In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, when little was known about the disease, facility managers understandably chose to keep outsiders off their premises. For forklift dealers, that meant field service technicians could no longer work at the customer’s site as usual. One workaround adopted by many fleets was to have the lift truck picked up outdoors and brought to the dealer’s shop. Some managers, though, sought to prevent virus transmission by postponing planned maintenance.
What are the potential consequences of such a strategy? “The simple answer is, serious injury and/or death,” warns Tony Smith, vice president of operations at Material Handling Inc. (MHI), a Clark Material Handling Co. dealer that serves parts of the Southeast. “If equipment is not functioning properly, this can have catastrophic results for employees or for the equipment.” That is no exaggeration: As detailed in DCV’s May 2019 article “Safer because they’re sound,” planned maintenance is absolutely essential to the safe operation of industrial trucks and to the safety of those who use and work around them.
In fact, postponing or cutting back on maintenance essentially trades one risk for another. Going that route “could potentially restrict access to the trained service technicians who are responsible for identifying performance- and safety-related issues,” says Joe Perkins, executive vice president, operations at Carolina Handling, a Raymond authorized Solutions and Support Center in the Southeast. As a result, fleets may be exposed to increased risk of damage to trucks and injury to operators.
There are regulatory obligations to consider too. “OSHA Standard 1910.178(q)(1) specifies that ‘any power-operated industrial truck not in safe operating condition shall be removed from service,’” points out Keith Leffel, branch health and safety manager for Crown Equipment Corp. “The rule is very clear: A truck that is not safe must be removed and serviced by trained, authorized personnel because it’s important to the safety of the driver.”
The upshot: Fleet managers will need to protect personnel against Covid-19 while simultaneously avoiding the safety risks of postponing maintenance. That may sound daunting, but forklift dealers and manufacturers say they’ve got it covered, thanks to new protocols that let them properly maintain equipment while keeping customers and technicians safe.
When the pandemic first hit, forklift manufacturers and dealers had to take immediate steps to protect their own and their customers’ personnel. Of necessity, their early efforts were somewhat ad hoc. But manufacturers soon began to hold formal meetings with their dealer network to develop and share best practices as well as adjust policies based on the real-life conditions they encountered. For example, Toyota Material Handling produced a playbook for activities like contact tracing, social distancing, reducing physical touches, and effectively communicating with employees about Covid-19, to name just a few. Hyster Co. created a special coronavirus site on an intranet for dealers, with detailed documents that describe safety protocols, simplified checklists technicians can carry with them, and other reference materials. Many, like Crown Equipment, which has its own medical director and medical services on its headquarters campus, also turned to health-care professionals for training and advice.
The companies mapped out every step of technicians’ work processes and their interactions with customers. With that information in hand, they developed rigorous protocols for mitigating transmission risk. Practices vary by manufacturer, and dealers must comply with local regulations as well as with individual customers’ requirements. But the following list, compiled from information provided by the experts consulted for this article, outlines the kinds of procedures technicians now follow. Depending on the company, they may be required to:
Hyster and Yale have built upon their own Covid safety programs to offer a related service to customers, called HY-Shield Clean. “The objective of HY-Shield Clean is to educate technicians and customers’ operators on protocols against transmission,” explains Jeff Carter, director, service satisfaction at Yale Materials Handling Corp. Customers can order such services as deep cleaning of forklifts and sanitization training for operators. They can also purchase CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)-approved personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitization supplies, including customized cleaning kits that attach to lift trucks.
The success of any Covid-prevention program requires cooperation from the customer, but not everyone is able or willing to meet the requirements. Smith notes that his company’s field technicians have the right to refuse service if they feel their safety is at risk. “We request that the customer provide a clean, safe, designated space for us to repair their equipment on-site,” he says. If a customer is unable to do so, then the technician can transport the equipment to MHI’s shop for service.
The procedures and materials that are fundamental to preventing virus transmission—masks, gloves, disinfectants, physical distancing—are decidedly low-tech. But forklift companies have found that technology, both new and familiar, is instrumental to providing safe maintenance and repair services.
While limiting in-person visits is critical, there’s no getting around the fact that some things require getting a visual. At Toyota Material Handling, says Toyota Brand Ambassador Tom Lego, this is part of the culture; the Toyota Production System values the concept of genchi genbutsu, roughly translated as “go see the actual thing in its place.” When the pandemic hit, service technicians very quickly came up with ways to do that virtually, using apps like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Apple FaceTime on laptops and mobile phones to speak with customers while getting a close-up view of the problem. This kind of “preview” often helped to identify which parts would be needed, thereby reducing the number of trips required, he says.
Other forklift makers and dealers are using video communications as well. In some cases, the technician may be able to solve a problem without having to make a site visit. Telecom technologies are also being used to link field technicians with the manufacturers’ technical experts—especially valuable when long-distance travel is not an option. But some video tools have drawbacks, most notably their high bandwidth requirements, exacerbated by poor connectivity and weak cell service inside some large DCs.
To address those issues, Hyster and Yale worked with an outside partner to develop a low-bandwidth solution called HY-Shield Virtual Expert. This system, which includes hardware and software, allows technical experts back at the factory to see exactly what the dealer’s technician or the customer is seeing. The expert can annotate the screen to share information and guide the technician or the customer, and can bring both parties into the loop for three-way communication, according to Erick Duncan, Hyster’s director of service engineering and customer satisfaction.
Some efficiency-boosting pre-pandemic technologies are also proving very helpful for preventing Covid-19 transmission. Like many dealers, MHI had stopped handling physical paperwork before the pandemic hit; technicians use tablets for everything, including dispatch and time-card submission and for sharing documents with customers. Likewise, Carolina Handling, the Raymond dealer, had implemented electronic work orders and maintenance requests to communicate more quickly and efficiently with customers. The timing was fortuitous: The new system has the added benefit of reducing physical interactions among customers, technicians, and sales associates, Perkins says. And Crown has found that the electronic mobile service platform it uses for paperless assignment, scheduling, and the like has been very useful for reducing touches during the pandemic, Leffel says.
Another pre-pandemic technology that’s proved its worth in the past year: forklift telematics and fleet management systems. Because they remotely conduct diagnostics, monitor truck performance, and produce automated reports that identify developing problems, they help technicians determine beforehand when service will be needed and which parts to bring, thus minimizing their time on-site. All of the experts we consulted credited these systems with reducing physical touch points and in-person interactions.
Once the Covid-19 pandemic eases, some of the newly introduced technologies and practices will likely become permanent. “We still need to be close to our customer and to understand what’s happening at the service site,” Hyster’s Duncan observes. “But we have to lean in to the new procedures. The pandemic has forced us to rethink how we interact with our customers, and we found that we can do it better.”
With coronavirus variants and transmission rates changing, and local rules about what is and isn’t allowed in flux, forklift dealers will have to continue to be flexible. “If a customer requires that we take the truck off-site, then that’s what the dealer will do,” Yale’s Carter says, adding that his company is prepared to do “whatever it takes to keep the customer up and running but still maintain fleet and personal safety.”
One area where there isn’t any flexibility, even during a pandemic, is forklift safety and maintenance. It’s a shared responsibility whose success rests on good communication and collaboration between customer and dealer. For the most part, Leffel says, customers have been very understanding. “They recognize that we’re all in this together and that we are working to mitigate the risk for everyone.”
Forklift dealers and manufacturers are working hard to keep their customers safe from Covid-19. But safety is everyone's responsibility, so we asked what customers could do to help everyone who works around forklifts remain healthy.
The first item on everyone's list was to continue to follow CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and local guidelines. Disinfecting equipment, tools, and work spaces; social distancing; and conscientious use of personal protective equipment (PPE) will be necessary for some time to come, they all agreed. Here are some additional suggestions:
Finally, let field service technicians know you appreciate what they do. Lego notes that they "have done a lot to keep things rolling" during the pandemic as disruption and the demands on distribution points increased. As this article makes clear, their jobs have also become more difficult, time-consuming, and risky during this time.