Your Forklift Safety Zone

Advances in forklift and pedestrian safety alert technologies can markedly reduce accidents.

FORKLIFT trucks are an essential part of most industrial and supply chains around the world. However, statistics indicate they also present a very significant hazard to people occupying the same workspace. Forklift-involved injuries can be severe or fatal because the trucks are heavy and powerful vehicles.

Twenty years ago, the forklift was a major cause of industrial deaths and accidents. Unfortunately, little has changed, until now.

This article will explore new forklift and pedestrian safety products that are being hailed by some as the most exciting piece of occupational health and safety news for decades. The products are truly revolutionary and offer a new breakthrough in detection technology and are making a strong impact in safety applications.

Forklift Accident Statistics
As reported by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in June 2001, forklifts strike pedestrians every day and result in 100 deaths and more than 20,000 injuries annually in the United States alone. The NIOSH report shows that approximately every three days, someone in the United States is killed in a forklift-related accident. Each year, an additional 94,750 injuries related to forklift accidents are reported. The costs incurred because of forklift accidents are estimated to be above $100 million.

How do we get to such a large number? Besides worker's compensation or workers' lost time at the job, there are huge lawsuit awards made for forklift accidents. When you start adding up awards such as $750,000 for a back injury or $2.8 million for a foot injury, it's easy to see how these costs add up, given the number of incidents reported each year.

Forklift accidents happen for many different reasons. The chart below shows accident percentages based on incident types. The first four safety alert technologies described in this paper will focus on the second-leading forklift incident type, where forklifts strike pedestrians.

Safety Alert Technologies
There are numerous technologies being developed today to address safety issues for industrial applications. Four technologies discussed here can help to reduce the incident rate of pedestrians being struck by forklifts; another technology helps reduce accidents by using preventive measures that include maintenance and training awareness.

1. First is a proximity laser scanner that mounts on the front or back of a forklift truck and provides warning and safety zone areas for safeguarding and collision avoidance for mobile vehicles. The scanner can designate a slow-down area (warning zone) and stop area (safety zone) within the scanner's range.

Typically used on automated guided vehicles, there is no reason this safety-rated laser bumper can't be used on a forklift to help distracted operators avoid serious collisions with pedestrians or other vehicles. When a person or object is detected, the laser scanner can be configured to govern the forklift speed to slow down and can trigger lights or audible alarms warning the operator before an accident occurs. With onboard sensor technology, forklift drivers can reduce product and vehicle damage while helping to prevent accidents.

2. Another system to alert pedestrians or other vehicle traffic of approaching forklift trucks coming into an intersection uses a microwave motion sensor that detects only vehicle traffic in the sensing area. Once this is detected, the controls lock in as long as the forklift is moving toward the center of the intersection. Audible and visual alarms are engaged until the vehicle has fully passed through.

The system automatically resets and awaits the next forklift. As a result, pedestrians and other forklifts are alerted to oncoming traffic so they can react in a timely manner and avoid contact with the approaching forklift. The unit is self contained and typically is installed over busy forklift intersections that may also include pedestrian traffic.

This unit works well in an open warehouse operation where the only support structure to hang and power the device is the ceiling.

3. An innovative, infrared communications technology consists of a vehicle-mounted transmitter beacon and wall-/door-mounted detectors. An invisible 30-foot beam sweeps around the forklift truck whenever it is operational. Strategically placed receivers detect the vehicle's proximity and activate warning systems (via zone controller), such as flashing lights, physical barriers, audible alarms, signs, or door locks.

The technology is not based on radio frequency (RF), so is not affected by interference from other plant or passing equipment. A long detection range and a configurable detection zone ensure vehicles are accurately detected on approach from any direction or orientation.

This system gives an early, specific warning that a forklift is approaching in what may otherwise be an area where the forklift is not yet visible, such as blind corners, doorways, around machinery, etc.

4. Accident prevention is universally desirable. By automatically tracking the movement of forklift trucks, a fourth system knows each vehicle's location, heading, and speed in real time. This information can be utilized to warn pedestrians and vehicle operators of potential collisions and other dangers. Knowing precisely where vehicles are located at every moment, this system can signal nearby pedestrians and other vehicles equipped with the technology before collisions occur.

This system monitors vehicle locations and transmits messages to the traffic control system upon a vehicle's entry into a Caution zone or Danger zone. Traffic control signal lights or audible horns at intersections alert oncoming forklift vehicles or pedestrians to approaching vehicles. Control of all intersections can be maintained with a single traffic control system.

5. The fifth technology in our discussion involves fleet management systems that provide preventative maintenance and training certification monitoring that can help avoid another 20+ percent of forklift incidents that pertain to poorly maintained forklifts or untrained operators.

One manufacturer offers a modular system that includes keyless access control, ensuring only authorized operators with current training credentials can operate the forklift. By eliminating the need for a key, unauthorized access to the equipment is eliminated.

The LCD display module automates a daily OSHA safety checklist that is customized to ensure strict compliance with OSHA regulations for vehicle safety inspection. This system will provide automatic lockout and generate a maintenance work order to ensure safe operation of the vehicle.

The impact shock sensor is easily programmable for shock levels and records the impact severity to identify and train abusive drivers. Real-time audio and visual indicators provide immediate feedback to the driver, while impact data is transmitted via an RF communications link to the reporting system.

With the standard reports and charts packages, companies can analyze their forklift fleet utilization, driver productivity, task efficiency and activity metrics. Training coordinators can be alerted when driver certifications are about to expire and can manage vehicle access based on certification. Maintenance managers can monitor impact data and manage maintenance schedules via the electronic recordkeeping recorded from the OSHA safety checklist.

Creating a Safe Working Environment
Some companies have the ability to separate forklift and pedestrian traffic by keeping forklifts out of areas used by employees or using guarded walkways, painted aisle, or strategically placed signs. In the cases where improvements are needed to reduce forklift and pedestrian collisions, technology can play a significant role.

Companies can zone critical pedestrian and vehicle intersections by picking safety alert technologies that fit their needs. Reductions in abuse and damage by enforcing driver training certifications and using paperless reporting systems while providing management with better tools will help to create a safer work environment.

This article appeared in the February 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the February 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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