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Driving the danger out of forklifts

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INSURERS and regulators are demanding manufacturers improve the safety of their forklift fleets. Not only must they consider operator safety, but also the safety of other workers and pedestrians within the areas in which the forklifts operate.

In accounting for operator safety, developments in forklift ergonomics have lead to better safety through reductions in repetitive stress injuries, according to Linde Materials Handling’s product engineer Grant Weckert.

He told Manufacturers Monthly drivers now have far more control over the adjustment of handling mechanisms, with comfortable steering wheels and electric joysticks for hydraulic controls rather than traditional mechanical levers.

However, he said the changes had been incremental trailing developments in the car industry.

“The forklift industry lags a long way behind the car industry but if we look at cars today, even fairly moderately specified cars have traction control systems and stability control systems. These are systems that are very effective and over the coming years this sort of system is going to be rolled out onto all sorts of trucks,” he said.

Toyota Industrial Equipment’s general manager of operations Nick Sheppard said other ergonomic developments had been developed specifically for forklifts, such as swing down gas bottle brackets on dual fuel model trucks which helped eliminate lower back problems which could result from having to change LPG cylinders on the trucks.

Slow down!

Weckert said speed limiters on forklifts had also contributed to safer operations.

“Across all markets there’s a big push to slow forklifts down. With speed limiters and zone speed limiters, you can have sensors on the truck that detect when you passing through gates in the warehouse and it will kick you from one speed limit to another,” he said.

Workcover in Victoria is most aggressively encouraging forklift speed control and pedestrian safety, but Weckert said manufacturers in all states identified the same basic concerns when conducting risk assessments.

“They realise that the trucks can be driven too fast. The average forklift weighs as much as a small delivery truck and they’re being driven within centimetres of people so you want to slow them down as much as possible.”

Weckert said larger corporate manufacturers with 30 or 40 forklifts were more likely to take up the speed limiting options than smaller firms which often considered the systems too expensive.

He said existing equipment could often be retrofitted with the systems for a lower cost than purchasing all new equipment, adding speed limiters only became essential when there was a danger that drivers would not act responsibly.

“If it’s a small site and they know their drivers are responsible, then putting all these systems on won’t make a big difference, but if anyone can drive them – they get casuals for instance – and they know that people are going to be speeding, then these safety systems can have a big influence,” he said.

Operator presence systems

Shepherd said another recent breakthrough in forklift safety was the operator presence system (OPS).

He explained these systems work through a seat switch which is relayed to the transmission and load handling controllers and prevents operation unless the operator is seated in the forklift.

MLA Holdings’ engineering manager Gary Cassel said OPS – also called integrated presence system – had been employed for some time on other forms of equipment such as ride-on lawnmowers and motorcycles, but was a recent innovation in forklift safety.

“The problem used to be if forklift operators only had to move the forklift a metre or so they would start the forklift up while they were standing alongside it, put it into gear and push their hand on the accelerator, walking alongside the forklift just to go that short distance. But often they would get their foot caught under the wheel and it would run them over,” he told Manufacturers Monthly.

Cassel said OPS would prevent these kinds of accidents as the forklift could not be moved without the operator being seated.

He said the system’s sensors also prevent the mast from tilting, lifting or lowering and many models required the seat belt to be fastened before the forklift would move.

Cassel said while seatbelts on forklifts have been compulsory since the mid-1990s, it could be difficult to make sure drivers wore them without such systems to enforce it.

Standards can help ensure safety is built into the truck’s design and manufacture, but Cassel said it was very difficult for a standard to take into consideration the vehicle’s operation.

“There’s only so much that the standards can write in and that manufacturers can do to build the forklifts. A lot of it is up to the end user to work our procedures and systems that work in their particular environment,” he said.

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