Fork lift operator: The Best Job I ever had

The Best Job in the World!

Hard to believe, isn't it?

Another in a series on work called THE REAL WORLD

By Russell D. Hoffman. Copyright (c) 1996 by Russell D. Hoffman.

What do YOU want to be when you grow up?

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a "dump truck driver" and move heavy loads of dirt from hither to yon (or back). I didn't know that the guy operating the steamshovel got a lot more money--heck, I didn't even know you could get paid for doing stuff at all!

The best job I ever had -- and I've had lots -- was a forklift operator in a box factory. I needed a job pretty badly. Working at my uncle's factory, I had operated several different types of hi-lo's, otherwise known as forklifts.

We had one really neat one at my uncle's factory, which instead of a steering wheel had a crank type of thing you'd turn about 8 times from lock to lock, and you had to stand on the back platform to operate it. It was huge and could lift a ton. We had a smaller one with three wheels, so I knew how to manuever the forklift around and operate the forks.

Box factories are unique because it doesn't really matter what you do. It's not like a normal forklift job where you have to be really careful and delicate. There are actually contests for forklift operators, and "the best in the biz" actually travel around to move really expensive stuff, and get paid really well.

I wasn't one of those...

I go the job as a fork lift operator in a box factory, partly because I had a Class 1 (tractor trailer) license in case they needed anyone else on the road. I had no road experience, but at least I had the license. I didn't drive much for them, about 300 miles altogether.

Moving bundles of cardboard boxes is a great job. Each bundle is not less than about a cubic yard, and seldom more than three cubic yards. You can pile them, push them, tumble them, drop them... Whatever you need to do. They're virtually indestructible. No smoking near them, that's the only thing. Go kill yourself in the parking lot. I don't smoke.

The outer boxes are really just there to hold the inner boxes. If a few get their edges torn up or get crushed, it's no big deal. The company always runs an overage of 5 to 10 percent, and that's your overage if you need it.

I walk into the place to apply for the job, and there are rows and rows of flat cardboard waiting to be cut, folded, and glued into cardboard boxes. You know the ones: They say "Made by So and So and Crew" and "Test 75 lbs" in a little round stamp somewhere on the bottom of each one. Shipping regulations require that stamp.

The test to get the job was the best part. Seems the last guy tended to leave the place a mess, and if his piles fell over, well, he'ed get to them some day. So they bring me to the forklift, show me its particular controls, and tell me to straighten out "that pile over there". It took about two hours.

Boxes piled as high as a three story building...

There were about 40 bundles and they looked like a tornado had tossed them about. They were supposed to be four or five bundles tall and about a dozen deep, but these were all topsy-turvy. It's a lot like a game of pick-up sticks, because you have to extract each bundle and place it neatly in a new row, until the entire pile is moved. And you can't just pull out the bottom one of course, that would be like taking the bottom can in a grocery store display--they would all come tumbling down on top of you. So sometimes you have to get out of the machine and climb up, twenty, thirty feet, where your head is in the rafters, and kick and push and sweat the boxes to a position where you can get at them with the forks of the forklift.

This is fun.

The only thing wrong with the job is all the dust you have to breath. Some of us wore masks, some wore hankerchiefs, most of us were too stupid to bother. And no matter what you did, you got this horrible black gunk all inside your nose and your throat that you kept coughing up and spitting out. (This got a lot worse when the company bought a paper shredder to cut up the waste cardboard.)

But aside from that, it was a great job. You unload trailers, stack the bundles of flat cardboard, feed the bundles to the various machines as they need them and take off the finished bundles of boxes. You're number one priority is to keep the machines running. They give you a short list of what they'll need next and you have to find it and bring it over one or two bundles at a time, and unload at the other end as the finished bundles of boxes are produced. You serve three or four box machines, each operated by one or a couple of people. The machines must be kept running!

You also take care of any incoming material from the company that makes the flat sheets of cardboard. Sometimes they leave the trailer, other times you just quickly unload it and place it into storage later. You also load your own outgoing trailers. We had two trailers and one tractor, so you would load one while the other was out making deliveries.

Occasionally, you're asked to move something odd, like a new piece of machinery or something else heavy. This is about the only time you had to be delicate. Which is not to say you didn't have to be accurate. You would often have to be accurate. You always carried a tape measure and you would measure a space, and decide that 1/4 inch on either side of a ten foot space was enough to squeeze a new bundle in place. Sometimes, you would straighten out a bundle by turning the forklift around and pushing the bundle into a wall with the flat back of the forklift, so you could then squeeze the bundle into a tight spot.

With most forklift jobs, you're like a bull in a china shop, but at a box factory, it's more like a bull in a padded cell. A bull balancing big brown bundles of boxes.

Fork lifts are cool machines. They have incredibly accurate hydraulic controls so that you can move the tips of the forks small fractions of an inch. The forks at box factories are filed down so that they are actually sharp, so you can scoop under the bundle. Each bundle is wrapped in two nylon straps, and you have to scoop in the direction of the straps, or you'll catch one and break it. Break two, and the bundle falls apart for sure, break one and it's just a bit fragile.

The forks are so sharp, you have to always lower them to the ground when you leave the machine. If anyone walks into them they can be seriously hurt. (You should do this with any forklift, but with box factory forks it's vital.)

Full propane tanks are pretty heavy, about as much as a quarter keg. You have to heave a new one up to the truck about 6 or 8 times a week. That's about the only maintenance the driver has to do. Forklifts are extremely reliable vehicles. Turn it on, raise the forks a little, go to where you're needed, get to work.

The forks can be raised and lowered, and the whole fork assembly can be tilted foward and back about 10 degrees, all with hydraulic hand controls.

You don't want to raise the forks too much when you drive around empty because someone could walk into it, but you don't want to have them too low either, because you mustn't catch them on anything, like an uneven floor. That could be disasterous as well, since you could flip the forklift and maybe in the process, get caught under it. More likely, it would just stop real suddenly and you'd go flying foward and hit some immovable part of the machine. Forklifts are made with all thick steel plates so they're extremely heavy.

Three or four inches off the ground is the normal travel position. It's a compromise solution.

When you're moving a bundle, you don't want the bundle too high off the ground, because it gets very tipsy the higher it is. This can be a problem when you're moving a bundle that's ten feet wide, three feet high, three feet deep, and stacked two tall, and you have to get it over some piles that are themselves ten feet off the ground--you've got hundreds of pounds teetering on these two arms. When you see a load start to fall, as happens sooner or later, you have to immediately slam the hydraulic control valves all the way to try to lower the load. That way, it lands softer, and sometimes you can stop the fall completely. Usually you'll try to tip the load back as well.

The arms can be moved apart or closer together. You want them close together so you can manuever around the factory floor, but you want them far apart so the loads balance better. You usually end up getting out and moving them back and forth all day. Some forklifts have hydraulic systems to spread the forks. Most don't. Ours didn't.

Another thing you have to do in a box factory that other fork lift operators never do is, you have to scoop up loads by getting a running start, lowering the forks to where the tips are just touching the ground, and driving forward as fast as the vehicle will go (which isn't very fast) so you can get under the load before it (the load) gains momentum and slides away. You pick it up at the same time, and lean the fork assembly back towards you to hold onto the load. It usually works. Sometimes you just push it along in front of you.

One time, I scooped up a load--it moved back a couple of feet, but I got it--and one of my coworkers came out from behind it, having had his life pass before his eyes on the way back from the men's room! You have to look for that sort of thing of course, but somehow I missed him. Somehow, he missed me, too. Rules are, for the forklift operator, don't put someone else in harm's way, of course. And for everyone else, stay well away from the forklift and its bundles. I had been operating in that area but somehow, like a near-miss between airplanes, we just didn't get it together. Next day, they had the mechanic build a little iron wall so that there was a stop that the bundles would go up against. Now I just had to be sure not to bang the forks into the stop.

The "roach mobile" would come by twice a day, once for breakfast and once for lunch. The breakfast guy couldn't count. He would give people the wrong change all the time, and I found a ten-spot on the pavement after he left once. He served the best muffins, though. I haven't had a good bran muffin since that bakery shut down rather than let the workers unionize. It's been nearly twenty years.

I used to think about the other jobs at the factory. Here I was, playing with big toy blocks all day, and there they were, my friends and coworkers, hand-feeding the flats onto the box-making machines and adding ink, changing dies, filling out forms, all this stuff that's real work. And me having all that fun and getting paid pretty well, too.

If you enjoyed this story, please check out these others:

(Highlighted entries are currently online. The rest I'm writing as I get time.)

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First placed online July 30th, 1996.
Last modified March 27th, 1997.
Webwiz: Russell D. Hoffman
Copyright (c) Russell D. Hoffman