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Preventing Forklift Truck Fires:

5 Tips for Warehouse Managers

When high-powered electrical equipment operates in dry, confined spaces, the risk of combustion is a serious concern. Every warehouse or depot has its own protocols for reducing the risk of fires, and it’s crucial for all personnel to strictly adhere to these guidelines. Given the potential danger posed to people in the event of a fire, companies have both a legal and moral responsibility to minimize these risks as much as possible.

The role of a warehouse manager in ensuring the safety of their staff is twofold: firstly, to implement practical policies and ensure that all personnel receive proper training to prevent fire risks, and secondly, to escalate any concerns to the SHEQ (Safety, Health, Environment, and Quality) or Health & Safety Manager when necessary.

In addition to safety considerations, there are significant financial and commercial costs associated with fires, including insurance impacts, supply disruptions, legal liabilities, and damage to reputation. These considerations are shared among managers of other departments, directors, and board members. However, the warehouse manager’s primary concern is the safety and well-being of their workforce.

To this end, here are some ways to ensure that your staff are protected from the hazards of forklift truck fires:

1. Ensure battery cables are stored and checked correctly

Battery cables should be stored separately from other materials in a location where they won’t be accidentally tampered with. This prevents the risk of cable damage when not in use. While cables are typically encased in fire-resistant coverings to prevent sparking, any damage to this casing can lead to sparks, especially when the cable is in use. If these sparks come into contact with something flammable, a fire can quickly erupt.

Proper storage alone is not sufficient; cables must be inspected before and after every use. All individuals involved in forklift operation should be trained to inspect cables for any casing damage and know what steps to take if a defect is found. Reporting and escalation procedures should be well-established and accessible to all staff. A trained and qualified individual should be responsible for cable inspections, with a digital system for reporting defects, including photographs, signatures, and uploads to an online control dashboard, which allows the warehouse manager to quickly respond to any issues.

2. Implement a rigorous cleaning regime

Forklift trucks come into contact with various substances during daily operations, including industrial leaks, fuel, product spills, oil, and more. It’s critical to have a cleaning regime in place to ensure that these machines and equipment are not operated while covered in flammable liquids. Accumulated flammable materials pose significant risks to operators and those in the immediate vicinity.

Operatives should be aware of the cleaning requirements for the equipment they use, including how often to clean and the proper cleaning methods. Implementing a rota system can help track cleaning schedules, indicating when each vehicle was cleaned and who performed the cleaning. Digital logging systems accessible by the warehouse manager and other managers can help ensure compliance. Operatives should also maintain personal logs of cleaning activities using a simple record book.

3. Ensure your system of work for LPG forklift trucks is clear

Some operatives receive their training and testing on diesel- or battery-powered forklifts and may carry over habits from these vehicles when operating LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) trucks. However, there is one crucial area where LPG truck operators must reassess their actions to avoid potential accidents.

The Health & Safety Executive has reported numerous instances of fires related to the misuse of LPG trucks, specifically due to the buildup of deposits in the vaporiser units, flow regulators, and shut-off valves of these vehicles. When these deposits accumulate, the truck may fail to start.

Repeated attempts to start the truck can lead to the release of unburned LPG, which can ignite and set fire to the vehicle. The correct procedure when facing this situation is not to continue attempting to start the truck but to immediately step away, close the shut-off valve, secure the vehicle to prevent further starting attempts, and report the incident to the warehouse manager. The truck should not be used until it has been approved for service by a qualified forklift engineer.

4. Implement a strict procedure for charging lead acid batteries

Electric forklift trucks are gaining popularity due to their versatility, but charging lead acid batteries requires a strict procedure to avoid fire risks. Ideally, charging should occur in a separate, non-combustible building dedicated to this purpose. When a separate building is impractical, charging must be done in a designated area free of flammable materials or equipment. A clearance area of at least 1.5 meters must be maintained between the battery and the truck, and suitable barriers should be in place to prevent tampering.

The battery should be mounted on a non-combustible stand of at least 0.5 meters, or wall-mounted if the wall is non-combustible. Proper ventilation is essential as charging lead acid batteries can release hydrogen, which poses an explosion risk. Manufacturers’ guidelines should be consulted to determine ventilation requirements.

5. Take extra precautions with lithium-ion battery-powered forklift trucks

Lithium-ion battery-powered forklift trucks introduce additional safety considerations due to the potential for high-temperature events. Continuous use or overcharging can lead to high temperatures, damaging the metal oxides in the battery cells and releasing flammable gases from the electrolyte fluid. If the temperature continues to rise, thermal runaway can occur, resulting in a fire that is challenging to extinguish as the ion cells

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