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Safety tips for operating
heavy machinery in the workplace

Heavy machinery — large vehicles or equipment commonly involved in construction operations — can help you accomplish tasks quickly. However, heavy machinery in the workplace can also be associated with various risks.

Whenever you’re operating heavy machinery or merely nearby, it’s important to follow proper safety regulations. Proper heavy machinery protocols can keep employers and employees safe, and help prevent the possibility of lawsuits, injury or death as a result of machinery misuse.

When used properly, heavy machinery can help you move dirt, pave roads and perform other essential construction or manufacturing tasks. Familiarize yourself with the proper safety procedures below to stay safe whenever operating heavy machinery.

Use appropriate Personal Protective Equipment

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) can help you guard against several dangers in the workplace. Think eyeglasses, hard hats and protective gloves, all to keep you safe on the job.

If you’re working in or around an environment where heavy machinery is often present, PPE serves as your first line of defense against risk or injury. For example, steel-toed boots protect your feet against falling objects. Reflective vests make you highly visible in the workplace, particularly for individuals who might be operating drivable machinery.

Since 1970, OSHA — the Occupational Health and Safety Administration — has worked to uphold safe working conditions for all U.S. employees. To help create safe work environments, OSHA has instituted laws that require PPE in specific circumstances.

Employers are bound by OSHA to provide a work environment “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm,” according to the OSH Act of 1970. OSHA further outlines expectations for PPE in 1910.32 of its regulations, which outline expectations for employee-owned equipment, hazard assessment and PPE application.

OSHA identifies the appropriate PPE you should wear according to your industry. For example, general construction workers will wear different PPE than specialized electricians.

Complete all necessary training

Even with proper instruction, operating heavy machinery can be dangerous. Before you work with heavy machinery in any capacity, it’s important to complete any required operational training.

In addition to training, you may need to obtain a license or permit. For example, you’ll need a heavy equipment operator license before working with a dump truck, crane or other applicable construction machinery. Some states also require that you obtain a hoisting license before operating a front-end loader or excavator.

The U.S. Department of Transportation also maintains strict limits on how you can move heavy machinery. Depending on the weight and dimensions of your heavy machinery, you may need to obtain an oversize or overweight load permit.

In most cases, the cost of your permit or license should be fully covered by your employer. However, some contractors or short-term workers may be expected to cover these costs themselves.

Even after completing any necessary heavy equipment training, newly trained employees might still feel unsure around heavy machinery. Employers or team leads should make time to supervise employees using heavy equipment for the first time, and provide feedback for improvement.

Observe all weight limits, capacity limits and other warnings

Each piece of heavy machinery is unique in the weight it can carry, the materials it can hold, and the acceptable time for use. As part of the hazard assessment process, take the time to individually acknowledge each of these warnings and limits.

When around heavy machinery, you’re at risk of experiencing optimism bias — the feeling that you are less likely than others to experience risk or danger. In reality, you are susceptible to the same dangers as anyone else in the workplace. To combat optimism bias and stay safe around heavy machinery, refamiliarize yourself with all safety procedures before beginning work.

When assessing warning signs around heavy machinery, look for cable labels that describe specific procedures related to machinery operation. Closely follow suggested safety guidelines on any equipment or labeled hazardous materials nearby. If no clear labels are present on the heavy machinery, consider asking employers if you can add your own.

Know where any emergency breaks or shut-offs are located

Even when you’re exercising safety around heavy machinery, emergencies can happen. When they do, it’s critical you know where any shut-off valves are. As accidents mostly occur without notice, you may only have moments to activate the shut-off valve once an emergency happens.

Familiarize yourself with circuit breaker lockouts, switches or plugs that immediately cut power to the heavy machinery. This information should be covered during equipment use training. If it is not discussed during training — or if it has been some time since you had any formal machinery use training — take a few moments to rediscover emergency valve locations.

Do not allow unauthorized personnel to handle heavy equipment

Only licensed, trained employees should be allowed to operate heavy machinery in the workplace. No matter the situation, no unauthorized employee should be allowed to use heavy machinery in any capacity.

Employers are required to train, and sometimes retrain, employees on using heavy machinery. When unauthorized personnel attempt to use heavy machinery, the company may be liable for any damages caused. To protect yourself and your employer, make sure untrained individuals know which machinery they can and cannot operate.

Some pieces of heavy machinery are also subject to certain ability requirements. For example, you may need to be able to lift a certain amount of weight to operate a forklift. Untrained employees can risk injury if they attempt to lift excessively heavy items, endure loud noises or stand for a long period.

To prevent lawsuits, serious personal injury and other negative consequences of equipment misuse, ensure that all individuals using heavy machinery have been properly trained. Employees should also prove they can handle certain ability requirements before they are entrusted with any piece of heavy machinery.

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