Life can be tough for lift truck drivers. Vehicles tip over and tumble off docks. Loads topple. Operators risk electrical shock from contact with overhead electric cables as well as exposure to hazardous chemicals, fumes and acid spills (when changing batteries). Many suffer hearing damage because of workplace noise.
The industry's safety record reflects these hazards: According to Toyota Material Handling, more than 68,000 lift truck accidents occur in North America each year. Some of those are fatal. In 1996 and 1997 alone, for example, 225 workers were killed in forklift incidents.
Then there are the ergonomic hazards - all too often, drivers suffer injuries that develop over time due to cumulative exposure to working conditions that tax the human body's capabilities: Trauma disorders to hands and arms from overexerti on when steering; low-back pain caused by prolonged seating in an awkward posture and an ergonomically inadequate seat. Neck pain from awkward positions assumed during reverse driving and from transporting loads that partially obstruct the operator's field of vision. Combine that with spine-jarring bumps every time an operator drives over a dock plate, awkward mounting and dismounting practices, and the potential for slips, and it becomes clear that lift-truck driving is risky business.
But a distribution center doesn't have to be a dangerous place. Beating out 7,300 eligible companies last year, Murphy Warehouse Co., a Minneapolis-based third-party provider, earned a Preferred Partner award from its workers' compensation insurance carrier. What's notable here is that Murphy Warehouse wasn't competing against other warehouses for that distinction. Most of its competitors came from the far less risk-prone office setting.
As for Murphy Warehouse's success, it doesn't hurt that the company takes a strong position on rules enforcement and training. "We enforce all the rules as far as seatbelt use, being tethered on the machine and driving in a safe and efficient manner," says company president Richard T. Murphy. "We take a very stiff stance on it, but it pays off. Though we're up to 20 lift truck machines and three buildings, we've had no serious fork-truck accidents." The company also hires a physical therapist to show operators how best to mount and dismount from the machines.
But a big part of the success story is the equipment the company uses. Murphy has invested in the latest in shock absorbers and ergonomic seats for its fleet of Yale and Hyster trucks. "Drivers used to experience a constant jarring on their backs when they drove over dock plates or rail plates," says Murphy, "but these new absorbers take out 50 to 75 percent of the shock they used to get. That helped tremendously, especially with heavier loads like paper rolls."
Though Murphy acknowledges that productivity will always be a consideration when selecting lift trucks, he's also concerned about his drivers' well-being." Primarily we want to make sure [drivers stay] healthy for the long term ," he says ."We generally keep people for their career after they get through the first couple years because once they are trained, we don't want to lose them . So our program is not focused so much on productivity as it is on safety and health."
Fork in the road
That represents something of a sea change for the industry. "Ten years ago, DC managers looked for the most costeffective product," says Brett Wood,national product development, strategic planning and marketing services manager for Toyota Material Handling, U.S.A., Inc., "but now we hear them saying things like, 'I need a [vehicle] that will be comfortable and safe to operate.'"What's more,they're willing to pay for comfort and safety, he says, citing focus groups and surveys that Toyota conducts frequently."We've seen plant managers show more concern about the operator than ever before, which is wonderful."
It pays off, too. "A comfortable operator is a productive operator,"Wood adds."If they are comfortable eight hours a day on that forklift, they'll be more productive, and that's the name of the game."
Bruce Mantz agrees that there's a direct correlation between driver comfort and productivity. "We have very precise cutoffs for orders and very precise expectations from our customers, so it's very important we give people the right equipment so they can get the job done," says Mantz, director of operations for third-party provider Automated Distribution Systems, which deploys a fleet of lift trucks from Atlet and Raymond Corp.
"I don't want to see 95-percent efficiency during the first four hours, then see that drop down to 75 percent over their last four hours," Mantz says . "We run a very high-volume, high-accuracy operation, and in order for us to get there, we need to give our drivers quality equipment. If we didn't pay attention to ergonomics, we wouldn't be getting the productivity levels we're getting now."
What ergonomic features do today's trucks offer? Though lift trucks may not be equipped with side air bags yet , the ergonomic features touted by manufacturers will be familiar to anyone who drives a car (or reads the ads): enhanced shocks,seating improvements,steering wheels with memory tilt steering, plush floor mats to reduce noise and vibration, non-slip skid mats and even strategically placed cup holders.
For example, Swedish manufacturer Atlet recently introduced a stand-on stacker truck named "Ergo" for its numerous ergonomic features. Ergo's armrest and control panel are vertically adjustable, as is the steering wheel, which can also be adjusted laterally. Servo steering is standard, enhancing control and maneuverability in tight spaces. The mast lift and lower function is also servo-assisted to give fingertip control. The truck's "floating" floor has resilient rubber suspension and a step height of only 230 millimeters for easy access. The cab even boasts a writing surface and storage space.
With sit-down trucks, by contrast, ergonomic improvements often focus on the driver's seat. Toyota Material Handling, for example, offers full suspension seats that adjust as drivers cruise over obstacles like dock plates. "The suspension seats really cushion the ride for the operator," says Wood. "Once they get in that seat they don't want to go back."