April 28, 2016
material handling update | Lift Trucks

Forklift safety ... past, present, and future

What makes today's forklifts safer to operate than ever before? Experts name some of the most important improvements of the past few years and explain why forklifts of the future are likely to be even safer.

By Toby Gooley

If a forklift driver who retired 20 years ago came back to work in a warehouse or DC today, he or she would be surprised by how much lift trucks have changed. Just as in the auto industry, vehicle design, fuel efficiency, and on-board technology have all improved dramatically in just the last few years.

One area that has seen some of the biggest improvements is safety. Manufacturers of forklifts and accessories have devoted a great deal of effort to developing innovative products that help operators use lift trucks more safely. And whether safety features are integral to the lift truck's design or after-sale add-ons, the objective is the same: fewer accidents and a safer workplace for operators and pedestrians alike.

As part of our special coverage for National Forklift Safety Day 2016, we asked forklift manufacturers to identify some of the most important safety improvements of the past few years. Here, in no particular order, are their top picks:

  • Operator presence systems. "Operator presence systems" prevent forklifts from traveling without a driver seated properly at the controls. According to Mitsubishi Caterpillar Forklift America Inc. (MCFA), which says it was the first lift truck manufacturer to introduce them to the North American market, these systems stop certain hydraulic and transmission functions when the operator does not fasten the seat belt during operation or leaves the normal operating position without activating the parking brake.

    One example is UniCarriers Americas' version, which halts the truck by shifting it into neutral and locks out hydraulic functions if the operator is not seated, explains product manager Tony Kordes. The lift and tilt lock will also stop mast operation when the driver leaves the seat, he says. The basic functionality of other manufacturers' systems is similar; all include a warning lamp and/or an audible signal to alert drivers to their errors.

    Operator presence systems typically rely on a sensor inside the seat to signal a controller to prevent the truck from moving and/or handling loads when needed. Another approach that's designed for standup trucks involves two light sensors that span the entry to the operator compartment. If a sensor is blocked, indicating that the driver is not correctly positioned or that an object is in the operator compartment, the truck will not travel, says Justin Byma, product manager for very-narrow-aisle products at The Raymond Corp.

  • Improved visibility. When an operator can't clearly see what's in front of, behind, above, and adjacent to a lift truck, accidents are bound to happen. Many manufacturers have therefore given trucks of all types sleeker profiles and thinner frames with wider openings around the cabin to improve sight lines in all directions.

    Some of the biggest visibility gains in the past few years have come from mast designs that make it easier to see through and around them yet maintain strength and stability. This has been a high priority for many OEMs. Just one example is Crown Equipment Corp.'s MonoLift mast for two of its reach truck series. The mast offers better visibility because it is offset seven inches to the left of the operator and gets narrower the higher it goes, explains Jim Gaskell, director of global technology business development. Another example is the reach carriage on Crown's RM series, which is shaped to create a large window at eye level to provide the operator with a better view of the fork tips and load, he says.

    Visibility-enhancing attachments and accessories, such as mirrors, brightly painted forks, and fork-mounted video cameras, have also made a notable contribution to forklift safety. One increasingly popular option, says Chuck Leone, vice president of Hyundai Forklift, is a backup camera. Similar to those available in recent-model cars, forklift cameras improve visibility behind the vehicle. Operators still need to turn around and keep watch on what's going on behind and around them, of course, but the cameras expand their view from the floor up, allowing them to clearly see pedestrians and objects that may be below eye level.

    Better visibility is not just for the operator, by the way. Making pedestrians more aware of the presence and travel direction of nearby forklifts is also important. One of the most effective visibility tools in recent years is the "blue light" accessory, says Max Vome, health, safety, and environment manager at Kion North America Corp., parent of Linde and Baoli brand forklifts. This simple device attaches to the lift truck's frame and projects a bright, highly visible blue light onto the floor behind, in front of, or alongside a moving forklift, as appropriate for the situation. The light provides an early warning—by projecting beyond the end of an aisle, for example, so pedestrians and other lift trucks know that a truck is coming even though they may not be able to see it yet.

  • Lift truck telematics. Telematics (also known as telemetry) refers to the wireless transmission of data to or from a mobile asset. Telematics for forklifts and the technologies used for collecting, sharing, and analyzing lift truck-related data are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Some systems are offered by independent providers, such as I.D. Systems and Total Trax, while others are available through forklift manufacturers, which have either developed their own software or partnered with an independent developer.

    Lift truck telematics systems generate easy-to-access metrics and can be highly effective tools for improving operator safety, say the experts at Toyota. Depending on the application, these systems can help fleet managers monitor operators' driving habits, track impacts, and collect and store OSHA-required information, among other capabilities. They also analyze the data, which helps companies identify individual operators who need additional training.

    For example, telemetry systems equipped with operator-checklist capabilities allow operators to easily perform OSHA-required preshift inspections, identifying possible maintenance issues and potentially locking down units to prevent unsafe operation, says Jay Costello, director, dealer marketing, for Yale Materials Handling Corp. (Yale is part of Hyster-Yale Materials Handling Inc., which also markets products under the Hyster brand name.) Units equipped with an identification-card reader can limit access so only appropriately trained workers are able to operate specific equipment. Telemetry systems can also alert operators and managers when certifications are near expiration, helping to ensure refresher training is provided on a timely basis, he adds.

    Impact monitoring is one of the most valuable safety enhancements in fleet telematics systems. Operators understand that impacts can be easily audited to determine frequency, amplitude, and, ultimately, responsibility. As a result, truck damage and injuries from impacts generally decrease when a fleet management system is implemented, says Gaskell.

  • Stability enhancements. Lift truck makers have made a variety of design changes to help prevent tipping when loads are elevated. Improvements in the design and placement of outriggers, counterbalance weights, and (in high-lift trucks) operator compartments are just some of the features that have contributed to better stability.

    Toyota says it has paid special attention to stability with its unique System of Active Stability (SAS) and Active Mast Control (AMC) technologies for sit-down counterbalanced trucks. When the SAS detects factors that lead to potential lateral instability, it locks a hydraulic cylinder on the rear steer axle, changing the forklift's stability footprint from a triangular shape to rectangular to decrease the likelihood of a tipover. The AMC system senses factors like load weight and mast height that lead to longitudinal instability. If needed, it will automatically override the operator's manual control and limit the forward tilt as well as the reverse tilt speed to reduce the chance of spilling a load or tipping the forklift.

THE FUTURE OF FORKLIFT SAFETY

While the industry has made great strides in forklift safety in the past few years, the OEMs are confident there are more improvements to come. Some will be inspired by developments outside the material handling industry. Hyundai's Chuck Leone, for one, foresees lift truck makers adopting more safety-enhancing technologies from the automotive and trucking industries. As technologies like laser-guided collision-avoidance systems are perfected and become more common, forklift OEMs will adapt them for material handling applications, he predicts.

Justin Byma of Raymond says he expects a surge of interactive training tools that will help to improve forklift safety in the future. These tools will be based on simulation and gaming technology, and will help a new generation of operators learn how to properly operate material handling equipment in a virtual environment, he says.

Effective application of technology will be fundamental to further progress on safety, forklift executives agree. For example, Bob Hasenstab, general product manager at Kion North America Corp., forecasts that future improvements are likely to come from such developments as automated forklifts with object-detecting sensors, weight- and height-sensing devices to ensure proper lifting, noise and vibration reduction to reduce fatigue levels, and automatic speed reduction to adjust to load weight and curves.

The kind of programmable controls and semi-automation described by Hasenstab were at the top of several OEMs' lists for both current and future improvements. While such capabilities are available now, they are not yet in widespread use, and vendors will continue to introduce new products and improvements in this area.

MCFA, whose Jungheinrich brand offers the Warehouse Navigation semi-automation system for remotely controlling lift truck operation, notes that lift trucks are becoming sophisticated "computers on wheels" that allow customers to customize and program many aspects of the forklift's operation to meet particular requirements, thereby helping to reduce risks stemming from operators' errors in judgment. For example, using location signals from radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, Jungheinrich's system can control a lift truck's acceleration, travel speeds, lift heights, stops, and avoidance of overhead objects.

Yale recently joined the field with its A-Ware control solution, which also uses RFID sensing to enforce travel speed, acceleration, and lift restrictions. The company says its system can also adjust to the nuances of each aisle, identifying high-traffic areas and automatically detecting dead-ends to reduce the risk of collisions.

IT ALL COMES DOWN TO PEOPLE

Equipment design and technology are extremely important tools for improving safety, but they can—and should—only go so far. It's important that operators are not lulled into expecting the forklift to do everything for them, or believing that the technology takes the responsibility for safe operation off their shoulders, says Crown's Gaskell.

That was something every lift truck OEM we polled agreed on, and which many emphasized. Tony Kordes of UniCarriers spoke for all of them when he said, "Manufacturers design with the standards in mind and create the best equipment to encourage proper use and protect operators in case of accidents, but nothing can be designed into a lift truck to make it perform safely with an operator who doesn't use it that way. So the absolute best way to improve operator and warehouse safety is to train every operator properly and continually refresh and reinforce those practices. Operators still must take responsibility for their actions."

About the Author

Toby Gooley
Senior Editor
Before joining DC VELOCITY and its sister publication, CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly, where she serves as Editor, Toby Gooley spent 20 years at Logistics Management covering international trade and transportation as Senior Editor and Managing Editor. Prior to that she was an export traffic manager for 10 years. She holds a B.A. in Asian Studies from Cornell University.

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