Any automobile driver could expect to be sore and stiff at the end of an eight-hour road trip. Operators of modern lift trucks enjoy an increasing number of the same features they find in their cars, but improving comfort remains a critical challenge for many forklift manufacturers.
According to David McNeill, product manager of warehouse products for NAACO Materials Handling Group, “The biggest focus is on how to make an operator as productive in the last hour as he or she is in the first.”
Jeff Bowles, product line manager for Mitsubishi Caterpillar Forklift America, says ergonomic refinements can be divided into the seen and the unseen. Unseen features include improved suspension and replacement of manual hydraulic operations with electric systems. The visible features are so varied that they make cabins virtually unrecognizable from designs even a decade earlier.
Fingertip controls, adjustable contoured armrests, mast-mounted cameras to improve visibility, telescopic adjustable steering columns with programmable tilt memory—each advance reduces operator fatigue while increasing productivity. But a full shift in a forklift remains a challenging prospect, and the lower back remains a perennial culprit in reports of lift truck operator discomfort.
Ergonomics is a subset of safety, says McNeill. Because all forklift operators are taught to carry loads in reverse when possible for optimal visibility, this means that as much as 50% of the time spent on the forklift could be spent in a twisted position, he says. Manufacturers are developing seats that swivel or are mounted at a slight angle, which will complement handles to ease the strain of looking backwards.
Bowles adds that many more lift truck models are coming equipped with electric power steering, which greatly reduces operator fatigue, particularly in high-throughput areas. The expansion of automated technology on forklifts even allows a truck to navigate between chosen pallet positions at the push of a button, without any further operator input.
From cup holders to cruise control, more and more comforts of the family car are making their way to the warehouse floor. And, McNeill says things will only get better for the forklift operator.
“We’re all working toward the same goal, but there really is no end,” he says. “Operator comfort can always be improved.”
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