Lift Trucks Incorporate New Technology to Achieve Safety Goals

Debra Schug, Contributing Writer  

lift trucksAs manufacturing and material handling operations increase their throughput, the rate of moving product from one place to the other is increasing. An important part of that movement is the use of forklifts and lift trucks, which is no wonder why forklift sales in North America rose again in 2018 for the fourth consecutive year of growth, according to figures from the Industrial Truck Association.

Over a quarter million units were sold last year, an increase of 2.8% from 2017. However, safety must be on the forefront of every end user of forklifts and lift trucks.

“According to the National Safety Council, operator error accounts for 70% of lift truck accidents,” said Jim Hess, Director of Warehouse Business Development, Yale Materials Handling Corporation.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration estimates nearly one in 10 forklifts will be involved in an accident. That’s why many organizations are putting more focus on operator training and better safety practices around lift trucks. It’s also why lift truck manufacturers are building new safety features into newer models and providing more services to help operations improve lift truck safety and training.

The Importance of Training

Lift trucks have been around since 1917, according to the ITA, and annual sales have grown to over 200,000 in just the U.S. alone. In almost every industry, lift trucks play a vital role. The Bureau of Labor Statics estimates there are well over 540,000 industrial truck operators currently in the U.S. With that many operators and that many units in use, training has to play a key role in safe operations of the equipment.

“Before looking at new features, start with more effective forklift operator training,” said Hess. “This has been shown to help reduce accident rates.”

Operators should receive the right skill set that is aligned with the right trucks. Hess explained that lift trucks are available in several equipment classes, so employers have to evaluate and match candidate experience levels with the type of trucks they are expected to operate, even if these operators have had prior experience as a lift truck driver.

“It is important to remember that everyone is a contributor to safety, and it starts with the right mindset that produces safe behaviors,” said Ron Grisez, Director of Product Safety for Crown Equipment. “Regardless of an employee’s role in an organization, each person has a responsibility to their family, coworkers and employer to consider safety in their daily decision-making process.”

Fostering this kind of safety culture takes effort from all staff in an operation. For instance, supervisors should remind operators of their training often, possibly by simply putting up posters in the break room or taking time out to individually coach and provide feedback to an operator.

“It may be enough for a manager to confirm an operator’s safe behavior and commend him or her for taking the right approach to a task,” added Grisez. “Such actions speak volumes to all employees and can yield immediate, positive effects.”

Creating safety cultures in organizations doesn’t seem to face the headwinds that it once did, especially since warehouses are now being designed with safety-related features built in. Grisez explained that one factor spurring this increased focus on forklift safety is OSHA’s Final Rule on Operator Training, which was initiated by the ITA and requires truck and site-specific forklift training.

New Technology to Boost Safety

Another byproduct of the industry’s increased awareness of forklift safety is that OEMs are creating new features and technology to increase the safety of lift truck operation. For instance, to tackle the problem of workers using a lift truck they might not be equipped to operate, Yale introduced its Vision telemetry system which offers controlled access.

“(It includes) a feature that locks out operators from using certain equipment, unless they are properly credentialed,” said Hess. “Operators must swipe their card at the beginning of each shift to ‘unlock’ the truck and gain access, if they are on-file as having had the proper training.”

Other new technology designed to enhance safer operation of lift trucks includes regenerative motors, said Grisez, which can provide better braking and plugging performance. He also added that on-truck sensors are now being built in to slow trucks down while turning or when they are elevated. Also, geofencing technology, used for determining geographical boundaries, is being employed to designate zones in narrow areas of a facility to limit truck speeds and heights.

Of course, there are other options to navigate small spaces without forklifts or lift trucks as well, such as the Lift Pilot, by Bishamon Industries Corporation. The pallet positioner is capable of lifting a palletized load directly from the floor, while offering the smallest footprint in the industry, according to Bishamon.

However, for those companies that are employing lift trucks, many of them are starting to look at new ways to more effectively train their employees, including the use of virtual reality simulators. These types of devices can provide operators with a realistic representation of the conditions and controls they will handle before the actual hands-on training.

“VR technology is available to help augment standard operator training programs,” said Evelyn Velasquez-Cuevas, Director of Training, Yale Materials Handling Corporation. “It’s not a training replacement, but rather a training aid. It optimizes the learner’s experience by giving them more touchpoints and helping them feel more confident and comfortable, while doing things at their own pace.”

Technology and safety will go hand in hand in the use of lift trucks in future material handling operations, whether new devices will be used in training operators to more deftly use trucks or more advanced safety features being built in equipment to facilitate safer operation. WMHS