordination and fine motor skills to be able to move the machine precisely.  The “bull in the china shop” will not stay employed long!

Forklift Driver Salary

Hourly pay for forklift operators averages around $15 with some entry level jobs starting around $10 per hour and very experienced drivers making up to $20 per hour.  The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the median earnings for all material moving operators was $31,530 in 2012.  However, this figure includes higher paid occupations such as crane operators and heavy machine operators.  Lift truck operator average annual salary is closer to the $30,000 mark.  The top 10 percent of material moving operators earned more than $51,110 and the lowest 10 percent earned less than $20,800 annually.

Forklift operators and other material movers normally work full time, 8 hours a day, 5 days a week.  Because of the non-stop nature of manufacturing, those working in this industry are likely to work evening or overnight shifts, including weekends and holidays.  For many in this occupation, over night and weekend shifts pay a shift differential.  Additionally, this occupation is more likely than others to be unionized.  Working as part of a union may result in increased pay and improved benefits.

The table below shows the average annual salary in 2012 for different specialties within the material mover occupations.  Forklift operators will fall into the “industrial truck” section.  As you can see, there is a lot of room for advancement for an individual who wants to make this a career and obtain further training.

Specialty Average Annual Salary 2012
Conveyor Operators and Tenders $29,610
Industrial Truck and Tractor Operators $30,220
Dredge Operators $37,170
Excavating and Loading Machine and Dragline Operators $38,290
Hoist and Winch Operators $39,960
Crane and Tower Operators $47,290
Underground Mining Loading Machine Operators $48,420


Forklift operator salary also is strongly influenced by the industry that they work in.  For example, the lowest paying positions are in agriculture related fields with the median annual salary at just $24,790.  The best paying positions are in the utilities field where the median salary is $52,630.  Starting in one of the highest paying sectors may not be realistic for a newly trained forklift operator, but understanding where the money is can help in the job search.

Forklift Operators by Sector Median Annual Salary
Utilities $52,630
Accommodation and Food Service $40,000
Mining $37,430
Educational Services $37,360
Federal, State, and Local Government $36,140
Construction $34,570
Transportation and Warehousing $32,440
Manufacturing $31,980
Health Care and Social Assistance $28,840
Retail $25,530
Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing, and Hunting $24,790


Another area for advancement that a forklift operator may wish to explore is becoming a supervisor of other operators.  This can be a great way to break through salary barriers.  Those wishing to move into supervisory roles should first become excellent drivers and display very good judgement.  Once established in the job, those individuals should meet with their supervisor to discuss their goals and seek feedback on additional skills or training they should obtain to move up.  The below table shows average annual salaries for first-line supervisors of material moving operators in 2013.

Percentile of Supervisors Average Annual Salary
90th Percentile $84,340
75th Percentile $68,760
50th Percentile $53,420
25th Percentile $40,550
10th Percentile $31,450

Forklift Certification and Forklift License

Operating a forklift is considered a hazardous occupation and regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).  To be legally employed as a forklift operator in any state in the U.S., you must be at least 18 years old and obtain certification.  The certification process involves formal (sometimes referred to as classroom) and practical training.

The classroom training and certification testing may be obtained either through your employer if you are employed, at local career training centers, or online.  If you are looking for a warehouse or industrial type of job, having the forklift certification and the skills to safely and effectively operate a lift truck prior to applying will give you an edge over other applicants.

Many paid and free forklift training programs are available online.  These trainings will teach you specifically what is required by OSHA to pass certification exams.  To receive the certificate online, you will normally have to pay a fee in the $30 to $50 range.  Certification through your employer does not require an official exam or have any cost to you associated with it.

In addition to the formal training, hands on instruction will be required.  OSHA suggests to employers that besides providing this training on site, they may find training available through lift truck manufacturers, local safety and health organizations, or trade and vocational schools.  If you are seeking instruction outside of current employment, you can also contact these places as an individual to find the needed training.

When you are looking for this type of instruction, you won’t necessarily be looking for certification but instead to become skilled at operating and maneuvering the lift. Remember that certification available online is only for the classroom part of the training.  You will need both the classroom certification and the skills that come from hands on instruction.

Additionally, certification obtained is not a forklift license in the sense that a license would imply that it authorizes you to be employed in the occupation at any employer; however, when someone refers to a forklift license, the certification is what they mean.  The certification for the classroom training will provide proof to potential employers that you have received the training but each employer is required to certify and keep records documenting that you are properly trained and capable of safely operating the machine.

What you should NOT do during your certification evaluation: Forklift Safety: What Not To Do

State Specific Forklift Certification

Beyond OSHA requirements, there are 27 states and jurisdictions that have their own Occupational Safety and Health Plans. Of these, 22 plans cover both private sector and public employees and 5 cover only public employees.  States that choose to implement their own job safety and health standards must set standards that are “at least as effective as” the federal standards.

Even though fully half of the 50 states have their own OSHA approved safety plan, most states’ standards are identical to the federal guidelines. Below shows the states that have their own Occupational Safety and Health Plans, if they cover private sector employees as well as public employees, and which have standards that differ from OSHA standards.

Because state safety plans are required to be at least as effective as Federal standards, those that differ from the OSHA plan are more strict.  This may be because the state chooses to cover hazards not addressed by OSHA.  If you plan to work in one of the states with different safety requirements, you will need to check for any additional local requirements beyond those outlined above.  Simply visit the OSHA page regarding the state-specific plan and what is required for forklift certification in that state.

State Private and Public Employees Public Employees Only Standards Differ From Federal
Alaska X
Arizona X
California X X
Connecticut X
Hawaii X
Illinois X
Indiana X
Iowa X
Kentucky X
Maryland X
Michigan X X
Minnesota X
Nevada X
New Jersey X
New Mexico X
New York X
North Carolina X
Oregon X X
Puerto Rico X
South Carolina X
Tennessee X
Utah X
Vermont X
Virgin Islands X
Virginia X
Washington X X
Wyoming X

Forklift Training:  Formal Instruction and Hands On Training


Classes may be traditional lecture style, discussions, written materials, video tutorials, or through online resources.  There is no set training course or specific test required.  Instead, OSHA provides employers with a list of guidelines and it is the employer’s responsibility to certify that you have been evaluated and can operate the lift truck safely.

OSHA requires that training include the below list of topics unless an employer can show that it does not apply to them.  Because online and other non-employer conducted forklift training is designed to prepare you for all common environments and safety concerns, those programs should cover all of these topics. The general classroom training should cover these truck-related topics:

  • Operating instructions, warnings, and precautions for the types of truck the operator will be authorized to operate
  • Differences between operating a  forklift and driving an automobile
  • Truck controls and instrumentation:  location, functions, and operation
  • Operation of the engine or motor
  • How to steer and maneuver the machine
  • Visibility when operating the lift, including limitations due to different loads
  • Operation, limitations, and precautions of the fork and other attachments
  • Capacity of the machine
  • Vehicle stability
  • Routine vehicle inspection along with any maintenance required of the operator
  • Refueling or recharging procedures and precautions

While general training can be completed online or through a non-employer based course, there are certain items that employers are to instruct all employees on that are specific to their work location.  OSHA specifically directs employers to provide instruction on the following:

  • Surface conditions in the areas that the vehicle will be driven
  • Description of the loads to be moved by the truck and any associated stability concerns
  • How to safely manipulate the load including any stacking that will occur
  • Pedestrian traffic that may enter the work area
  • Narrow aisles and other restricted places
  • Hazardous locations where the forklift will be used
  • Sloped surfaces such as ramps where the lift truck could become unstable
  • Confined spaces or environments lacking adequate ventilation that could result in a buildup of carbon monoxide or exaust


Regulations regarding the practical training for forklift operators is brief but clear:

“Trainees may operate a powered industrial truck only under the direct supervision of persons who have the knowledge, training, and experience to train operators and evaluate their competence; and where such operation does not endanger the trainee or other employees.”


Forklift drivers must be evaluated at least every three years to ensure that their performance meets safety standards.  In addition to those evaluations, refresher training and further evaluation may be required if the operator has been involved in an accident or near miss, he/she is observed operating the equipment in an unsafe manner, a new type of truck will be operated on which the driver is not proficient, or there has been a change in the conditions in the workspace that could affect the operation of the lift truck.

For example, the folks in this video probably need refresher training:

Types of Forklifts and Forklift Safety

In addition to knowledge of fork truck operation and the skills to confidently and safely maneuver the truck, operators need to understand safety concerns regarding the type of truck used around different hazardous conditions.  Many hazardous conditions exist that don’t immediately come to mind, especially when thinking about combustible materials.  For example, one might immediately recognize that operating around flammable gases requires extra precautions but not realize that certain combustible dusts create a similar risk.

To address these safety concerns, OSHA has provided detailed information about which type of truck should be used in different environments, including special designations (or sub-classifications).  Classifications of trucks are based on the type of engine, tires, and special use design (such as those made for narrow aisles).  Designations are based on additional safety features the truck has in addition to the minimum safeguards. The most commonly used types of forklifts are:

Electric Motor Rider Forklifts

Electric Motor Rider Forklifts Class I: Electric Motor Rider Forklifts

Electric Motor Narrow Aisle Forklift

Electric Motor Narrow Aisle Forklift Class II: Electric Motor Narrow Aisle Forklift

Electric Motor Hand Trucks or Hand/Rider Trucks

Electric Motor Hand Trucks or Hand/Rider Trucks Class III: Electric Motor Hand Trucks or Hand/Rider Trucks

Internal Combustion Engine Fork Truck with Solid or Cushioned Tires

Internal Combustion Engine Fork Truck with Solid or Cushioned Tires Class IV: Internal Combustion Engine Fork Truck with Solid or Cushioned Tires

Internal Combustion Engine Trucks with Pneumatic Tires

Internal Combustion Engine Trucks with Pneumatic Tires Class V: Internal Combustion Engine Trucks with Pneumatic Tires

Electric and Internal Combustion Engine Tractors

Electric and Internal Combustion Engine Tractors Class VI: Electric and Internal Combustion Engine Tractors

Rough Terrain Forklift Trucks

Rough Terrain Forklift Trucks Class VII: Rough Terrain Forklift Trucks

Most fork trucks will be either electric powered or powered by a traditional internal combustion engine.  Those using an internal combustion engine may run on liquid petroleum gas, compressed natural gas, gasoline, or diesel.  Electric powered models use an on-board battery. The type of truck that is appropriate for use in a job depends on factors such as the terrain, space limitations, whether the area is inside or outside, ventilation, and fire hazards.  The presence of fire hazards and the type of hazard will determine the designation of the lift truck to be used.  The truck’s designation is required to be clearly visible and legible on the truck’s nameplate.  There are 11 designations:  D, DS, DY, E, ES, EE, EX, G, GS, LP, and LPS.

D   Diesel powered internal combustion engine.  Contains the minimum allowed safety features for protection against fire hazards.
DS   Diesel powered truck containing additional safety features in the exhaust, fuel, and electrical systems.
DY   Diesel powered truck containing all safety features of the DS but also lack electrical equipment such as an ignition and having components that limit how hot the engine can become.
E   Electric motor forklifts.  Contains the minimum allowed safety features for protection against fire hazards.
ES   Electric powered truck with extra safeguards in its electrical system that reduces emission of sparks that could create a fire hazard.  Also has safeguards to limit surface temperatures of the unit.
EE   Electric powered truck containing all of the features of the ES but also have enclosures completely covering the motors and all electrical components.
EX   Electric powered fork trucks that have specially designed electrical equipment so that they are safe to use where even the EE designated trucks may not be sufficiently safe.
G   Gasoline powered internal combustion engine.  Contains the minimum allowed safety features for protection against fire hazards.
GS   Gasoline powered truck with additional safeguards against exhaust, fuel, and electrical hazards.
LP   Liquefied petroleum gas powered engine with the minimum required safeguards against fire hazards.
LPS   Liquefied petroleum gas powered unit with additional features to safe guard against exhaust, fuel, and electrical hazards.

An employer may decide to utilize one or more different types of lift trucks with different designations.  Considerations for which trucks to have will include safety requirements, ease/speed of refueling versus recharging, environment, etc.  A company may decide to only purchase and use forklifts with the highest designation required for any of their operations to avoid risk of the wrong truck with insufficient safeguards being used in error.  Alternatively, they may decide to have multiple designations for use in different work environments due to cost or other restraints.

It is vital to your safety and that of others around you that as a forklift operator, you are aware of which designation should be used in each environment.  OSHA provides a table outlining detailed risks and which truck class and designation is appropriate for each.