– By Rory S. McLaren – Director
Regulatory groups and manufacturers have developed, what they refer to as, “safe” methods for lifting personnel with a forklift (ref. OSHA 1926.602) – or if you will, “licensing” forklift owners and operators to use their forklifts as “crossover” vehicles, i.e. in addition to transporting cargo, they can be used as “aerial platforms.”
These committees did however, make a few stipulations, some of which are extremely vague:
The preceding stipulations are well founded. However, could the regulatory groups and manufacturers have overlooked a number of critical elements associated with forklift design and ownership, which could either cause, or contribute to, the uncontrolled descent of a forklift’s lift or tilt mechanisms while the mast is elevated?
1. From a design point of view forklifts compared to aerial platforms are like “apples compared to oranges!” –
The fundamental purpose of a forklift is to transport cargo with the added convenience of self-loading and unloading with the aid of hydraulics.
Conversely, the fundamental purpose of an aerial platform or ”mobile personnel elevator” is to elevate and transport personnel (transport within the guidelines of safe operation).
Both forklifts and aerial platforms share similar hydraulic components from an operational point of view. However, an aerial platform designer has an additional design responsibility – to make sure the “platform” cannot fail under any circumstances.
Needless to say, an aerial platform has a number of hydraulic “safety valves,” which are not usually incorporated in conventional forklift hydraulic system design. This makes a forklift inherently unsafe for use in elevating and/or transporting personnel; and, forklift manufacturers aren’t shy about warning of the consequences of using their products for this purpose.
There are always inherent risks associated with riding “outside the confines of a mobile vehicle’s frame.”
Forklifts do not have redundant safety components and/or systems for the specific purpose of protecting the “rider” in the event of the unexpected failure of a critical hydraulic or mechanical component.
On the other hand, aerial platform designers focus very heavily on platform reliability and machine stability, which makes safety the nucleus of aerial platform design.
Accordingly, aerial platforms do have redundant safety components/systems for the specific purpose of protecting the “rider” in the event of the unexpected failure of a critical hydraulic component.
What the regulatory groups and manufacturers have apparently done is to give industry permission to use a forklift as a “crossover” vehicle – in addition to it being used as a forklift; it can also be used as an aerial platform.
Unfortunately, due to conventional forklift design objectives, a forklift cannot perform the latter with any guarantee of safety and thus, there are, and always will be, inherent risks associated with using a forklift for any purpose other than what it was specifically designed to do – transport cargo.
2. Education and training – arguably the weakest link! –
The issue of forklift safety extends beyond the boundaries of forklift design. It relies heavily on the qualifications and training of forklift maintenance personnel.
The most powerful argument against using a forklift as an aerial platform has to do with the education and training – or the lack thereof – of maintenance personnel.
Equally as critical is the poor state of maintenance, in general, in the forklift industry. These issues will be addressed separately.
Safe and predictable forklift operation (Ref. OSHA 29CFR1910.178O) can only be achieved if a forklift is expertly maintained.
The safe and efficient operation of any machine can only be realized through the implementation and execution of a world-class proactive maintenance program, which is only effective if executed by well-trained technicians; the one cannot exist without the other!
It is virtually impossible to meet these requirements if the people who are responsible for performing the maintenance services are untrained – especially on critical systems like hydraulics.
Ironically, over 98% of the people in the US who maintain, service, and, repair hydraulic systems and components are not properly trained.
OSHA has passed a law (ref. OSHA 29CFR1910.1780) that makes it mandatory for a forklift operator to be certified in the safe operation of a forklift. Moreover, the law requires them to receive both hands-on and formal classroom training.
Ironically, the people who have the lion’s share of responsibility for the safe and proper operation of a forklift – the mechanics – are completely ignored by all regulatory groups, including the owners and operators of forklifts.
So, why aren’t mechanics held to the same standard as operators? Moreover, why do the regulatory groups and manufacturers “look the other way” with respect to the training and certification of mechanics?
“Flying” is a relative term! –
An airplane and an aerial platform share a fundamental similarity – they both “fly” people!
To avoid an unimaginable toll on human life due to crashes born of poor repair and maintenance practices brought about by untrained personnel, the federal government – the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) – passed into law a bill that made it a federal crime for untrained/unauthorized personnel to perform any service or repair work on an airplane. The “flying public” feels safe thanks to “Uncle Sam.”
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the aerial platform industry – it’s a veritable “free-for-all.” Literally anyone, regardless of training or experience is permitted to service and repair all types of personnel lifting mechanisms – including forklifts, cranes, basket trucks, etc.
When a person is elevated by means of a forklift, basket-truck, or an aerial platform, that person is, for all intents and purposes, “flying.” Ironically, the life and limb of these “pilots” is generally in the hands of people who have little or no training!
Needless to say there has to be a reason why the regulatory groups and manufacturers – the people whom never in the course of their work have to risk their lives “flying” these unreliable and unsafe machines – cow-towed to corporate America and allowed them to make a forklift a “crossover” vehicle. Could the reason be green in nature – money?
The vast majority of people who maintain, service, and repair forklifts, and especially forklift hydraulic systems, have absolutely no formal training. This leaves the majority of forklifts; regardless of how much training the operator receives, highly susceptible to accidents, which could result in severe injury, death, or substantial property damage.
In our opinion, the regulatory organizations and manufacturers made a very serious oversight when they ignored a critical aspect and safe and reliable forklift operation – the mechanic.
3. Forklifts are generally “maintained” on the basis of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” –
Needless to say, the quality and consistency of any maintenance program cannot rise above the level of competence of the maintenance workforce, or maintenance management, for that matter.
Another compelling reason why a forklift should never be used to elevate personnel – the maintenance is less than adequate!
Here are just a few of the problems:
4. Forklifts are generally very badly abused. –
A visit to most truck loading facilities is tantamount to visiting a forklift proving ground. Forklift operators routinely “spin the tires,” select reverse (or forward) while the vehicle is traveling in the opposite direction, overload, etc.
5. OSHA’s “135 feet per minute” descent rate rule for failure to “any part of the system” is preposterous. –
6. Rider’s life is in forklift driver’s hands! –
Another distinct disadvantage of using a forklift as an aerial platform is the fact that the “rider’s” life is in the hands of the forklift driver. An inattentive driver can cause the rider to “suffer” numerous types of accidents which could lead to severe injury or death.
A conventional aerial platform is designed to permit the “rider” to control all vehicle functions including wheel drive and steering.
“Using a forklift as a “work platform” is inherently dangerous and can lead to accidents, which could result in severe injury, death, and/or substantial property damage.
The regulatory groups and manufacturers appear to have ignored critical safety elements in their haste to cow-tow to industry. There are, and will always be, inherent risks associated with using a forklift for any other purpose than what it’s designers intended it to be – a cargo carrying vehicle – unless, of course, it undergoes an extensive design change and incorporates all the “bells and whistles” needed to make it “fail-safe.”
Moreover, it is high time the regulatory groups and manufacturers focused on the pathetic state of forklift, crane, and aerial lift maintenance training – to mention just a few areas that need urgent attention!
It doesn’t take a “rocket scientist” to figure out that regardless of how well a vehicle driver is trained, his/her safety, and the safety of those who work around the equipment, lies squarely on the shoulders of the maintenance mechanic.
A forklift is as safe and reliable as the people who service and repair it, regardless of how well the operator is trained!
The Fluid Power Safety Institute™ invited (via e-mail) two major forklift manufacturers to participate in this safety alert, specifically on the issue of descent rates in the event of an unexpected failure – to-date, they have ignored our attempt to open dialogue on these critical issues:
Toyota – no comment (e-mail sent 10/18/07)
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