Retrain the Palletload Brain

Lift truck operators may be in for an expensive surprise if they try to move unusual loads without proper preparation and calculation.

If you drive a lift truck eight hours a day, it's easy to develop a palletload mindset. Eventually, you expect everything you handle to behave like a nice, square palletload. If your lift truck operators resemble this remark, it's time for an intervention.

Lift trucks are amazing workhorses, and they'll try to do any stupid thing they're told, but it's up to the operator to understand these animals' limitations as well as how different loads will behave.

Mike Hatt has developed a healthy respect for strange loads. As operations manager for Olinger Heavy Hauling in Kansas City, he's been asked to wrestle odd loads every day for the last 35 years. He understands what lift trucks can and can't do. He studies a load's center of gravity to learn how it will behave when one of his lift trucks tries to move it. He considers all the variables between lift truck and load to avoid trying something stupid.

Hatt's approach is the point of this column. Here's its counterpoint: A lift truck operator working at a manufacturer's loading dock who moves pallet loads all day long. The operator knows these palletloads can weigh as much as 4,500 pounds, and there's never been one he couldn't handle. Then one day his company takes delivery of a small machine in a crate. The operator looks at the paperwork and sees the machine weighs 3,500 pounds. No sweat. Fifteen minutes later he's explaining to his supervisor why he needs some help cleaning up the small machine's remains.

The point this palletload-minded person missed was how this machine sat in the crate, and therefore, what its center of gravity was. He needed to shift mental gears from the 48- by 48- by 48-in. cube he was programmed to handle to this crate's six-ft.-long by six-ft.-wide by 5-ft.-tall dimensions.

Hatt has 28 specialized lift trucks at his disposal, of many shapes, sizes and varieties, with capacities from 2,000 pounds to 80,000 pounds. When figuring out which one (or two) he'll use to move a particularly challenging load, he uses a combination of AutoCAD tools, graph paper and his basic understanding of what these machines can and can't do. Do this long enough and you develop a gut feel for material handling.

"Many times AutoCAD says no you can't, graph paper says you might, and when you get to a job you try things you think you can," he says.

Like the time he helped Bennett Packaging, a Kansas City, Mo., box maker whose plant is in an underground limestone mine, install a new piece of equipment. This environment has a 17-ftclear ceiling height. The equipment height? 15 feet. It was also 16 feet wide. Hatt knew it would have to be picked up from the ends with a lift truck, not from the top with a crane. He knew what he needed. Something called a Twin Lift, a cross between a forklift and a crane. His has a 30-ton capacity, which was the first qualification for this job. The second was the vehicle's twin boom, which allows it to reach over things. To maneuver this monster into the cave-like environment, Hatt had to set it on top of some rails.

The vehicle's three-wheel maneuverability and slow, steady hydrostatic drive helped Hatt inch the monster piece of equipment around the facility's 40-ft. diameter limestone pillars without mining out any more limestone unintentionally. Definitely not a job for a palletload-minded operator.

So, before your operators decide to do something "special" with your lift trucks, have a chat with them about the difference between "special" and "stupid." If they still don't get it, hand them the lift truck owner's manual and get them up to speed on " effective capacities." Palletloads might be your operators' bread and butter, but all it takes is one wrong dance with a stranger to turn them into toast.

Tom Andel has written about and been involved in the material handling industry for more than 26 years.

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