Combustion vs electric: which is safer?

By Wendy Cramer
Friday, 15 September, 2006

Sales of electric forklifts are fast catching up to their combustive cousins. Advances in battery-powered technology have seen more businesses take advantage of some of the unique safety advantages of this emission-free alternative.

The use of anything electric over diesel-driven varieties is top of mind at the moment, given the incredible price hikes of fuel.

Whether or not this will have an impact on Australia's forklift fleets remains to be seen, as while the Australian Industrial Truck Association (AITA) has issued statistics that show that sales of electric forklifts are increasing, there are a number of factors influencing the trend that are not necessarily fuel-related.

And different forklifts have different safety issues attached to them, so from an OHS perspective, the choice of model will also come down to its ultimate application.

The AITA statistics show that while the proportion of combustion powered forklifts (IC) to battery electric (BE) used to be 60:40, current statistics put that figure closer to 50:50.

Andrew Satterley at Linde Materials Handling confirms this trend, revealing that this forklift supplier sells combustion and electric models at a ratio of about 60:40. "We have held our position on IC units, but have had significant growth in electric," he told Safety Solutions.

He attributes the growth in sales of electric forklifts to advances in technology. "There was a perception of better performance [with IC models], however with advances in electric trucks, that no longer applies."

He also believes that electric forklifts are gaining favour because in some instances they are a safer option for workplaces.

"As far as emissions are concerned, electric is a safer option, especially in the food industry," he says.

For workplaces that require forklifts to operate in closed-off spaces, the issue of emissions and the subsequent noise can also be a deciding factor.

According to Peter Wilson from Toyota Industries Corporation Australia, industry has favoured IC forklifts in the past for a number of valid reasons. "Traditionally, IC-powered units have been regarded as less susceptible to environmental conditions (ambient weather, ground conditions), with a lower initial purchase price," he said.

"There was also the more common understanding and convenience of refuelling over battery charging and users would have longer running times between refuelling versus recharging."

Wilson is also quick to explain why sales of electric versions are now catching up. "The materials handling industries utilising forklifts have matured rapidly, with environmental and safety issues of extreme importance.

"Reductions or the elimination of machine emissions and the safe handling and storage of fuels come under continual review.

"With the advancements in technologies of BE-powered machines with AC motors, regenerative systems and the like, in the advancement of battery and charger designs, many of the traditional resistances to BE vehicles are being overcome."

But Wilson will not be drawn on which of the two technologies ultimately provides the safer option. "There are common and unique safety issues related to the operation and maintenance of both the BE- and IC-powered forklifts."

He concludes that one power system is not safer than the other, but that one could be a safer option for a particular application. At the end of the day, it still comes down to where the unit is being used, and for what purpose.

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