Powered industrial trucks, more commonly called forklifts or fork trucks, have long been used for material handling in warehousing and manufacturing facilities, but not without risk.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that violations involving material handling equipment rank consistently toward the top of the list. The National Safety Council reports that forklifts were involved in 70 work-related deaths in 2021 and 7,290 nonfatal injuries resulting in days away from work in 2020.
Even with rigorous training and adherence to safety rules, the risks of operating forklifts alongside human workers in high-traffic, space-constrained environments are hard to avoid. To mitigate the dangers, many facilities are exploring forklift exclusion zones: areas where foot traffic is extremely limited. But on a practical level, this can be hard to achieve.
Forklift-free zones, on the other hand, present a promising solution for many operations, depending on a facility’s material handling needs, footprint limitations, budget constraints, and long-term goals. Advances in automation make options like automated guided vehicles (AGVs) an alternative for many forklift applications.
Companies considering implementing fork-free zones should start with a comprehensive approach that explores the benefits, equipment alternatives, and potential costs associated with a shift away from forklifts.
Implementing Forklift-Free Zones: Top Potential Benefits
Safety Improvements Drive the Shift From Fork Trucks to Alternatives
The primary advantage motivating operators to consider forklift-free zones is a reduction in accidents and injuries. Between 2011 and 2107, 614 workers died in forklift-related incidents—and every year during that period, 7,000+ forklift-related nonfatal injuries involving days away from work took place.
One simple way to eliminate the risk of accidents and incidents involving fork trucks? Eliminate the forklift itself—as well as the operator. The slower, more predictable movements of an AGV system, for example, can make it easier for employees to work and move safely in their presence.
Unlike a human operator, the AGV doesn’t have to make complex decisions or calculations as it navigates. Instead, it follows a clearly defined path at a predictable pace its human collaborators can depend on. Plus, its safety features enable it to stop it in its tracks if needed.
Reducing Forklift-Related Costs & Waste
A fork truck is not an inexpensive piece of equipment, and its operation incurs additional costs, including replacement purchases or leases, maintenance, fuel/energy, operator wages, training, certification, and insurance costs. Providing ample floor space for their safe operation can put the squeeze on production and storage footprints, too.
And while the primary concern over accidents is for workers’ lives and health, forklift accidents and near-miss incidents also result in significant lost time—not to mention impacts on worker morale and retention, legal expenses, insurance claims, and other indirect costs.
In facilities where forklifts aren’t in continuous use, all the related costs can be tough to justify, making forklift-free zones a financially prudent option to consider.
Can Going Fork-Free Lead to New Operational Efficiencies?
In exploring alternatives to forklifts in warehouse or manufacturing environments, even if you’re not motivated primarily by efficiency, you may be pleasantly surprised to discover plenty of operational gains alongside safety improvements.
Because forklifts often move pallets’ worth of materials at a time, operations managers often discover that going forklift-free allows them to streamline by reducing overall inventory. AGVs can often deliver smaller unit loads or quantities to production areas at regular intervals. That can improve material flow, enhance cycle efficiency, optimize space utilization, and reduce carrying costs.
Consider, too, the potential impacts of heightened worker vigilance that forklifts require, especially as they’re often carrying heavy loads at relatively high speeds and navigating tight turns in busy areas. It’s worth examining whether reducing worker fatigue and stress could have a positive impact on productivity, quality, accuracy, and even employee retention. In industries like manufacturing, warehousing, logistics, and distribution—where employers are competing in tough talent markets—a safe, efficient, modern work environment can go a long way toward reducing employee turnover.
Sustainability & Environmental Impacts
While the wide adoption of electric forklifts has the potential to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, diesel-fueled and propane-powered vehicles remain significant sources of carbon dioxide and other pollutants, not to mention ambient noise. Simply minimizing the distances these fuel-powered trucks have to travel can help reduce their impacts on the environment and employees.
Fork Truck Alternatives for Collaborative Work Environments
In collaborative work environments, alternatives to traditional fork trucks are gaining traction, offering varying advantages in terms of safety, cost, and efficiency. These range from basic, human-operated manual options to advanced automation solutions.
Manual Carts & Trolleys
In some scenarios, super-simple solutions like push carts, dollies, and trolleys can be effective. They’re low-cost, easy to implement, and require minimal training. The downside? An able-bodied human is always required to work them, and workers are often in short supply.
Depending on the application, footprint, and budget, a conveyor system could pose a solution, but these systems can come with considerable downsides. Conveyors take up significant floor space and are rarely flexible enough to reconfigure and redeploy. They’re also often noisy and fast-moving, and they can pose a risk of injury to workers—especially if operating at high speeds.
Automated Guided Vehicles
AGVs are getting increased attention as a preferred alternative to forklifts, for multiple reasons. They operate on predefined pathways, moving at preset speeds and stopping at predetermined locations, with an optimized cadence to support existing workflows. All together, that enables AGVs to offer a safe, flexible, and efficient material handling solution that can be used in a broad range of warehouse and manufacturing applications.
AGVs that navigate by magnetic tape, like Fred, are simple to deploy and redeploy as facilities need to reconfigure for efficiency or space requirements. And by combining safety features like movement sensors, lights, sounds, cameras, and emergency stop buttons, AGVs can be a welcome addition to a bustling collaborative work environment.
TOP 10 AGV
Get the Facts on Automated Guided Vehicles
Advanced Robotics, AMRs, and Drones
Some applications may call for advanced robotic automation solutions, including autonomous mobile robots (AMRs). These machines are designed to be truly self-navigating and able to maneuver freely around people and obstacles. While very safe, AMRs don’t travel the exact same, predictable paths within a facility that AGVs do.
How to Start Establishing Fork-Free Work Zones in Manufacturing & Warehouse Environments
Implementing forklift-free zones requires a balanced approach that takes into account the work processes and people—before jumping ahead to determine a solution.
The first step is to examine existing workflows and gather employee input to prioritize needs. Identify high-risk areas. Pay close attention to materials moved, packaging formats, weights, sizes, and quantities. It’s crucial to understand how materials flow through work areas, and the required speeds and cadences needed for optimal movement.
It’s also vital to set clear goals for forklift-free zones and outline process steps in the transition from the current state. Continuous communication, training, and education are key to support the cultural shift toward a safer, more efficient workplace—whether that’s without forklifts, or with fewer fork trucks overall.
The move toward forklift-free zones in warehousing and manufacturing isn’t just a trend. It’s a strategic shift toward improved safety, cost reduction, efficiency, and sustainability. It also supports a more productive work environment that empowers human employees to focus their effort and time on more value-added tasks that simply can’t be done by automated equipment.
Find out how today’s modern AGVs are made to safely, efficiently support a more productive work environment when you download our free guide. Help debunk the myths and misconceptions that may arise as you compare your forklift-free options. Click below to get your copy today.