The all-terrain forklift (ATF), or material handler, is truly a versatile machine. While a backhoe is designed specifically for trenching and a loader for moving dirt, an ATF can adapt to any material-handling job.

Advances in telescoping booms and high lift booms, rear or all-wheel steering and drive systems, and body leveling capabilities make this breed of machine as necessary to a construction project as the labor force itself. But even the best machine is useless without an experienced operator. Some tips to safely get the most out of an ATF follow.

A long, wide wheelbase, large diameter tires, and low body positioning give the ATF excellent stability—until a load is placed on the forks and extended or lifted or, worse yet, both. To counteract the potential weight of the fork load, the motor and hydraulic system have been moved as far to the rear as feasible to act as a counterbalance. Many models also have retractable stabilizers at the extreme front or rear of the machine, giving it added stability during load transfer. Whether or not there are stabilizers, you have to use caution when carrying or transferring loads.

Some ATFs are equipped with a body leveler. Its advantage becomes evident when you try to pick or place a load where the grade is less than perfect. A simple pull or push of a lever hydraulically rolls the body into a level position.

Another device, outriggers, which are extended supports, can also stabilize and level the machine while the load is being picked and placed.

Any discussion of safety would be incomplete without mentioning the safety belt. An operator cannot control a machine when sliding around in the seat.

Communication is essential. Make sure the workers around you know your hand signals and that you know theirs.

Keep all workers away as you pick or place a load, especially if you're telescoping the boom or setting a load higher than the machine.

Make sure the worker who is giving hand signals is off to the side of the load and not directly behind it. There must be a good line of sight between the operator and the worker.

When transporting a load, keep it as close to the machine and as low to the ground as possible. Start telescoping or raising the load only after the machine is in position to place the load.

Most ATFs have rear or all-wheel steering. While this is a little tricky to get used to, once mastered, the maneuverability is unequaled. When driving the ATF on the road, drive slowly and make slow, gradual turns. When carrying wide loads, watch the ends as you turn. Be sure your positioning is correct before telescoping the boom.

Speed is the goal, but it must be the result of efficiency, not accelerated machine movements. Patterning allows each cycle to be completed more quickly and reduces stress on the operator.

The ATF is an invaluable tool. Used properly it will quickly pay for itself in increased efficiency of the crew.