You know how dangerous a lift truck can be when controlled by a poorly trained operator. According to OSHA, overturns are the leading cause of fatalities involving lift trucks, representing about a quarter of all forklift-related deaths.
As hard as that statistic is to take, it's easy to understand. There's clear cause and effect. What's not so clear are the slower-acting hazards associated with lift trucks. Many of these are muscular or skeletal injuries that can happen over time to the best operators—without those operators or their employers even being aware of any aggravating conditions.
After blogging about that AGV fatality a couple weeks ago, I've been thinking a lot lately about what other hazards go under-appreciated in connection with industrial trucks. Many devastating injuries start out slowly and may not even be related to the job—at first. Say someone with an old back or neck injury gets a job driving a lift truck in a warehouse. The person he replaced may never have complained about stresses and strains on the job because he was otherwise healthy. However, for another person, a lift truck could turn a pre-existing condition into a clear and present danger.
I asked my contact at Humantech, an ergonomics consulting and training firm, about some of the most common ergonomic stresses associated with lift trucks. Here's what to look out for:
• Awkward neck, trunk and rotated shoulder postures associated with repeated rearward driving;
• Awkward neck and trunk and postures associated with restricted visibility through mast & cab cage while driving or retrieving loads from high locations;
• Whole body vibration (ISO 2631) associated with shock and vibration caused during travel over expansion joints, dock plates, worn wheels, and rough floors;
• Hands-arm vibration associated with shock and vibration caused during prolonged steering over and using primary controls;
• Lower extremity impact stress issues associated with existing/entering elevated fork trucks;
• Lower back issues associated with prolonged sitting in combination with shock/vibration caused during travel.
The leading lift truck manufacturers have been aware of these hazards for a long time and design their products with ergonomic features that address many of them. If after taking a tour of your worksite you notice your lift truck operators dealing with any of the above conditions, consider asking your material handling equipment dealer about the following:
• Vibration and shock reducing seats with adjustable arm rests;
• Seats designed to enable the operator to tilt back when picking items from high shelves, thus allowing a more neutral neck position;
• Vibration isolation (Toyota found that mounting the engine at a 35-degree angle reduces vibration because the engine is wedged into the mount area, therefore minimizing lateral movement. Nissan isolates the cab from the engine compartment with shock absorbers and cushions in some of their models, while Komatsu separates the cab from the frame using a hydraulic suspension system.)
• Seat replacement for forklifts that are in constant use (Humantech says seat systems lose their effectiveness after 2-3 years of 24/5 work);
• Rotating (45 to 180 degrees) swivel seats and swivel controls to promote comfortable forward/rearward operation;
• Low vibration suspended floorboards for stand-up lift trucks;
• Combination sit and stand lift trucks;
• High visibility/clear view lift truck masts;
• Vibration dampening steering columns;
• Intuitive and low force single hand control operation;
• Anti-sway mechanisms for high-lift trucks;
• Mirrors and CCTV cameras to enhance good all round visibility.
But while touring your worksite for lift truck fixes, take a look at the operators too. It may be hard to spot muscular or skeletal problems, but how many of your operators are overweight? According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), obesity-related health care costs are approaching $8 billion per year, exacerbated by associated health conditions like diabetes.
Obese workers with diabetes can be less productive on the job and more susceptible to severe injury situations that result in higher insurance costs. I saw an article by Teresa Long, director of injury management strategies for the Institute of WorkComp Professionals, in which she tells of the case of an employee who was bumped in the leg by a laundry cart. This abrasion aggravated this worker's diabetes condition, resulting in an award of permanent total benefits (lifetime medical and lost wages benefits). So even a scrape getting on or off a lift truck could conceivably result in a multiple six-figure claim.
Keep in mind the old rhyme about escalating consequences:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost, for want of a horse the rider was lost, for want of a rider the message was lost, for want of a message the battle was lost, for want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
Don't leave your business wanting for the lack of a good ergonomics and safety program.