Warehouses can be dangerous hubbubs of activity, where people, loads, and vehicles are continually in motion and at risk of colliding with each other. For them to be successful, operatives must resist the temptation to compromise safety for time.
James Clark, secretary-general of the British Industrial Truck Association, says: “Understanding the risks and acting swiftly to mitigate them is not only a moral but also a legal obligation for employers.”
But while the majority of warehouse or distribution centre managers will want to run a safe operation, “it is often the case that an accident is the first trigger to review their procedures,” says Bernard Molloy, managing director of logistics consultancy, 3B Networks.
Slips or trips cause around a quarter of the major injuries sustained by warehouse workers, according to the Health & Safety Executive, with manual handling, impacts from moving or falling objects and falls from heights also major causes. But forklift trucks are involved in 24 per cent of all workplace transport accidents.
Yet forklift safety technology has got more and more sophisticated, with features such as pin controlled access, adjustable parameters for new drivers, automatic deceleration on corners, and stability support systems, being just a few of the pro-safety mechanisms on offer.
The new generation of forklifts are both safer and more environmentally friendly than their predecessors. Nissan, for example, has just released the DX Eco range which uses the Nissan Risk Reduction System. It has a low-vibration “floating” cab for operator protection and productivity. And it uses technology for truck stability that can’t be switched off or over-ridden. Other features include through-visibility, from the Optiview mast, and auto tilt load levelling.
The environmental credentials come from purpose-designed Nissan engines. Nissan says the diesel is the cleanest ever, while the LPG version with Nissan’s Tri-Cat Ultra system gives 99 per cent emissions reduction.
The Toyota range has evolved through direct risk assessment feedback from the Toyota group sites across the world. This has resulted in the System of Active Stability on the counterbalance range, minimising the risk of load spillage and key pad access as standard on its powered pedestrian truck range, reducing the risk of unauthorised use.
The BT reach trucks and high level order pickers from Toyota Material Handling can be fitted with active safety control systems that kick in when tasks are performed in a way that may trigger an accident. For example, when the truck is moved while the forks are raised, the truck detects the raised forks and limits the truck to a creep speed.
But even the best equipment can become a risk if it’s not properly maintained. “A good supplier will offer excellent response times and first fix rates to ensure that a business never has to compromise productivity to meet their safety obligations,” says Mark Ogden, product manager for reach trucks and VNA at Toyota Material Handling.
There is only so much the manufacturer can do to prevent forklift-related mishaps. “Organisations can sometimes find it difficult to police who operates which piece of equipment,” says Ogden. “Under pressure to meet tight deadlines, this can lead to an employee attempting to operate equipment they have not had sufficient training to use safely.”
Robert O’Donoghue, general manager warehouse products at Hyster, says one of the difficulties is preventing operators from finding ways to get around the safety mechanisms built into the trucks. Often drivers will sidestep safety features such as hand sensors, to speed up operations.
“Drivers have been known to stick tape over the sensors, allowing them to reach outside the truck and grab items as they’re passing because it’s quicker,” says O’Donoghue.
Another trick is to place a box over the dead man’s foot plate, which means the driver can then push the accelerator with their hand, while walking alongside the truck. To curb this Hyster trucks come with an automatic check system, which senses if a truck’s safety features have been tampered with.
“Operator training and equipment inspection and maintenance are front line defences against injuries involving forklifts,” says James Clark of BITA, “a powerful tool as easily becomes a dangerous weapon in unskilled hands”.
Peter Scott, group HSE manager at Jungheinrich, says: “Accidents have a wide and varied range of causes but more and more of the incidents reported to us involve migrant workers who neither speak nor read English.”
Scott reckons employers should put all prospective new forklift operators (both British and migrant workers) through a 30 minute practical test before they consider hiring them. “This is particularly important if your forklift fleet features 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 sophisticated modern forklifts.
“Your forklift truck supplier or training provider should be able to assist with the translation of operator safety codes to improve migrant workers’ understanding of health and safety issues.”
Jungheinrich’s fork truck driver training centre in Birmingham offers a range of tuition packages tailored for all kinds of trucks and every level of operator – from novice courses to refresher training. Experienced operators also have the opportunity to be coached up to trainer level.
John Maguire of Narrow Aisle, says there is growing concern that the use of traditional products can compromise safety in the warehouse where there is a high degree of low level order picking.
For example, Narrow Aisle recently installed Flexi G4 articulated trucks at Asian food wholesaler, Natco Foods’ distribution centre. Initially, the company planned to use guided VNA Turret trucks. But it ruled these out, as it can be difficult for low level order picking tasks to be carried out in narrow warehouse aisles while VNA machines are operating.
Man-up combi trucks were also considered a potential risk because they might lift the operators ten metres in the air, and if you have someone in the same aisle order picking at ground level there is always the risk of the combi operator not seeing the man below. In the end Natco chose Flexi G4 HiMax trucks, which are designed to work in narrow aisles alongside order picking staff without creating a health and safety issue.
Ill-designed work places are increasingly recognised as a major contributor to forklift and other workplace transport-related accidents. “With rental rates for warehouse property in prime locations throughout the UK at an all-time high, designers of internal logistics systems are under pressure to make maximum use of all available storage space within the warehouse ,” says Maguire.
But Bernard Molloy says: “It is essential that management can demonstrate that they have undertaken a thorough risk assessment at their facilities to ensure that their site is laid out in a way that minimises danger to employees and visitors alike.”
It’s much easier to design a safe environment once the cause of truck-related incidents is known. Most fatalities occur when trucks tip over. But the most common forklift accident types reported involve pedestrians being struck or run over by a truck.
“Problems often arise when workers step out from behind things – such as lorries parked in a yard – giving the truck operator insufficient time to stop,” says Molloy. Poor visibility (for both pedestrian and truck operator) and lack of manoeuvring space are also major contributors to pedestrian injuries. The simplest solution would be to separate site transport from pedestrians wherever possible. This can be difficult when space is at a premium, but, says Molloy, “it can, and increasingly must be done”.
“One simple way to achieve total separation – in the yard at least – is to only load and unload curtainsided trailers and flat bed lorries from one side. This can drastically reduce the risk of an accident in a warehouse or distribution centre yard where space is restricted.
“When loading and unloading curtain-sided vehicles, for example, only one curtain needs to be opened and flatbed lorries can be parked against a wall – instead of in the middle of the yard. Furthermore, the need to shunt lorries in and around the yard to find the most space-efficient position becomes a thing of the past and this contributes significantly to a safer yard or loading bay.
“The provision of pedestrian-only areas in the yard is an excellent way of demonstrating that a company has taken a pro-active approach to site safety and implemented remedial action before the incident has occurred.”