Avoid tight spots in narrow aisles
April 01, 2010 - MMH Editorial
As businesses make their way out of a dismal economy, they're finding that they've lost a lot of their best lift truck operators either through layoffs, attrition or job transfers. So, who's left to operate the lift trucks? Anyone?
That's right: Anyone. And many of these anyones aren't being trained. That's bad enough when they're operating sit-down counterbalanced trucks, but when these unschooled employees are told to maneuver a narrow-aisle lift truck down the corridors of a 25-foot-high racking system, the employer is gambling—and the odds are against him.
Ken Van Hook recently did an accident investigation on a company that replaced some of its standup narrow aisle trucks with those of another brand. As president of Safe-T-Consultants in Humble, Texas, he often serves as an expert witness in cases such as this. In this case, some of the newer models purchased by the company had reverse-steering capability. The older trucks didn't. The operator, not having been schooled under OSHA's equipment-specific training guidelines, suffered an accident.
“It's not that the controls have changed so much, it's just that narrow aisle is a unique application,” he says. “And when you tell a guy who's used to driving a sit down counterbalanced to raise a load 240 inches or more, whether a single reach or double reach, there could be trouble. I'm not saying they're harder to operate, but you have to be consistent in driving one of those all the time.”
Adding to the problem is low staffing on the dealer side. Many lift truck service providers have laid off both mechanics and training staff. That can work against them at a time when dealers should be building relationships with their customers and acting as information resources. However, there's so much staffing flux on both sides of the selling process that whatever useful information is exchanged often gets lost during the next staffing transition.
Dealer vigilance is key to successful narrow aisle applications, Van Hook says.
“The dealers should be getting in to see the purchasing people who don't know anything about lift trucks and suggesting they move their fleet around,” he suggests. “Maybe they have a newer truck being used in a low-cycle application and a beater they keep putting money into.”
The problem with this is staff politics. Senior operators often get the privilege of using the new equipment and their work schedules might be different from everyone else's. Maintenance across a fleet might become uneven. And maintenance is not only a productivity issue, but a safety issue. Bad casters and wheels on narrow aisle trucks are a bad combination with high-rise storage racks.
Add bad or non-existent training to this mix and you can set off a chain reaction: lift truck wobbles, operator hits rack, rack sustains structural damage, time passes, rack weakens, rack fails, inventory is lost, people are hurt, time is lost—and so is business.
Whatever the politics of your work site, keep training and maintenance non-partisan issues—especially where narrow-aisle lift trucks are concerned.