Paul Mulcahy is Toyota Material Handling UK's quality, health & safety and environment manager. He has over 30 years' experience of the materials handling industry.
Despite the noteworthy efforts over many years of such respected organisations as the Fork Lift Truck Association (FLTA), the British Industrial Truck Association (BITA) and the United Kingdom Warehousing Association (UKWA) to shine a spotlight on the often devastating consequences of forklift accidents, the number of workplace accidents involving forklifts remains obstinately high.
Indeed, according to the Health and Safety Executive, a worker in the transport and distribution sector suffers a serious injury as a result of an incident involving a lift truck every single day of the year.
Forklifts colliding when entering or leaving an aisle, trucks overturning and machines colliding with pedestrians within a warehouse or other industrial site are among the most common type of accidents recorded.
And, in the overwhelming majority of cases, responsibility for the mishap is initially deemed to lie with the truck operator so, clearly, any innovations in forklift technology that alert the operator to approaching risks have a crucial part to play in making trucks and the environment in which they work safer for everyone.
Innovations in forklift technology enhance safety
With telematics-based fleet management tools, modern warehouse professionals have a host of data at their disposal to constantly measure and analyse the safe performance of each truck - and each truck operator.
For example, fleet management technology can be programmed to require each operator to use his or her own PIN code or smart access card to operate a truck. Operators realise that they are accountable for their actions during the course of a shift and we find that this accountability prompts forklift drivers - either consciously or unconsciously - to take more care when going about their daily routine, which of course, in turn, results in a safer environment and reduced product, truck or building infrastructure damage.
In addition, GPS tracing functionality can give management sight of precisely where trucks are situated throughout the warehouse or distribution centre facility. In the event of an accident, a telematics system should have the capacity to track and identify the exact point within the site where the impact occurred. This knowledge allows managers to identify any areas within their store where perhaps visibility could be improved or other safety measures might be introduced.
With losses incurred by accidental damage to goods, a building's infrastructure or the truck itself typically representing 5-15% of a forklift's total operating costs, the ability to cut accidental damage can often make a convincing economic case for telematics technology - regardless of the fleet size.
A wide range of simpler devices are also available that can make a real difference to workplace safety. For example, to reduce the risk to warehouse personnel who are on foot, safety spot lamps are a simple, but nonetheless highly effective means of alerting pedestrians to the presence of a lift truck. Modestly priced, the simple-to-fit LED lights project a clearly visible light spot several metres behind or in front of the truck to warn those on foot that there is an approaching forklift.
Alternatively, far more sophisticated warning systems are available that react to heat emissions to alert truck drivers and pedestrians to the potential dangers of collisions.
While the forklift industry has taken huge steps forward when it comes to developing technology to reduce risks, managers and supervisors at all sites where forklifts are in operation continue to have an essential role to play in optimising site safety. Of course, under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, employers are legally required to provide safe systems of work and adequate supervision: good and effective management has been shown time and again to reduce accident rates.
Forklift accidents invariably bring significant costs as a result of lost productivity, building or product damage and, in many cases, fines and compensation claim pay-outs. However the biggest impact is usually on the worker - or workers - that have suffered or witnessed an injury. So, while successful warehousing and order fulfillment is all about maximising efficiency and productivity, those joint aims should never be achieved at the expense of safety.