Warning! Men at risk

As the forklift market moves onto another level, what is being done to bring the safety of the drivers up to speed with the rest of the industry?

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By  Laura Barnes Published  February 5, 2005

|~||~||~|Forklift trucks are in high demand in the local market, driven by the growth of the region’s distribution and construction industries. However, safety standards are lagging behind this demand, which is leading to a high number of forklift-related injuries and fatalities. There are two types of forklifts that are widely available within the industry — diesel and electric. Whilst both of these trucks can carry the same load and look the same, diesel forklifts are built for heavy outdoor use whereas electric forklifts are designed for indoor use, as they do not produce any fumes. At the moment, diesel forklifts dominate the local market. Nevertheless, as the amount of warehousing in the region expands, driven by the wide-growth of free zones and seaports, electric/AC-powered forklifts have seen a surge in demand. As more work is being carried out in state-of-the-art climate controlled warehouses, owners are realising the importance of using electric powered trucks indoors. “There is an increase in electrical sales and this is because a lot of buildings are being raised in Sharjah, Jebel Ali and at regional airports, so electrical forklifts are needed more now than before,” states Jan-Joost den Baas, territory manager, Mitsubishi Caterpillar Forklift. However, diesels still have a majority of the market share in the region due to low fuel costs and the durability of diesels compared to their indoor counterparts. The construction industry has also had a major impact on the influx of forklifts into the area. “The market is amazing at the moment because of the entire construction industry that is expanding month on month. It is not the same number as Europe, but last year was tremendous and we hope for the same if not better during the coming year,” den Baas enthuses. “We recognised that the market was growing and that is why we established our office in this region in 2003. Since then, we have seen great sales in the Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Iran is still a new market and in five to ten years we predict a huge influx in the Iraqi area as well,” he adds. The UAE — and Dubai in particular — has been the centre of this growth, both because of the country’s booming construction industry and because it has become the region’s supply hub. “The UAE is in an ideal geographical location with excellent logistics facilities and a high-tech communications infrastructure, which has lead to an unprecedented increase in warehouse activity in the area,” says Javed Khan, marketing manager, Al-Futtaim Motors Commercial Vehicles (FAMCO), which distribute Toyota forklifts. “Of late, the general growth of the country’s population and the increase in retail activity has also had a positive affect on the demand for forklifts. The planned expansions of the airports and the subsequent rise in the air cargo handling capacities will also see more electric forklifts entering the market,” Khan adds. ||**|||~|CAT-Mitsubishi.no.1.jpg|~|Forklift safety needs to be taken seriously|~|However, despite the huge boom in the forklift market there is a shadow hanging over the industry, namely safety. Although there are no official figures, experts in the industry believe the number of injuries and fatalities caused by forklifts in the Gulf are much higher than its European counterparts. (The UK, for instance, which has over 25,000 forklift drivers, has three to five deaths a year.) “We do not have exact figures, but the industry is trying to point out that the forklift is a great tool but you have to be careful with it. For instance I see a lot of industrial sites in the region with uneven roads and blind corners and that is a worry,” says den Bass. The region has a high level of forklift-related accidents for a number of reasons, beginning with the local driving culture. Car drivers on the Sheikh Zayed Road, for instance, are notorious for their speeding and recklessness, and forklift truck drivers in the region, are little better. “In Dubai, and also in Saudi Arabia, driving in general is more of a challenge than in Western Europe, as the drivers are much more erratic here,” says den Baas. “Locally, you see lift trucks using these main roads with more than one person being carried and no lights or beamers, and it is a real safety hazard. Indeed, forklifts shouldn’t even be on the road, as they only travel at 16 kph, much slower than cars. Instead, they should use a back road, a dirt track or even put the forklift on a truck instead of driving it,” he adds. Another key area of concern is outdoor diesel trucks being used indoors. Due to the low cost of fuel, some warehouse owners continue to use these trucks both inside and outside the warehouse regardless of the fumes that are emitted. However, not only can this cause serious problems in the ventilation of warehouses, but it also contaminates any sensitive items such as foodstuffs, stored in the facility. Whether a diesel or electric unit, many trucks in the region have also had the head guard above the driver’s seat removed. This allows the truck to be driven into small areas, but it leaves the driver exposed to any loads falling off the forks. “Head guards are not placed there for nothing. If you have a high load and it falls off, the head guard is there to protect you, yet some companies take them off — it is a protection device though, hence the name,” says den Baas. Another important safety issue is forklifts going too fast, while carrying loads. This can lead to the truck toppling over and crushing the driver, which is known as ‘the mousetrap.’ “The mousetrap is perhaps the worst situation that can happen. When carrying a load high in the air on the forks the centre of gravity naturally shifts,” says den Baas. “This can really affect the truck, especially if the driver turns round a corner too quickly, as the truck will tip sideways. Naturally, the driver falls with the truck and their head becomes trapped by the head guard. This is just fatal, but it can easily happen if safety standards are not met,” continues den Baas. ||**|||~||~||~|A high percentage of accidents on forklifts can also be pinned down to the driver having poor visibility when full loads are carried on the forks. “Visibility is vital and when you cut corners you cannot see what is straight in front of you. Some forklifts have high visibility masks so you can see 40-60% of what is around you, in particular the tip of the forks. But with a full load, clear visibility cannot always be guaranteed, so safety and care is paramount,” comments den Baas. The key to preventing such accidents is to ensure that drivers are well trained. In many parts of the world this is mandatory but in the Gulf there are no government regulations covering forklift usage. “In this part of the world there is a long way to go but I am confident that in the future the government are seeing the importance of safety and things are starting to get done. It is just too easy to get someone off the street to drive them,” says den Baas. However, the industry is becoming much more aware of what safety standards are needed to protect the truck and its drivers, with manufacturers and distributors raising the issue and educating end-users. This has raised the level of awareness in the market, but there is still a percentage that is not aware of the importance of forklift safety. “Forklift users are reasonably mature these days, but safety is still a major issue associated with materials handling equipment. We emphasis the importance of professional use and maintenance of the forklifts and we offer basic operator training prior to delivering the equipment,” notes Khan. “We are very specific in conveying the safety instructions and the ‘dos & don’ts’ to our clients. We offer consultations, demonstrations and driver training through our trained technicians,” Khan adds. Toyota issues an operators manual as a standard practice with all the forklifts it sells. Similarly, Mitsubishi is also highlighting forklift safety by issuing a safety video and posters to point out the ‘seven deadly sins’ of forklift mishandling [see box]. Safety levels are also improving as the local market buys new equipment featuring advanced safety features, such as anti-roll devices to stop the forklift from toppling over. However, many companies are still using older second hand equipment because of cost issues. Aside from being potentially dangerous though, these units are also often unreliable due to the age of trucks, their constant usage and the often low level of maintenance. “Used and re-conditioned equipment regularly enters the market but users are more aware of the hazards associated with such equipment. Apart from the safety factors, they are unreliable and more often than not, the buyer ends up spending more money on maintenance and replacement of parts than the initial purchase price,” Khan comments. “In general, clients are much more professional nowadays and they have a thorough understanding of their equipment requirements. However, we do still encounter customers who have to be convinced of the benefits of purchasing new machines rather than second hand ones,” says Khan. ||**||

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