An aching back, strained muscles, and stiff joints are just a few symptoms of fatigue a forklift operator might accumulate in a day of sitting or standing, wrestling a steering wheel, operating hydraulic controls, and climbing on and off the forklift. And because materials handling productivity is not only a function of the machine, but also of the operator, when the body starts to slow, load-moving efficiency can decline.
That's why ergonomics has become a more prominent focus in forklift design, with manufacturers developing more features that aim to increase comfort and reduce operator fatigue. “Making the truck comfortable for the operator is very important for two reasons: to make him more comfortable and to make him more productive for the company owners,” says Geoff Beale, sales director for forklift manufacturer Hyster USA.
Most manufacturers have incorporated ergonomic principles into forklifts in the areas of cab design, placement of driving and lift controls, and isolation of noise and vibration.
“In lumberyard applications, it's not unusual at all for the operator to get on and off the truck frequently” during a shift to check bar codes and load positioning, explains Jerry LaHood, product manager for CAT Lift Trucks. Climbing into the cab can inflict considerable strain on an operator's joints and muscles, especially if the step is high off the ground and the cab entrance or interior is narrow or doesn't provide enough headroom. A more spacious cab designed for easy in-and-out with plenty of head and leg room, comfortably placed grab bars, and an initial step placed at a low height can reduce the effort required to climb aboard several times a day. Grid-plate texturing and anti-skid coatings reduce the operator's chances of slipping, an ergonomic and safety benefit.
In fact, safety and ergonomics frequently coincide. Good visibility, for example, is important for both. A clear line of sight to the fork tips can minimize the need to twist or bend uncomfortably to see the load, plus operators can easily see obstacles in the travel path. Most manufacturers—including Toyota Material Handling, Nissan Forklift, Hiab USA/Moffett, TCM Mfg., Princeton Delivery Systems,Yale Materials Handling, Sellick Equipment, Airtrax, The Raymond Corp. Combilift, CAT, and Hyster—offer forklifts with masts and cabs designed to provide maximum visibility.
A flexible and supportive driver chair also can help reduce fatigue. An ergonomically contoured seat and back allow the operator to maintain a neutral posture that keeps vertebrae evenly spaced and muscles in balance.
Design and positioning of controls are also important. Some manufacturers have begun placing joystick-like control levers or fingertip electronic controls for forklift hydraulics next to the driver's seat to keep the operator in a neutral position. “That way the operator doesn't have to reach forward to lift the load, and he can be more precise with load movement,” says John Piccolo, big truck sales manager for Yale. Some manufacturers still place controls on the steering column, including CAT, which maintains that it is possible for column-mounted controls to operate ergonomically.
Talk to your forklift drivers to determine the features they need to help them stay productive, experts say. “Improvements that manufacturers have made have helped in comfort for the operator,” says Mitch Feldman, director of specialty purchasing and delivery services for Eighty Four, Pa.–based 84 Lumber, “and a comfortable operator is a more efficient, happier operator.”