Begin by asking about the machine

Safe Access to Any Space

A variety of low-level access machines and aerial work platforms safely put jobs within reach.

As the environmental health and safety technician at the St. Gabriel, La., plant of Olin Chlor Alkali Products, one of the world's leading manufacturers of chlorine, caustic soda, and related chemicals, Mark Hudson is all too familiar with the trips, slips, and falls associated with ladders. That's why he was immediately attracted to a picture and accompanying description of a personal portable lift as he reviewed the fall protection pages of his safety vendor's website.

Hudson is like many in his position who are taking a closer look at low-level access lifts and other aerial work platforms as a safer alternative to ladders, scaffolding, and other forms of access. After talking to his rep about the product, he purchased two. Happy at the time, Hudson is even more pleased with his purchases almost five years later.

He said it "addresses many of the issues associated with ladder safety, and that's huge. And it's so much more convenient than a traditional ladder." Workers who are using ladders must tie off when they do any work above 4 feet and must work one-handed, but with the portable lift they are tied to the machine and have a platform to work from with both hands free, he explained.

Hudson said the personal lift device is used throughout the St. Gabriel facility with the exception of manufacturing areas, where the company produces chlorine, caustic soda, and hydrogen, the ingredients for a wide array of products—from life-saving pharmaceuticals to water purification, plastics, household cleaning products, and clothing, to name a few. The company's instrument and electrical technicians use the personal lift devices more than anyone else, changing fluorescent lightbulbs and lamps, running electric cable, installing and maintaining speakers for the public-address system, stocking shelving, conducting inventory, and cleaning, working with a 360-degree range of motion thanks to an enclosed work platform. In addition to its versatility, the lift is easy to move from one location to another. It assembles in seconds, allowing operators to enjoy increased productivity and versatility.

Eco-Friendly Access
Other non-powered low-level access lifts feature a patented stored power lift system that requires no batteries, hydraulics, oil, or controls. Because there are no hydraulics or motors involved, these eco-friendly lifts operate quietly, making them a preferred piece of equipment for finish work in schools, hospitals, offices, and other institutions. In the interest of reduced environmental influence, these units also include non-marking wheels that minimize their impact on sensitive flooring.

Hudson appreciates the fact that using a personal portable lift does not require two operators. Instead, one worker can climb in the platform and get straight to work. "When you have large projects that may require a 40-hour week to complete, the savings associated with one less employee on the job can be significant," he said.

But what if a job requires more than the 20-foot reach that the farthest-reaching personal portable lift provides? Other options exist, depending on the work to be accomplished. Answering a number of questions can help building owners or facility managers choose the most appropriate option. For example, what is the nature of the task, and will it require more than one worker? It's also important to know whether the work will be performed indoors or outside and what materials or tools the lift will be required to hold. What about the working height of the job, and does the machine need to go up steps, through doorways or other narrow openings, or into an elevator to reach the work site? Finally, what are the conditions of the job site? Is the surface uneven? Does it present obstacles to work around?

Using Electric Mast Lifts for Maintenance, Repairs, and Inspections
Depending on answers to these questions, building owners or facility managers can choose among mast-style boom lifts, articulating boom lifts, compact crawler booms, or scissor lifts to accomplish many of the tasks in and around a facility without requiring much larger boom lifts.

For example, electric mast-style boom lifts use a jib to reach up, over, and around shelving, ductwork, and other obstacles to perform maintenance, repair, and inspection tasks. These machines have a lifting capacity as high as 500 pounds and a platform height of more than 32 feet. They are powered by an environmentally friendly electric-drive system and feature non-marking rubber tires ideal for indoor use. In addition, these models are equipped with a 360-degree rotating mast.

Where additional reach is needed, the articulating boom lift provides up-and-over access at heights from about 13 feet to as high as 60 feet. These lifts employ a joint or knuckle that enables the boom to reposition and reach up, over, and around obstacles. The work platforms on these machines typically carry up to 500 pounds of unrestricted capacity, with some offering a 1,000 pound restricted capacity, to accommodate multiple workers, tools, and equipment. They are available in electric-, gas-, and diesel-powered models, as well as a hybrid model that uses electric and diesel power, making it suitable for work indoors or outside.

Compact Crawler Booms and Scissor Lifts
Another option—the compact crawler boom—uses non-marking treads and auto-leveling outriggers, making it another good choice for work indoors or out. All models offer an optional Lithium-ion electrical system that does not produce emissions, increasing its value as an indoor machine. Although larger than true low-level access equipment, a compact crawler boom is compact enough, with some models measuring just 2 feet 7 inches across. These dimensions enable the boom to easily fit through most standard commercial doorways, narrow aisles and hallways, gates, and other tight spaces.

When a task requires a larger platform capacity, the scissor lift may be the lift of choice. Scissor lifts are equipped with extensions that typically range from 36 to 50 inches in length for additional work space and the ability to work above an obstacle. With a working height of 21 to 46 feet, which goes beyond that of typical low-level access equipment, and a lift capacity up to 1,000 pounds, these machines are still compact enough to use indoors or outside without having to engage a much larger piece of equipment. For indoor use, electric-powered models ensure a quieter work area, less dependency on hydraulic oils, and zero emissions. For work outdoors, rough terrain models offer engines that run on diesel fuel and others that run on gas or liquid propane. A healthy combination of indoor and outdoor value can be found in large electric scissors because they can be fully electric or equipped with a diesel generator that can charge the batteries on sites without power.

Asking About Machine Capabilities
With so many options, the choice of which machine to use for a particular task can be a difficult one for a building owner or facility manager to make. Again, seeking answers to some basic questions about a machine's capabilities can help determine which machine is best equipped to handle a particular task. Begin by asking about the machine's vertical and horizontal reach. It's also good to know if the lift offers up-and-over capabilities and what the platform's dimensions and weight capacity are. Then, consider answers to the following questions:

  • Is the machine self-propelled to maneuver around the job site?
  • Are electric or hybrid models available for indoor use?
  • Can the machine function in enclosed spaces? Can it fit through doorways and other narrow openings? Will it fit in an elevator?
  • Is the machine able to climb stairs?
  • What accessories are available to equip the machine for the task?

A machine exists for any job that needs to be completed. The challenge is to find the one that safely puts operators in any space, including hard-to-reach areas indoors and outside, and best equips them to efficiently complete a task. In the case of Mark Hudson, the machine might be a personal portable lift. "It enables us to do jobs at height without having to use a ladder, taking away the safety issues associated with a ladder and eliminating productivity and profitability losses that too frequently accompany an accident," he said.

In other cases, mast-style boom lifts, articulating boom lifts, compact crawler booms, or scissor lifts might provide more support for safety, productivity, ergonomic, and sustainability goals. Knowing what options are available and asking the right questions will go a long way toward selecting the machine that best meets these goals while completing a project.

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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