Do more with less. It’s a common enough mantra in business, but one which has taken on new resonance in the current climate. Pressure to step up warehouse productivity is intensifying, and the result is that safety can be compromised as corners are – quite literally – cut.
After all, one of the biggest causes of lift truck accidents is when a forklift tips over while trying to take a corner too quickly. And despite tougher legislation and increasingly sophisticated truck designs, forklift-related accidents are still too frequent for comfort – with a major accident occurring every single day in the UK.
The importance of forklift safety was brought into even sharper focus recently when the BBC published footage of a Russian forklift driver slamming into the racking at a warehouse in Moscow, toppling £100,000 worth of vodka. The driver escaped with a minor leg injury.
Peter Fausel, European VP, sales & marketing for ID Systems, reckons that the current economic climate has made warehouse staff more vulnerable than ever. He says that as a result of the downturn many companies have been forced to downsize, which can lead to fewer managers and supervisors in the warehouse. “Employers already have strict warehouse safety rules and regulations in place. The problem is enforcing them – they are not always followed. Now that we’re in a downturn it’s even more of a problem as there are fewer managers,” he says.
But that’s not to undermine the efforts made by forklift manufacturers, which continue to churn out increasingly sophisticated, well thought-out designs.
Jungheinrich trucks feature Curve Control technology, designed to reduce the risk of tipping. This automatically reduces the truck’s drive speed as it enters a corner by monitoring its speed, wheel position and steering angle.
Linde Material Handling unveiled a series of pallet trucks and stackers earlier this year, which incorporate a system that regulates travel speed according to the tiller position. A potentiometer measures the angle between the tiller and the chassis, which automatically adjusts the speed to the walking pace of the operator.
Although designed as a safety feature, the tiller is also intended to improve productivity. The “creep” speed control enables the operator to manoeuvre the product even when the tiller is in an upright position – a useful feature for confined spaces.
Toyota Material Handling continues to develop its System of Active Stability (SAS). To improve the stability of a three-wheeled truck, it has tailored SAS with a dynamic speed reduction system. This slows the truck through corners, using information from the steering position.
Operations director Tony Wallis says: “Turning rate can be a big factor in causing a truck to become unstable and tip laterally. The rate at which the truck slows can be configured, allowing businesses to match the performance of their trucks to the priorities of their site.”
The three-wheeled model of its new Traigo 48-volt electric counterbalance range incorporates the new SAS. The instrument panel and overhead guard on both three and four-wheeled models have been redesigned to improve operator view when the forks are at ground level, lorry bed height and at maximum height. Also, two slim, free-lift cylinders are placed behind the mast beams, to boost visibility.
Crown Lift Truck’s TSP 6000 turret order picker features a MoveControl seat, which can be vertically adjusted and rotated 110 degrees, to help improve visibility and access to goods. It has also designed a Wave Work Assist Vehicle to remove the need for ladders. The operator stands on a shock-absorbing platform with padded wrap-around safety rails so that products can be securely transported, damage-free, on a steel load tray.
Mitsubishi has developed an Integrated Presence System, which combines with a parking brake alarm and a seat belt warning light. Mike Jones, general manager, Mitsubishi Forklift Trucks UK, says that its latest order picker – the OPB20NE – has a number of safety features which “make reckless operation almost impossible”. This includes a PIN code system that allows access only to authorised users, and sets speed limits specific to each one. To move, the operator has to be properly in place – the whole platform acting as a dead man’s pedal.
“Maximum speed is automatically restricted according to load weight, and automatically reduced – if necessary – on curves,” says Jones.
Still Materials Handling scooped the FLTA’s 2009 safety award for its FM-X laser-guided automated reach truck. The autonomous truck uses a laser system to monitor its environment. A rotating scanner, with 180 degree opening, continually watches its surroundings. The truck can be used manned or unmanned, and detects anyone walking in its work area. When this happens, it automatically slows to a stop.
In autonomous mode, the computer, using maps stored in its memory, can accurately localise the truck within millimetres. The system uses a high-powered computer chip coupled with precise sensors and intelligent algorithms. Lifting dangers are reduced by an integrated height control system, ensuring the correct height and fork alignment for each task.
Jungheinrich’s Personnel Protection System, developed for its VNA range, kicks in when it senses that trucks and personnel are present in an area where both are either prohibited, or must be strictly controlled.
Its VNA trucks can be fitted with integrated laser scanners which detect personnel or other obstructions, and are self-activating. If the system detects an obstacle or person in its path, the truck will automatically slow down. If the obstacle remains in its path, it will be brought to a controlled stop.
The system can be programmed in conjunction with Jungheinrich’s RFID positioning technology. In January this year Jungheinrich launched two new order pickers – the EKS 210 and EKS 312 – each equipped with RFID technology that enables a warehouse management system to automatically guide the forklift to the right location in the right aisle at all times.
The system offers a string of safety benefits, such as transponders that can sense if the truck is approaching the end of an aisle or a transfer aisle within the racking and will slow the truck’s speed accordingly. The truck’s travel speed can be altered to suit the standard of the floor over which it is travelling. So if a part of the warehouse floor is uneven, the truck’s speed will be reduced automatically. Also if travelling with the driver platform raised, the truck approaches a height obstacle likely to endanger the driver, it is brought to a controlled stop. And if the driver tries to raise the platform to a dangerous height, the lift function cuts out.
John Maguire of Narrow Aisle Flexi reckons low level order picking throws up particular risks for forklift driving. “Everyone – particularly retailers – wants less inventory in store so the amount of break-bulk and ground level picking of single items is growing fast and this means that the safety of order pickers working in the aisles at the same time as trucks is likely to become an increasingly central safety issue.
“There is growing concern that the use of traditional guided products such as man-up Combis and VNA Turret trucks can compromise health and safety and order picking efficiency within warehouses where there is a high degree of low level order picking,” he adds.
Man-up combi VNA trucks are quite bulky, so storage schemes have to incorporate large gangways at both ends of each aisle to enable the trucks to switch aisles. Maguire says this is one of the drawbacks to having a worker order picking at a height. “It often means that the space savings achieved by the man-up machine’s ability to operate in impressively narrow aisles can be lost.”
Reaching out from a fixed cab to pick a carton placed on a pallet some distance away is not ergonomic or efficient. “A man-up Combi VNA truck operator who is working ten metres in the air, will often struggle to notice another order picker working at ground level in the same aisle. This compromises order picking efficiency and health and safety at sites where there is a high degree of low level order picking,” says Maguire.
New ways to increase visibility in forklifts are constantly being developed. JCB’s Teletruk features a telescopic boom instead of a conventional vertical mast. This means the driver has a clearer view, and the forwards reach boom can reach to pick product from one side of a lorry only, rather than from both sides of a trailer.
Linde designs all its forklift trucks to ensure sight-lines are as clear as possible. Linde’s Phil Pearson says: “Good visibility is achieved through optimisation of the steel sections of the mast, by considering the cross-members required for mast stiffness and by determining the optimum ways of transferring the loads into the chassis.”
Given that most lift truck-related accidents are generally the result of driver error, the management and training of drivers is vital if the risk of on-site mishaps is to be reduced. Goodwin says: “Forklifts colliding with each other, particularly when entering or leaving an aisle, and trucks hitting pedestrians are probably the two most frequent incidents that we hear about.
Goodwin reckons employers should put all prospective new forklift operators, both British and migrant, through a 30 minute practical test before hiring them. “This is particularly important if your forklift fleet features joy stick controls. Many truck operators from the former Eastern Bloc are used to working with older truck types and can experience problems when faced with more modern forklifts. Your forklift truck supplier or training provider should be able to assist with the translation of operator safety codes,” he adds.
Roger Massey of Barloworld stresses the importance of managing peak periods, saying: “procedures or supervision can become lax during peak periods. Extra caution must be taken at peak times when the workforce is expanded and there is greater pressure on staff to work quickly. In the heat of the moment many trucks are inappropriately used. A typical example is where someone stands on a pallet and is lifted up by a forklift to access goods. This is a common occurrence and leads to many of the falling-from-height accidents recorded.”
Pin down the essentials:
Driven in the wrong conditions by the wrong person forklift trucks can injure and kill. PIN code access has become a popular technology to block personnel from driving a truck they’re unqualified for.
ID Systems’ vehicle management system, PowerFleet, provides strict vehicle access control. European VP of sales and marketing Peter Fausel says: “It’s impossible for drivers to keep dozens of keys in their pockets, so inevitably they end up being left in the ignition.”
He points to accountability as being a grizzly subject for warehouse bosses. If an accident occurs and a truck is damaged, it can be tricky to pinpoint who is accountable, he says. Spotting whether a truck is idle is also difficult if there is nothing to track which vehicles are being used and when. Visibility is particularly troublesome during peak periods, especially for larger fleets.
The PowerFleet system is linked to the forklift’s ignition, so it will only start once an authorised driver swipes their ID badge over the reader. Once started, the system monitors and tracks exactly how that vehicle is used (or not). Data is collected automatically and in real-time to improve visibility, and show how many trucks are actually needed to satisfy operational demands, and cut out the ones that have too much downtime. Extra caution must be taken at peak times when the workforce is expanded and there is greater pressure on staff to work quickly.