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Industry tuned to safety issues
Susan Miller Hellert
Susan Miller Hellert

June 13, 2017 is National Forklift Safety Day. The Industrial Truck Association (ITA) whose members represent industrial manufacturers of lift trucks, rough terrain vehicles, hand pallet trucks and automated guided vehicles in the US and Canada sponsors this event to recognize the importance of safety. Forklift trucks are especially important since almost every item a person uses in any given day at some point was transported, loaded, stacked or transferred by a forklift truck.

Each year there are approximately 34,900 accidents and 85 fatalities connected to forklift trucks. At least 70% of these accidents according to OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) could have been prevented. 42% of these fatalities occurred when the operator was crushed by a tipped vehicle. In fact OSHA states that 1 in every 6 workplace accidents are forklift truck related.

Federal law mandates that no one under 18 years of age operate a forklift truck and that no one over 18 be allowed to operate a forklift truck without training and proper certification. Training is the most important factor in avoiding accidents. The National Safety Council publishes the Forklift Truck Operators Training Course as a primary source. It is important to remember that the forklift truck is unforgiving and responds differently than other vehicles in balance and maneuvering and requires on site specific training. (OSHA)

Some of the most common issues involving safety with forklift trucks include pedestrian injuries, driving off the loading dock, falling between the dock and unsecured trailers and being hit by a lift truck or loads falling off forks. Methods to avoid these accidents may seem obvious but attention must be paid to details as life and limb depend on it. All operators must receive proper training and observe safety measures. That includes dressing appropriately with no loose or baggy clothes, safety shoes, hard hats and high visibility jackets. All equipment must be examined before each use by the operator who must also assure that a safe place to stack or drop off loads exists before pick up. The operator should check mirrors and seat position and then buckle the seat belt. Observation of the surrounding environment is a necessity. The operator must drive only on designated roadways, know all the warehouse rules, be aware of height and edges of all loading docks and racks and finally comply with all signs.

According to Toby Gooley of the GSCMP’s (Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals) Supply Chain Quarterly, changes during the last 20 years in safety have been impressive. She notes that an operator who returned to work after 20 years of absence would be amazed at the improvements. As examples she includes: operator presence systems, improved visibility, lift truck telematics or telemetry and stability enhancements.

The operator presence systems prevent forklift trucks from moving unless the driver is seated properly or if the operator leaves the vehicle without setting the parking brake. Trucks now have sleeker profiles and thinner frames with wider openings around the cabin to improve sight lines.  Especially important has been mast design to increase sight range while maintaining strength and stability. The addition of mirrors, brightly painted forks and mounted cameras has increased safety as well. Stability enhancements in the design and placement of outriggers and counterbalance weights have helped to prevent units from tipping over. The wireless transmission of data to or from the truck is now available through telemetry systems. These systems can identify possible maintenance issues and lock down units to prevent unsafe operation. Limiting access to only properly trained operators is another possibility with telemetry systems. Jim Gaskell, director of global technology for Crown Equipment Corporation believes that monitoring impacts with fleet management systems to determine frequency, amplitude and responsibility will decrease damage and injuries.

Frank Clark of Embrace Safety asserted that two issues cause many accidents. First, the operator approaches a pallet or product with forks of the truck at the incorrect height. This results in damage to the product or container. Second, approaching a container or pallet too fast causes damage to the product or splintering of the pallet.

Mr. Clark offered that while back up alarms and strobe lights are not required by OSHA, most dealers or manufacturers list them as standard safety equipment. Several innovations that are optional but offer great safety benefits are Embrace Safety’s C-All Camera System and Blue Dragon.

The C-All Camera System can be mounted inside the carriage in seconds with bumper style mounts using heavy duty magnets. It helps operators see where the forks need to go for high put away and retrieval. It is also a back up camera to allow the operator to judge distance to racking and product while supplying a second set of eyes to see blind spots. Since the system records all maneuvers supervisors can investigate accidents or review an operator’s performance by checking the time and date stamp on video recordings.

The Blue Dragon System warns pedestrians or oncoming vehicles at intersections with a blue light on the floor within the “no go zone” of the machine. This zone encompasses an area of 8 ft. in front and in back of the vehicle and 3 ft. on the sides. The high intensity light can be hard mounted on the forklift truck frame or temporarily mounted with a magnet.

Other safety items include a battery cable protector that is heat shrunk to protect the cables and the connector (SB350). When the cables are pulled from the connector repeatedly they can be pulled apart and expose the wires. The cables can also be damaged by the hood, so this protector prevents these damages and potential safety hazards. The Ultimate Safety Belt won the 2009 Product of the Year award. The simple arc design improves operator comfort, flexibility and maneuverability. The spring action arm feature inhibits operator functionality unless the belt is secured. It is impossible to place behind the seat and very difficult to sit on. It is easy to install and the yellow colored end assures that supervisors can see if it is not being worn.

To ensure safety the daily check list must be followed at the beginning of each work shift. This check list consists of more than 30 items. The temptation, of course, is to shorten or even ignore the list. To prevent these short cuts telemetry systems have the capability to allow the operator to perform these OSHA required inspections more easily. 

The bottom line to safety is the operator. Ms. Cooley (GSCMP) stated that proper training for every operator must be continuously refreshed and reinforced. It is necessary for each operator to take responsibility for his/her actions. It is essential to establish and maintain a  “Safety Culture” at all levels of all businesses to further prevent accidents and injuries that not only affect workers’ health and well –being but also the stability and revenue of each and every company.

In the constant search for safety, efficiency and productivity industry is evolving newer technologies to solve old problems. In Chicago during April 2017 at ProMat (the largest meeting of manufacturing and supply chain professionals) these innovations were explored in a variety of sessions.

Safety issues have prompted a new paradigm through “lean production” and “forklift free” manufacturing. One example is the Ford Cleveland Engine Plant One where workers who once opposed the concept of “forklift free” have come to support it. The use of tuggers and carts to move products proved to be safer, more cost efficient, reduced inventory and floor space as well as eliminating the need for coordination between forklifts and operators.

Lean manufacturing demands that material be replenished as it is used. That means there is no excess inventory on the floor. Tuggers hasten production as these self contained battery powered cart movers can push or pull heavy parts and equipment. Load Mover Inc. of Bloomington, Minnesota carries several tuggers capable of moving up to 50,000 pounds with a single operator. The tuggers come equipped with ergonomic handle assemblies, variable speed thumb controls, a safety switch, a kill switch, a safety horn and a variety of attachments. These carts can be connected train fashion to move product through the manufacturing plant or warehouse with efficiency.

Another innovation manufactured by Topper Industries of Milwaukee, Wisconsin is the cradle cart for assembly line areas. These carts present material in an ergonomically correct position, thus providing a space saving benefit along the assembly line. Without this improvement, pallets and containers often clutter the pathways.

The international company of Hyster-Yale Materials Handling produces robotic lift trucks to increase safety. The robotic trucks can pick up, transport or drop off pallets independently. They are integrated into the existing operation by mapping the structural features to self locate and navigate without tape, magnets, or wires. This increases productivity as well as safety.

According to Steve Banker in the March 16, 2015 Forbes article on IoT, “Internet of Things”, technology  means that “smart” forklift trucks use sensor enabled equipment. No longer is the machine dependent on the operator. These “smart” machines can self diagnose for maintenance, control speed, detect and prevent possible collisions, operate the fork speed, “know” what the weight of the load is and where it is located and prevent slippage. The built in real time location systems allows the driver to proceed to a specific location to pick up or put down a load without the operator needing to scan the location. This technology requires that structures be designed to enable optimal performance.

Whether training of operators, installation of safety equipment, use of robotic trucks, or implementation of IoT technology, manufacturing is constantly evolving as it seeks better safety for employees, increased efficiency, and the ability to compete in the global economy.

Susan Miller Hellert is Senior Lecturer Emeritus from the University of Wisconsin Platteville.  Now a free-lance writer for a variety of clients. You may email with questions.