A forklift is cruising along a warehouse aisle when the operator hears a strange noise; the hydraulic pressure in the mast falls, and both the forks and the load they're carrying drop to the ground. In another location, a lift truck with a broken backup alarm hits an unsuspecting pedestrian as she rounds a corner and enters the aisle where the truck is working. And inside a small facility sealed up against winter temperatures, where older-model internal combustion (IC) forklifts are in use, alarms go off as carbon monoxide levels start to rise.
These safety-related incidents all have something in common: They were caused by inadequate maintenance of the equipment involved. They highlight the fact that proper maintenance helps prevent accidents and is a necessary element of any forklift safety effort.
As part of DC Velocity's coverage of the Industrial Truck Association's National Forklift Safety Day 2019 event, we spoke with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) about the role of maintenance in forklift safety. What follows are their observations and recommendations.
STICK TO THE PLAN
In conversations about forklift maintenance and safety, one recommendation is at the top of everyone's list: Be scrupulous about scheduled maintenance and pre-shift inspections, and rigorous in how you conduct them.
Scheduled maintenance should be carried out at intervals recommended by the manufacturer. Many people think scheduled maintenance is mostly for things like replacing filters and oil, but that's just a small part of the story, says Grant Tipton, senior manager of technical services for UniCarriers Americas. This type of maintenance does aim to keep a truck running smoothly, but it's also a time to check that safety-related items like brakes, warning systems, seatbelts, and lights are functioning properly, he says. Examples of other components that should be inspected include masts, hydraulic systems, tires, and batteries. One checklist we reviewed, for a pallet jack, specified service intervals and procedures for dozens of parts, including the frame, drive wheels, steering-assembly components, and the fittings that connect the forks to the frame, to name just a few. In short, anything and everything that affects a forklift's ability to perform safely and efficiently should be carefully inspected and serviced, as outlined in the manufacturer's service and repair manual for the specific truck model.
All this helps fleet operators detect and address potential problems, making it less probable that a forklift will fail during operation and, in general, reducing the likelihood of accidents, says Bob Hasenstab, senior product manager for Kion North America. To achieve safety goals, he advises, "maintenance should include more than replacing 'normal wear' parts; rather, it involves keeping an eye on the whole forklift with a checklist of items that should be inspected regularly."
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the applicable industry standard—ANSI/ITSDF B56.1—mandate that operators conduct a daily inspection of their lift trucks. OSHA and B56.1 provide guidelines for these inspections to aid facilities in creating their own application-specific form. However, the employer is responsible for ensuring that operators are trained in how to inspect each piece of equipment they use, says David Matthews, fleet operations manager for Hyster-Yale Group Inc. Each facility's inspection processes and checklists should reflect its own unique combination of equipment, personnel, products, and physical environment, he adds.
In Matthews' view, the two types of inspection complement each other. He cites the following example: A technician doing periodic maintenance may see a forklift every three months. In an operation with three shifts a day, seven days a week, that same forklift would undergo, on average, 85 pre-shift inspections a month, or 255 inspections between scheduled maintenance work. The operator and the technician have different knowledge and responsibilities, but if everyone treats forklift maintenance proactively, he says, "we can avoid downtime and potential safety issues."
CHOOSE TRUSTWORTHY TECHNICIANS
With operators' safety—perhaps even their lives—on the line, fleet managers should be choosy about whom they entrust with maintenance and repair. OSHA regulations state that repairs must be made by "authorized personnel," notes Don C. Buckman, environmental health and safety manager and corporate responsibility leader for Yale Materials Handling. That means "those qualified to work on trucks need to be both company-authorized [by the OEM] and trained to specific levels of expertise" through a formal training program, he says.
The OEMs designed their trucks and know best how to maintain and repair them. "Factory-trained dealer technicians are best qualified to perform maintenance and repair to factory specifications," Kion's Hasenstab says. In addition, "these technicians will have access to the latest training materials, parts, and service diagnostic software."
Most end users do rely on their dealers to handle maintenance, but those with large fleets will often have their own technicians on staff. Regardless of whom they work for, though, technicians must be trained on the specific makes and models they're maintaining, says David T. Nicolette, technical trainer at Clark Material Handling. One reason is that each manufacturer has its own way of designing, building, and servicing its products—even the way a particular model is safely jacked and blocked during service may differ from other models, he says.
Another reason is that there's an enormous difference between, say, an IC counterbalanced sit-down and an order picker. "You could put the best IC technician you ever met to work on a reach truck, and he wouldn't know [what he was doing]," Matthews says.
Being up to date on the technology aspect of maintenance is increasingly important. The days when technicians could do most of their work with a wrench are long gone, says John Rosenberger, director of iWarehouse Gateway and global telematics at The Raymond Corp. "Many pieces of the truck incorporate technology now," so today's technicians must know how to identify and fix a problem related to electronics, he says. "They need a lot more knowledge tools in their bag."
Effective technician training typically combines classroom education with other methods such as instructional videos and virtual-reality simulation, hands-on supervised practice, and field training alongside experienced technicians. The programs are also designed to move technicians through various stages of expertise over time. Just one of many possible examples is Yale's ProTech program, where technicians can progress through four main levels of certification, with the two most advanced levels broken down into four specific certifications. The path from beginner to the highest, "Gold Elite," level typically takes from five to eight years to complete, according to Yale.
Another approach is that adopted by Crown Equipment Corp. According to Craig Bruns, vice president, customer support, Crown's "demonstrated performance" method was adapted from the U.S. military and the automotive industry and is unique among forklift OEMs. Under this "learn it, do it, use it" strategy, trainees first study how to perform an assigned task through reading a module and/or watching an instructional video. Next, they practice performing the repair or the troubleshooting task in a controlled environment. Finally, they prove to Crown's trainers that they can consistently perform the task correctly. This has proved superior to lecture-based training, he reports.
Fleet managers want to have the highest confidence that their equipment is safe to operate in their particular environment, so even with OEM-trained technicians, "I think asking for credentials is reasonable," says Thomas Lego, national manager of training and customer center for Toyota Material Handling. Among the questions he suggests asking are: "Do they know the proper way to maintain your equipment? Have they had any specialized training? Are there any unique requirements for servicing your equipment? Will they be able to do this maintenance for you so you have consistent reliability, good performance, and long life for your equipment?"
MORE TIPS FOR SAFER TRUCKS
In addition to a rigorous inspection and maintenance regime and using factory-trained/certified technicians, the experts we consulted also recommend the following maintenance-related steps fleet managers can take to improve safety:
Know when to take a truck out of service. To prevent accidents and further damage to equipment and loads, operators should be trained to recognize when a maintenance-related problem is serious enough to warrant action. There was unanimous agreement that an operator should stop the truck immediately and report the problem when he or she:
Clark's Nicolette was unequivocal: "CFR 29, Subpart N, Section 1910.178, Paragraphs (p)(1) and (q)(1) tell you that if a truck is in need of repair or is in any way unsafe, it must be taken out of service until it's been restored to safe operating condition. And if anything is not working properly on that truck, then it is unsafe and must be taken out of service and parked, and not returned to service until it has been restored to a safe operating condition, period."
The operator is responsible for recognizing a problem and taking action, whether that's during the pre-operation inspection or hours into a shift, says David Norton, vice president, corporate quality and customer care, for The Raymond Corp. Depending on their previous experience, operators may not recognize some kinds of problems, he says, and they should be taught how to do that as part of their training. Toward that end, Raymond has been using its virtual-reality simulator to help operators experience and compare what's good condition and what's bad, and to learn when to take a forklift out of service.
Toyota uses the phrase "Stop, Call, and Wait" to encourage operators to avoid taking chances. "Let's be careful, get the right people around any unusual situation, and then make good decisions about what we should do next," Lego says. "What you want to avoid is someone guessing whether the forklift is safe to operate."
"The right people" usually include supervisors, technicians, and engineers who are qualified to assess the equipment. Things that are "clearly cosmetic in nature"—a torn seat cover, for instance—and are not going to adversely affect the safe performance of the truck don't necessarily require taking the truck out of service, Matthews says. "But they ought to be reported as soon as they're noticed ... so they get on the scheduled maintenance list and don't wind up in failure later."
Take advantage of technology. Telematics (the wireless two-way communication of data and instructions between the forklift and an information management system), remote diagnostics, and electronic "brains" inside forklifts have opened up new avenues for identifying maintenance-related safety problems. Communication is faster and easier than before. It's now possible, for instance, to automatically send an alert when a fault or failure has occurred. Bruns cites the example of a service dispatch app developed by Crown Equipment for iPhones and Android phones that lets operators include the problem description and their truck's serial number in an electronic "service required" message that is sent directly to the servicing dealer.
Telematics systems can also be programmed to indicate when a problem meets established criteria for shutting down the truck. The Yale Vision telematics system, to name just one example, lets users supplement standard fault codes and "out of service" criteria set by the manufacturer to include indicators that may be specific to the operation.
One of the most widely used features of forklift telematics is an electronic pre-operation checklist. These electronic checklists can be programmed to randomly shift the order of questions and to change the wording; this lack of predictability keeps operators engaged and prevents them from marking actions as completed without having read them. If an operator fails on any critical items, the system can lock the truck. Another benefit, says Rosenberger, is that when there's a safety problem during a shift, the operator can shut down the forklift and log out in the telematics system so nobody else can use the truck while the operator is waiting for a technician to arrive.
Maintain rentals and used equipment just like the rest of your fleet vehicles. Rentals and used equipment provided by OEM-authorized dealers will be properly maintained and will meet safety standards. But, although manufacturers don't recommend it, some end users choose to rent or purchase used equipment from other sources instead. In such cases, if the buyer does not have its own certified factory-trained technicians, then it should arrange right away for an authorized dealer to inspect the truck to make sure it's up to standards, says Tipton of UniCarriers. That way, he says, "if any repairs are needed, then a qualified, trained technician at the dealer can do them before you use the truck."
Nicolette agrees. "You're taking everybody's life in your hands if you use the truck without having it inspected by an authorized dealer first." And, he adds, an operator's pre-shift inspection is not sufficient—a comprehensive, planned maintenance inspection is required to verify that the truck is safe to operate.
For rental equipment, Kion's Hasenstab recommends that end users make sure the rental contract contains information about whether all applicable maintenance has been performed. Matthews, meanwhile, strongly advocates for a regimented "onboarding" process for rented or borrowed equipment. This involves carefully inspecting and documenting the forklift's condition, and then treating the truck exactly like the rest of your fleet vehicles in regard to maintenance, repair, and documentation. "You should view these trucks as an integral part of your maintenance regime for the duration of [their] stay in your environment," he advises.
Use only OEM-approved replacement parts. The Internet is awash in replacement forklift parts that are third-party knockoffs. Their prices typically are lower than those of forklift manufacturers' approved parts, but in the long run, they can end up creating costly safety problems.
First, there's the matter of regulatory compliance. OSHA safety regulation CFR 29, Subpart N, Section 1910.178, paragraph (q)(5) specifies that any part of a powered industrial truck requiring replacement must be replaced only by parts that are "equivalent as to safety with those used in the original design." The customer makes the decision about whether to use non-OEM parts, Raymond's Norton observes, but "we don't approve such parts, so we can't say whether they're equivalent or not."
Second, aftermarket parts often don't perform the same way as the OEMs' own versions, or they may not fit correctly, which can create a host of safety hazards. Bruns offers the example of drive tires. There are lots of aftermarket versions for sale online, but only a few tires—ones that his company manufactures—meet safe braking-distance requirements for Crown's trucks, he says. Using unapproved tires affects not only braking distance and traction, but also the stability of the truck. "You can always look to the OEM to have the safest parts," he says. "You should not just look for anything that seems to fit."
Keep some basic replacement parts on hand—but know when it's best not to DIY. Maintaining some OEM-approved replacement parts on site allows certain types of repairs to be completed quickly, making it less likely, for instance, that operators will continue to use a truck that's unsafe until a part comes in, Buckman says. However, he and the other experts we spoke with are unified on this point: An employer should keep replacement parts on site and install them only if its own technicians have been factory-trained to work on the specific lift trucks involved. Even then, there are limits on what they can safely do.
Large end users that have their own fleet maintenance team typically will keep certain replacement parts in their own facilities, says UniCarriers' Tipton. "This makes sense for some basic standard parts like fan belts and hoses for IC trucks that can safely be replaced right away, and for what we call 'wear items' like starters and batteries," he explains. Most other types of parts and components, including those that are complicated to replace, require special procedures, or involve complex electronic connections should be brought in and installed by the dealer.
With most manufacturers able to deliver commonly used parts to the customer overnight, getting a part quickly shouldn't be a big concern, Nicolette says. But if a fleet with qualified technicians does want to stock parts on site, he and other experts recommend that they have dealers consign the inventory. There are several benefits to doing so, but one of the biggest is that it prevents technicians from placing old or obsolete parts back in inventory. "With consignments," he says, "someone from the servicing dealer will periodically come in and review them to make sure they're up to date for the forklift models you currently have."
THE BIG PICTURE
As our conversations with forklift safety experts have shown, rigorously following the maintenance protocols and, when appropriate, adopting the other recommendations in this article will pay off in a safer workplace. Looking at it from a "big picture" standpoint reinforces why that matters to everyone—operators, pedestrians, and their employers too.
One reason why all companies should care about the impact of maintenance on safety is that losing the use of equipment because it's unsafe reduces productivity, Kion's Hasenstab says, adding that a thorough planned maintenance program will keep the machines operating safely and at peak performance. Most importantly, he warns, undetected maintenance issues are dangerous for people and property alike, potentially causing injuries to operators and pedestrians and leading to environmental problems such as spills and leaks.
Unfortunately, operators can become complacent about safety. "When forklifts are not properly maintained or inspected prior to use, the consequences can span a wide range, from 'nothing happened' to extremely significant property damage, injury, or even death," Buckman says. If nothing happens, there's a risk that operators will continue any bad habits they may have developed. Keeping the spotlight on the maintenance-safety connection, even when everything is working well, he says, will keep operators engaged while reducing risk for everybody.