Last of the killer forklifts

The forklift truck has a deadly reputation, claiming around ten lives every year. Yet more of the problems stem from lack of maintenance or inadequate training.

The forklift has long had a reputation as a dangerous piece of equipment that can injure or kill people. But that’s not the full picture. In many – even most – cases, blame can be traced to the operating company or end-user.

There is no doubt that accidents involving forklift trucks cause considerable damage and can injure or kill drivers and others in the workplace. Last year, for example, Peugeot was fined £15,000 when two people were seriously hurt in forklift truck accidents at its Ryton-on-Dunsmore plant.

One accident involved a pedestrian worker who was walking to a rest area when she was hit by a forklift. Her leg was dragged underneath the truck, damaging tendons and skinning it from ankle to knee. Even after constructive surgery and skin grafts the worker was forced to quit her job with a transport firm as she was no longer able to drive HGVs continuously for more than one hour at a time.

And this is not an isolated case: the Health and Safety Executive estimates there are around 8,000 accidents a year involving lift trucks that cause injury. On average, 10 of these are fatal. A recent report of a 70-year-old woman killed by a forklift in a B&Q store in Poole, Dorset, underlines this statistic.

Further proof of the danger of bad practice around forklifts can be found in the CBI safety video Lift Trucks Don’t Have Accidents. This 16-minute video uses CCTV footage of real accidents where people were seriously hurt, to emphasise the point that the vehicles are potentially lethal in the wrong hands.

Forklift safety is an issue that’s taken seriously in the materials handling industry. The Fork Truck Association has set up a ‘safe user group’. Companies can get information on health and safety concerns relating to the vehicles, as well as advice on technical issues and operations.

‘All our research indicates there is a demand among truck users for such a facility and we anticipate a strong interest from companies of every size,’ says FTA chairman Paul Bateman.

The British Industrial Truck Association is also keen to improve safety within the industry. It, too, is now opening its doors to users after 50 years representing the manufacturers and component suppliers.

‘We are determined to ensure that the use of fork trucks in industry is properly managed to ensure efficiency for business but also safety for operators,’ says John Roper, BITA president and sales and marketing director of BT Rolatruc. ‘There are still companies using equipment that is not adequately maintained, and employing drivers who are inexperienced and often inadequately trained.’

Roper highlights the real issues for fork truck safety as maintenance and training. The FTA is also concentrating on maintenance issues. It has launched a lift truck audit scheme to back up inspections that truck users are already required by their insurance companies to carry out.

‘Currently, health and safety regulations mean that statutory lift truck and associated equipment inspections are carried out once or twice a year,’ says John Lennox, the FTA’s head of vehicle inspection development.

‘While this does not mean that the vehicles are not maintained the rest of the time, it does mean that some companies are unable to monitor the on-going performance of their equipment against industry benchmarks, assess their performance and iron out persistent or recurring faults. Even under the current system there is normally no independent verification of inspection regimes or quality standards.’

Lift truck auditing services, such as those provided by the FTA, will mean that companies can do all of this. In addition, implementing best practice, rather than a basic legal minimum, gives operators peace of mind since they know they can prove they have been taking care to ensure the safety of their vehicles – and the staff operating them.

Unlike goods vehicles regulation, lift truck safety falls under the auspices of the Health and Safety Executive. To ensure that staff are not put at unnecessary risk due to the development of potentially dangerous faults, LOLER – the Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations (1998) – insist that lift trucks are presented for inspection at least every 12 months.

Trucks that fail to meet the required standards must not be used until they are satisfactorily repaired. But if something goes wrong between inspections, the consequences could be much greater than merely a costly breakdown. This is particularly topical in view of the British Safety Council’s recent warning to industry on the proposed new ‘corporate killing’ laws that are expected to be introduced by the government early in the next parliament.

One manufacturer already on the case as far as LOLER is concerned is Jungheinrich. It has set up an independent fork truck inspection service centre which, it says, will offer impartial advice, equipment inspections and assistance to guide companies through the new regulations.

LOLER is aimed at ensuring that lifting equipment meets laid-down safety standards and thus avoids exposing personnel to unnecessary risk. This means that the examinations can only be carried out by a competent person who is considered to be sufficiently independent to be able to make impartial decisions.

Although a poorly maintained truck is likely to cause an accident, driver error is to blame for most incidents.

Driver training is a touchy subject within the handling industry. Every lift truck driver is supposed to pass a test and obtain a licence operating a truck. In practice this is often not the case.

Most of the large, reputable warehousing and distribution sites have rigorous controls to make sure their drivers are qualified and regularly tested. But too many others allow drivers to operate vehicles for which they have had little or no training.Often the cost of training a driver puts companies off.

Sometimes a company might be unaware that drivers must be trained for every type of truck they might need to drive. Another complicating factor is the variety of application-specific trucks available.

In many workplaces, drivers could be expected to switch between operating a counter-balanced truck and a reach truck.

These vehicle types may well have different control layouts and many experienced drivers have run into trouble when driving a machine that is not their normal one.

The problem is compounded if the driver has not been trained to use the type of truck in the first place.

All the major truck manufacturers now run their own driver training schemes. But not all truck operators decide to take part. If they continue to ignore such initiatives, they do so at their peril.

Sidebar: Truck makers lift safety up the agenda

So what are the manufacturers doing to improve the safety of their equipment?

Toyota probably has the highest profile when it comes to safety with its System of Active Stability (SAS) – fitted to its Generation 7 range – which makes it virtually impossible to tip over a forklift. The system was so innovative that it was featured on Tomorrow’s World.

Toyota claims that SAS can counteract mis-operation, reducing accidents. SAS consists of a number of sensors that monitor the truck’s movements. Load weight, speed, turning rate and acceleration all influence the stability of a truck and the Generation 7 processes the information and determines if any preventative counter measures should be deployed.

One of these measures that makes the Generation 7 difficult to tip over is the swing lock cylinder. It temporarily locks the swinging motion of the rear axle, a feature first developed for Formula One cars.

Other manufacturers are doing their bit, too. Yale, for instance, has introduced its MTC15 man-up turret truck which incorporates an advanced electrical system that gives precise fingertip control even when operating at maximum capacity. The accuracy of this control not only improves efficiency but also reduces the risk of damage to stock held within high-density racking.

But one manufacturer has taken the concept of the forklift truck one step further. Still has developed and built a concept truck which it unveiled to the industry types attending the International Materials Handling Exhibition (IMHX) at the NEC earlier this year. Named the RXX, Still’s truck has drawn a lot of attention and, not to be outdone, was featured on the UK television progamme Blue Peter!

Apart from its futuristic looks and the use of such ideas as joystick control, the RXX does feature some interesting safety ideas. The virtual rear mirror has been developed from an idea adapted from aircraft head-up display systems. As forklifts spend a great deal of time in reverse, Still decided to mount a TV camera on the truck, linking it to a display panel in front of the driver. When the driver selects reverse, all operating functions are automatically reversed. He can then simply carry on as if going forwards, making the job safer and less tiring.

Users are the problem

The future for the forklift looks to be a safer one. Manufacturers are trumpeting safety as one of their chief concerns, and are producing systems to back up these claims. The problems come with the users. And as long as companies ignore the warnings, accidents will continue.