Safer by design

Today’s lift trucks boast more designed-in safety features than ever. Operators will get the greatest benefit from these advances if they’re paired with proper training.

Material Handling - National Forklift Safety DayIt wasn’t all that long ago that lift truck operators were largely on their own when it came to safety, relying almost entirely on their eyes, ears, and best judgment to prevent accidents. But as warehouse and DC operations got bigger and faster-paced, it became harder to maintain forklift safety. Fleet managers and operators needed help, and lift truck makers responded, taking advantage of new technologies and engineering methods to design an array of safety features into their trucks. As a result, today’s forklifts are more stable, provide greater visibility, and offer more protection to operators than ever before.

As part of our special coverage of National Forklift Safety Day 2017, we asked manufacturers why they think it’s important to incorporate safety features into their trucks, and how they decide which ones to add. Along with addressing those questions, they provided some recent examples of safety-related enhancements to their products. Finally, they offered their thoughts about the continuing responsibility of operators and fleet managers to maintain a safe work environment.


Lift Trucks operatorWhen it comes to safety, lift truck operators have their work cut out for them. “Today’s warehouses and manufacturing facilities are dynamic, at times unstructured environments,” notes Mick McCormick, vice president of warehouse solutions for Yale Materials Handling Corp. “Operators must be aware of co-workers, foot traffic, other vehicles, and infrastructure like racking and walls—all while remaining focused on the task at hand.”

Accordingly, the OEMs take their role in supporting operator safety very seriously. A focus on safety “is a given” in his company, says Mark Porwit, director, corporate planning, for UniCarriers Americas. “It is a part of any new product development, and it’s always a top priority,” he says. But safety is not just about the product itself, he adds. It’s important to design trucks with safety-focused features that “not only assist the operators in their daily tasks, but also assist customers in creating optimal work environments,” he says.

Lift truck manufacturers have many new tools at their disposal, and they believe it’s their responsibility to fully utilize them in the service of safety. “As more technology is introduced to lift trucks—whether that’s advancements in electronics or the mechanical aspects of the truck—it would not be consistent with our commitment to looking out for operators’ safety if we didn’t incorporate that to protect the operator as much as we can,” says Mark Koffarnus, director of business development for Hyster Co.

Part of that commitment includes strict compliance with safety regulations and industry standards that affect forklift design and operation. The manufacturers we consulted cited the American National Standards Institute (ANSI)/Industrial Truck Standards Development Foundation (ITSDF) B56.1 standard, which governs safe design, operation, maintenance, and testing of lift trucks, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) 29 CFR Section 1910.178, which covers similar ground from an operator-safety point of view along with training. Some also mentioned the Underwriters Laboratories’ UL 583 standard, which covers electric-powered trucks with respect to risk of fire, electric shock, and explosion.

Forklift makers often get involved in developing safety standards and regulations. The Raymond Corp., for one, says it feels so strongly about maintaining the quality of its forklift design that it has representatives on the key committees for ANSI/ITSDF and OSHA standards and regulations. Other lift truck makers also participate in relevant committees, and all of the companies consulted for this article are actively involved in the Industrial Truck Association (ITA), which plays a major role in promoting lift truck safety. (See “Spreading the word on lift truck safety.”


As the sidebar accompanying this story attests, forklift manufacturers have plenty of ideas when it comes to ways to enhance operator safety. But how do they decide which features to design into their trucks? Customers and the dealers who serve them have an enormous influence. Most of the experts we consulted mentioned “Voice of the Customer”—a standardized market-research process for understanding a customer’s needs, desires, and dislikes, and then organizing and prioritizing the findings. “End users are the driving force for any and all of our designs,” says Bob Hasenstab, general product manager for Kion North America, whose products include Linde and Baoli forklifts. “We build and design with substantial and extensive customer and driver input.”

The Voice of the Customer process is extremely important when making a design change to a forklift, says Koffarnus. Through intensive interviews with end users, Hyster learns what aspects they think could be improved. And it’s not just current customers who have a chance to offer suggestions; the company also polls users of competitors’ equipment. Casting a wider net can have a big payoff. For example, Koffarnus notes that Hyster’s Operator Sensing System, which helps operators move safely within the operator compartment, grew out of conversations with users of competitive equipment who were concerned about the rising number of workers’ compensation claims and were looking for a different solution from anything available at the time.

But not every idea that comes along is—or should be—implemented, says Kevin Krakora, vice president, design, quality, and product support for Mitsubishi Caterpillar Forklift America Inc. (MCFA) and chairman of ITA’s National Forklift Safety Day. That’s because no change in a forklift’s design happens in isolation, he points out. “Before adding any new feature, we consider if an item will have a potential adverse effect on other functions of the forklift as well as other applications,” he says.

Ron Grisez, director of product safety for Crown Equipment Corp., agrees. “If the features integrated into the forklift will provide a net positive improvement to overall safety of the forklift, then we endeavor to include the feature as standard,” he says. “However, if we believe a requested feature could negatively affect the safe operation of a product, then Crown may decide not to allow the feature on our product.”

Not all safety enhancements should be designed into the truck, Hasenstab notes. Any feature that would affect the machine as a whole—the center of gravity, vibration reduction, noise level, all-around visibility, and so forth—will be designed in, he says. Other types of features, such as speed and lift limits, seat-belt interlocks, and the like, would typically be add-ons and may be optional.


Lift Truck OperatorsAll of the experts we consulted agreed that design alone is not sufficient to maintain safety. “Human error cannot be eliminated, so equipment and procedures must be as secure as possible. However, operators and fleet managers are responsible for keeping lift truck operations accident-free, and proper operation still requires appropriate operator knowledge, training, skill, and attitude,” says Susan Comfort, product manager, narrow-aisle products, for The Raymond Corp.

In an increasingly automated world, though, complacency about safety is a growing concern, says Raymond’s John Rosenberger, product manager, iWarehouse Gateway and global telematics. Technology can help combat operator complacency; for example, alarms can be used to warn of a potential problem and draw the operator’s attention back to the task at hand, he says. Rosenberger adds that his company is making these alarms more proactive so they warn the operator earlier of possible safety issues.

Another useful tool is a fleet management system, which gives end users access to objective data regarding the safe or unsafe operation of the forklift and the vehicle’s condition, says Crown’s Grisez. “End users can help avoid complacency by actively using this available data to have real-time discussions with operators, so that performance and safety can be improved,” he says. “The same data can also be used to recognize and reward operators who consistently demonstrate safe behaviors.”

McCormick says using an asset management system, such as his company’s wireless Yale Vision product, to continuously monitor and evaluate operators’ adherence to safety protocols “is a reliable avenue to keep safety procedures top of mind and stave off complacency.” But at the highest level, he continues, “the way to help operators stay safe is to create a culture in which safety is always top of mind.” That requires education for both operators and pedestrians, he adds.

Grisez believes a core part of a safety culture is ongoing training at multiple levels of an organization. He’s not alone in that thinking: The ANSI/ITSDF B56.1-2016 standard now includes new requirements for fleet supervisors, he says. Under the revised rule, supervisors must be trained in how to reinforce safe operator practices and compliance, and to correct unsafe operator behavior or performance that does not conform to the standard, he explains.

For training to have the greatest beneficial impact, Krakora says, operators and fleet managers should make it a practice to continuously observe and evaluate how end users perform. “Operators and fleet managers should look with a critical eye at their applications and work environments and ask ‘what if’ more often,” he advises. “This will help them to be proactive in identifying risks—and then they must be diligent in determining how to reduce those risks.”

Still, more direct control may sometimes be necessary to avoid overconfident operation, suggests Kion’s Hasenstab. Various limits can be automatically enforced and improper operation prevented, he says, citing the examples of systems that link lifted weight and elevated height and automate travel-speed reductions to match conditions like load weight and forward, backward, indoor, and outdoor motion. “As these systems are costly, management has to take ownership of the issues and implementation,” he cautions.

Even as forklifts incorporate increasingly sophisticated safety features—often at customers’ request—the customers themselves may be making it more challenging for OEMs to fulfill safety goals. “They want more productivity, but faster and bigger is not necessarily safer,” observes Koffarnus. “That is why we focus on controlled performance: helping them to be as productive as possible while still being as safe as possible.” Nevertheless, as many of the OEMs noted, end users ultimately are responsible for ensuring safe operation. Koffarnus compares it with driving a car. “As much as technology like backup cameras and sensors helps with safe operation, the onus is still on the driver to safely drive on the road.”

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