The Dream : Forklifts Must Manage Operator Safety To Protect The Operator

by Scott McLeod

The automotive industry has been making significant progress in areas such as automation and driver safety.

Although forklift manufacturers are beginning to follow their lead, their progress has been much slower by comparison.

In simplistic terms, a forklift is basically a car with hydraulics and an added structure for lifting, called a “mast”. This added structure adds another layer of risk to the operator because the lifting height, along with various load characteristics ( weight / dimensions / load center ) and vehicle characteristics ( gross vehicle weight, travel speed / acceleration / deceleration / tilting angle / tilting speed / turning angle ) and so on greatly increases the chance of a vehicle tip-over when compared with a car.

With this being said, you would think that a forklift would be first on the list to acquire built in anti-tip-over safety technology that would prevent an operator from making a wrong move potentially creating an unsafe situation for himself and his fellow workers. So far, I’m not aware of any forklift manufacturer that offers such an all-encompassing solution.

Some forklift manufacturers offer partial solutions or helpful accessories such as built-in weigh scales but in this example, the operator still has the ability to ignore the payload weight reading or, if not properly trained and / or informed, or careless, he / she may not take into account how much the applicable load center plays a role in whether the forklift can handle the load safely…..not to mention how other things like speed, turning angle and braking also play a role.

Let’s take a step back for a moment and take a look at the bigger picture.

A little over 2 years ago I attended ProMat 2017 ( North America’s largest materials handling / automation trade show in Chicago ). To the best of my knowledge, it is the first time the show offered a seminar with the title “ How To Evolve Your Business Away From Lift Trucks”…..or something to that effect. It became clear to me at ProMat 2017, and more recently at ProMat 2019, that the forklift industry is trying to evolve itself away from the conventional forklift towards an automated vehicle ( driverless forklift ) for transporting palletized products. These types of vehicles have been around for some time but it is more recently that this technology has been gaining traction in the marketplace because it is so much better than it was 10 years ago.

Self-Driving Forklift

So, it may be that forklift manufacturer’s are going to leap-frog this need and simply put all their engineering eggs into the “full automation” basket where they solve as many safety problems as possible, all at the same time, and eliminate as many inefficiencies as possible by eliminating the operator altogether.

In the meantime, you as a business owner or manager might want to assess whether your forklift operators are putting your organization at risk ( and your employees safety at risk ) due to their lack or training, lack of skill, lack of care or some combination of all the above.

I would challenge you to investigate the following…..

  1. Stop a sample of your forklift operators as they drive by you in the warehouse and ask them how much their load weighs. Chances are, they don’t know. If they give you an answer, take a moment to weigh the load and / or calculate it’s weight and see if it matches their answer. I believe you will find that more than 80% of the time, the operator doesn’t know the answer or their answer is incorrect. If the operator doesn’t know the weight of the load, how can they possibly confirm that the forklift used to handle the load is capable of handling it safely?
  2. Check the forklift’s capacity data plate and see how the forklift is rated. If the capacity of the forklift is based on a 24” load center, for example, then the load can’t be any longer than 48” or the capacity rating stamped on the capacity data plate no longer applies. Do your operators ever carry loads that are longer than 48” or different than the load center rating stamped on the plate? If so, you will need to have the O.E.M. forklift dealer update the capacity data plate to reflect the correct and applicable load centers that apply to the loads being handled by the forklift. This might mean that you will need more than one load center rating stamped on the capacity data plate.
  3. Ask your operators how fast they can go around a corner with their load at ground level vs high in the air and you will get a variety of answers depending on who you talk to. It basically comes down to experience and the proficiency of the operator. The bottom line is that all of them are guessing because there is no way for the operator to calculate the correct speed given all the variables involved. To date, it’s been more of a seat-of-the-pants feel for things. A “feel for things” might be ok when driving a car or a motorcycle but a forklift lifts high in the air and it often travels with a very heavy load at the same time so the effect that this “load / mass” has on the forklift chassis when the load is up high in the air, while traveling, while turning a corner is significant and often underestimated, especially when an inexperienced operator is involved. It’s not easy to judge which actions are safe and which are not when you’re in the heat of the moment and everyone can have an off day. All I’m saying is, take the guesswork away from the operator and try to acquire forklifts with engineered systems that manage as many of these elements as possible to keep the operators and surrounding staff as safe as possible, at all times.  

Now that you’ve had a chance to investigate the three points above, do you really want to leave these decisions in the hands of your operators? It’s been done for years but I believe almost everyone in the industry will be able to tell you a story of how lucky some of these operators have been. Have you ever witnessed a near tip-over or a close call? How long do we want to wait before the operators’ luck runs out, especially when the technology exists to keep them safe? There is rarely a month that goes by where I don’t read about a forklift accident involving a serious injury or even death somewhere in the world. 

In my opinion, every forklift should be equipped with smart load weighing technology capable of also sensing the load center of the load and this technology should restrict the lifting height, lifting speed, tilt angle, tilting speed, travel speed, acceleration / deceleration and turning angle when the operator tries to handle a load that falls outside of the forklifts’ engineered capability…..it’s that simple. 

It’s high time that each and every forklift manufacturer steps up and takes advantage of technology that exists today to make their forklifts tip-over proof and where anti-collision technology eliminates vehicle collisions with other forklifts, people, pallet racking and so on. These same manufacturers should install this technology into every forklift as standard equipment instead of offering only partial solutions to their customers by way of optional accessories. At least we would be keeping everyone as safe as possible until fully automated forklift technology ( driverless forklifts ) become mainstream…….which, by the way, is just around the corner.

Scott McLeod, President and Owner of Fleetman Consulting Inc. is based in the Greater Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada area where he operates a successful independent forklift consulting company specializing in forklift procurement and forklift fleet management projects on behalf of the end user. The company also sells a variety of quality forklift parts, attachments and complementary warehouse equipment to his clients. Check out www.fleetmanconsulting.com or contact Scott directly by calling (604)614-3530.

Posted in: Forklift Safety