The weakest link
However, 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 lack thereof — of maintenance personnel.
Safe and predictable forklift operation (OSHA 29CFR1910.178O) can only be achieved if a forklift is expertly maintained. It is nearly impossible to meet OSHA’s requirements if the people responsible for maintaining the forklift are untrained — especially on systems as critical as hydraulics. It’s ironic, then, that more than 98% of the people in the U.S. who maintain, service, and repair hydraulic systems and components are not properly trained.
OSHA 29CFR1910.1780 is a law mandating that operators be certified in the safe operation of a forklift. It requires hands-on and formal classroom training. However, the mechanics responsible for the safe and proper operation of a forklift are 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 training and certification of mechanics?
Flying is a relative term
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 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) — 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 must be a reason why the regulatory groups and manufacturers — the people who 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 highly susceptible to accidents, which could result in severe injury, death, or substantial property damage.
In my very strong opinion, the regulatory organizations and manufacturers made a very serious oversight when they ignored a critical aspect of safe and reliable forklift operation — the mechanic.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
Equally as critical is the poor state of maintenance, in general, of forklifts. They are generally maintained on the basis of if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Here’s why:
Inadequate maintenance —Forklift maintenance is generally performed on the basis of crisis management. Machines are typically run into the ground and only then do they get the attention they need — maybe! Repairs are seldom done properly because maintenance personnel are generally not empowered to make decisions. Supervisors usually dictate how repairs should be executed, with the main objectives being cost and time rather than quality and reliability.
Furthermore, less than 1% of the hydraulic components on a forklift are removed for proactive maintenance. Instead, they are maintained on a fail-first basis. Unfortunately, this problem is not unique to the forklift industry. The vast majority of hydraulic systems operating in plants and on mobile machines operate until a failure occurs.
A low priority— When a forklift is sidelined, production is usually unaffected. Most plants usually have a backup forklift or can rent one if needed. Therefore, maintenance and production supervisors and managers make little time to schedule service on non-critical machines such as forklifts.
Equipment abuse — Forklifts are generally abused. Forklift operators routinely spin the tires and shift the drive into reverse (or forward) while the vehicle is traveling in the opposite direction. Most forklifts show multiple scrapes, dents, and other body damage from repeated collisions. The term unreliable is synonymous with neglect. Neglected machinery will inevitably break down unexpectedly.
Misconceptions — Don’t be fooled by dual cylinders. A pair of cylinders may seem to provide a redundancy if a hydraulic line fails or a certain type of mechanical failure occurs in one cylinder. However, the “good” cylinder will not keep the platform upright. The lines that supply oil to the cylinders are connected in parallel. This means the failure of any transmission line that routes fluid between the control valve and the cylinders will result in a total loss of that system’s motion control, leaving the rider’s fate up to the laws of gravity!