Forklift safety - manufacturing responsibility

By Wendy Cramer
Tuesday, 20 March, 2007

Safety regulators are increasingly looking to manufacturers to help solve the forklift safety problem by building safety features directly into the machinery. We spoke with two forklift safety experts to get their opinion on the success of such features: Todd Brennan from Forkpro Australia and John Gill from Automotion Control Systems.

What are some examples of in-built safety features that take some of the responsibility for safety off the operator?

TB: Nothing will ever take the responsibility to operate the equipment safely from the operator. However, recent developments have tried to integrate higher level risk control measures into the forklift's operation to reduce certain hazards that present themselves.

Some examples would be:

  • Stability control systems
  • Operator presence systems
  • 'Smart' seatbelt interlocking
  • In-built speed limiting (some systems allow different speed in different zones)
  • Braking and traction control systems
  • Electronic emission control systems

JG: Forklift zone-based speed control. For example, Speedshield enables the definition of variable speed zones and then controls the vehicle's maximum speed in each of those zones.

Lift height speed control. Speedshield also enables the setting of maximum vehicle speed when the tynes are raised.

Curve control. Speedshield controls the forklift speed when travelling around corners, to avoid tipping.

Logic-based driver restraints. Speedshield enables the setting of procedural interlocks for drivers operating vehicles. The driver must sit on the seat, engage the seatbelt and swipe his ID card prior to being able to start the vehicle.

Should he disengage the seatbelt while operating the vehicle, an alarm will sound and, after a predefined time, the forklift will lose throttle. Additionally, if he alights from the vehicle, he will be required to engage the handbrake. If he doesn't, the vehicle will alarm for a period and then power down.

These facilities ensure that drivers use the restraints appropriately and do not leave vehicles running unattended.

Can you explain why this kind of technology is a safer option in a materials handling environment? For example, what kind of dangerous activities may have been possible in the past that are not possible with various in-built features?

TB: There are two key issues that surround nearly all serious forklift accidents: lateral counterbalance forklift instability and pedestrian proximity to forklift activity.

Take seatbelts for example. They have been proven to save the lives of counterbalance forklift operators during lateral tip-over. However, there is often a reluctance or even refusal to wear them.

To counter this reluctance, technology has been developed to ensure that operators are wearing the seatbelt before certain functions become possible.

Also, look at the development of battery-electric forklifts. Their power has increased and battery cycle times extended to the point where they now make up 50% of the market. Obviously due to emissions - or lack of - they are the forklift of choice for internal operation.

Can you explain the concept of zone-based safety controls?

TB: The hazards in most workplaces usually vary from area to area. For example, operation within a warehouse tends to be very different to that of an outside hard-stand area.

Space available to manoeuvre, surface conditions, ventilation, number and proximity of pedestrians and other factors vary from location to location.

An example of a zone-based control would be speed-limiting devices. Utilising radio frequency, infrared or GPS switching, the speed controller on the forklift is altered to limit speed to various preset travel speeds.

For example, walking pace within a warehouse and then once outside the doors, where there are no pedestrians and more open area, a higher travel speed is permitted. This same type of technology is very flexible and can be used for many situations such as causing gates to lock when a forklift approaches.

JG: Speedshield enables speed zones or areas to be defined through the use of GPS technology or by the installation of RFID tags into the concrete across doorways.

Upon moving from one speed zone to another, the vehicle's maximum speed is altered and cannot travel faster in that zone than has been predefined. Additionally, by use of the Speedshield Reporting and Control module, speed limits can be altered for combinations of vehicle, driver and zone via the web to provide simple and efficient traffic management.

How do such controls protect the safety of operators/workers/pedestrians in the area?

JG: By controlling speed in high pedestrian areas and when a vehicle is operating with tynes raised or turning corners, the operators are less likely to cause damage to equipment or people.

TB: For pedestrians, the most protection is afforded by separation from mobile plant equipment activity. However, not all workplaces have adopted separation as a policy.

There are many methods to warn forklifts of pedestrian presence and vice versa, including some sophisticated pedestrian proximity sensing systems. However, we should remember that speed directly impacts on braking distance and although a forklift may stop, often the load does not!

Control systems basically attempt to create a situation where pedestrians do not enter the danger zone around a travelling forklift. Exclusion zones and physical separation are the safest way to protect pedestrians in the workplace, as long as they also take into account falling load distances.

However, if we look a bit wider, the question should always be asked: "Can the process be eliminated or substituted?"

For the operator, stability systems can reduce the likelihood of lateral rollover and smart seatbelt and restraint devices can vastly improve their chances in the case of a lateral tip-over. However, design of the forklift aside, this area remains firmly in the control of the operator.

Is this a change of philosophy in the way materials handling solutions are being designed and manufactured? For example, in a similar way to the 'safe by design' principles being applied to manufacturing machinery?

JG: Actually, this is in response to an overall business focus on workplace safety. Any injuries or damages that occur due to speeding forklifts have a social and financial impact.

Companies are recognising this and talking strongly about zero tolerance to workplace injuries. Additionally, workplace incidents are one of the KPIs by which managers are measured.

TB: To some degree, yes. Forklifts have a couple of inherent design characteristics that - in their current form - make it difficult for the designers to eliminate. Ultimately, the high centre of gravity in relation to the three-point stability base and visibility.

Manufacturers have lowered the centre of gravity of various forklift models and there are various methods to improve the stability base. However, the basic design concept remains the same.

How do you satisfy a client's materials handling needs when they have facilities in two or more states that have different safety regulations?

TB: Users have a responsibility to meet the highest safety level, not just the one that may apply in that state. Generally, state performance-based legislation does not limit users to complying with a capped criteria but looks to strive to the highest available level or current 'state of knowledge'.

The past couple of years have seen a big focus on forklift safety - both for operators and pedestrians. Has this had an influence on the technology being developed?

JG: Forklift safety - in particular speed control - is the major reason for our technology and we believe we are a global leader in this because of our proven capabilities in zone-based speed control and driver restraints.

So our focus and the industry focus on forklift safety have been running in parallel. We are one of the companies promoting safety and the implementation of our product has helped create behavioural change at industrial sites.

Our Speedshield product won a Worksafe Best Risk Solution award in 2003, so we have been in the business of pushing and improving forklift safety for a number of years.

Have the safety guidelines for manufacturers and distributors been tightened in that time?

TB: Certainly states such as Victoria and even NSW have clearly looked towards the forklift manufacturer to improve the level of stability and there has been a response from the manufacturers.

For better or worse, however, the market pressure inadvertently applies the opposite pressure. In general, users want smaller, quicker forklifts with high lift capacities to extreme lift heights.

You would tend to think that better stability would then be mutually exclusive. Forklift development has moved with user requirements, but at the same time maintained stability as required by the relevant standards.

The regulators, however, argue that these standards are not sufficient, which remains a bone of contention within the industry.

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