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Lift truck safety gets proactive with sensors

Managing lift truck safety is daunting in today’s hectic materials handling environments, but safety-related technology is advancing rapidly, with sensor-driven solutions available that promise to avoid incidents before they happen.

Even when lift truck operators get sufficient training and pass their certifications, there’s a risk to operating lift trucks or working on foot in their vicinity.

Intersections and aisles get busy with traffic, including other lift trucks, associates working on foot, and increasingly, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs).

Dock areas get congested, and loading or unloading trailers with lift trucks also poses potential dangers, especially if trailers aren’t properly restrained. Goods falling from overhead is always a risk, as are pallets or goods left in unexpected positions on floors.

These risks have long existed, but now industry trends like growth in e-commerce and chronic labor shortages amplify the risks, say lift truck providers. It all boils down to increasingly hectic environments.

Fortunately, safety-related lift truck technologies are available, including existing solutions like telematics and virtual reality (VR) training, and an array of newer sensor-based solutions that promise to help avoid incidents in the first place.

“These [sensor-based] technologies are really about improving operations by building driver awareness of their surroundings, which is critically important today with the labor challenges the industry as a whole is facing,” says Mick McCormick, director of warehouse and advanced applications for KION North America. “Depending on the level of employee churn an operation is experiencing, and its peak seasonal needs, it may be bringing in waves of new employees as well as new lift truck operators. So, it helps to surround them with equipment that helps them operate in these busy environments, and which actively informs them of risks to be aware of, especially when they are new to a workplace.”

Telematics, when well applied, contributes to lift truck safety, but some say traditional telematics is too much of a rear-view mirror.

Machine vision technology along with AI software is being applied by Siera AI to enable proactive safety alerting and monitoring for lift truck fleets.

“First generation telematics is reactive,” says Saurav Agarwal, co-founder and CEO of Siera AI, a provider of forklift safety solutions that uses machine vision and AI technologies. “If there is an accident, the managers find out about it after it happens. That is already too late. And, if managers get a notification, they may be too busy and they may lose track of it. The result is a lack of information about what’s going on.”

Think safety bubble

Sensor-based solutions that fall under the banner of operator-assist solutions act as a second set of eyes for operators. These solutions can control a truck’s speed and performance if alerts are ignored or an accident is imminent or be configured to automatically reduce speeds in designated zones, like ends of aisles or near break rooms. “[These new solutions] are really taking the rules the safety manager wants to follow and making sure that everyone is aware of those rules as they’re going through the facility,” McCormick says.

Not all operator-assist solutions work exactly the same, but they’re all trying to leverage sensing to spot risks and warn operators, in some cases slowing or stopping a truck to avoid an incident. Some use LIDAR or machine vision sensors located on the truck, while some use tags or transmitters on pedestrians, infrastructure or mobile assets.

Machine vision technology along with AI software is being applied by Siera AI to enable proactive safety alerting and monitoring for lift truck fleets.

Such sensing should be “smart” enough to discern an object’s direction of travel or other factors, like being able to determine if a pedestrian is safely on the other side of a guardrail, says McCormick. “You don’t want a lot of false alarms with alerting, because then the operators may become immune to those alarms because they are going off too much,” says McCormick.


Kevin Paramore, sales manager of emerging technology with Yale Materials Handling, says telematics features like digital safety checklists and access control remain valuable, but that the newer breed of sensor-based operator-assist solutions, such as Yale Reliant, is a proactive, real-time tool.

Virtual reality (VR) training solutions, in combination with classroom and hands-on training, can help with training of new operators, while allowing for tests of emergency scenarios without physical risk.

Paramore says the sensors create the equivalent of a digital safety “bubble” around each truck. Yale Reliant can use LIDAR sensors and ultra-wideband (UWB) devices on the truck for object and pedestrian detection. The sensing ties into Yale’s truck controls to automatically apply performance adjustments, such as slowing down a truck in designated zones or if a pedestrian or obstacle is too close.

“Yale Reliant is in effect creating an invisible bubble around your trucks, as well as potentially, all the pedestrians in the facility,” says Paramore. “Now we can be more proactive, to help prevent impacts from occurring, by heightening operator awareness.”

At Hyster, the operator-assist solution is called Hyster Reaction. According to Nic Temple, Hyster’s director of business development for emerging technology, a key capability is that it can tie into the trucks’ controls and stability features to slow the truck when needed or in designated zones, which is highly noticeable by the operator. The solution can also adjust hydraulic functions to help reduce the risk of tipping and load pitching, and offers an overload arrest function to prevent operators moving loads that exceed specified weight thresholds.

“That reduction in speed is something that humans can really adapt to and recognize, rather than just a visual or audible alert,” says Temple. “The human mind is very good at tuning out flashing lights or audible alarms, but that reduction in speed is much harder to tune out.”

With Siera AI, the solution is based on vision technology placed on any truck, working in combination with AI to perceive risks in real time and drive alerting. No tags are involved, but operators do get the proactive alerting, as well as a software solution for trending and analytics, and also digital safety checklist function. Importantly, says Agarwal, near misses captured by the vision feed into the analytics create more effective metrics.

“The only way to change a culture is to monitor what is happening and make small changes every day,” says Agarwal. “That is why you need leading metrics and that is where automatic near miss reporting comes in—to give you a clear picture of what is going on. Let’s say out of 10 new operators, five are great, but the other five are the ones creating or involved in most of the near misses and risks. Then you focus on them.”

Proactive safety features in Hyster’s Reaction solution allow for automatic slowdown to a designated speed at locations like ends of aisles.

A layered approach

Other safety-related technologies such as access control in telematics, or VR training, remain important to lift truck safety. In other words, it’s not all about the latest in sensors, but rather layers of safety-enhancing technologies.

Digital access control, for example, limits who can startup and operate a truck based on their permissions and certifications. Access control has become table stakes for lift truck safety, says Paramore. “By just leaving trucks unattended in a DC, or factory, or retail setting, without access or key control, you are creating your own risk,” he says.

Likewise, having a digital checklist not only eliminates paper-based records, it can support follow-up processes to remedy issues found during safety checks. For example, says Paramore, a frayed seatbelt noted on a digital checklist can be escalated to the person in charge of maintenance or the fleet supervisor.

“If a seatbelt is no longer operable, we can take the next step and lock out the truck so it can’t be used until the belt is fixed. These are digital tools that everyone can interact with to stay informed, with the objective of providing the safest environment possible.”

Telematics generates a wealth of data, but some organizations might not be staffed to monitor and analyze the data for improvements, says Collin Rush, director of InfoLink customer support with Crown Equipment. That’s why an option with Crown’s InfoLink telematics and fleet management system is a service for connected maintenance and analytics that uses Crown experts called Remote Health Fleet Managers to actively monitor trends and help identify areas for improvement.

Lift truck telematics does have some proactive aspects to it, notes Rush. Access control will only allow a certified operator to run a given truck, for one. Additionally, customization options can be used to establish different maximum speeds for operators based on experience. “Those levels are configurable, and as new operators gain experience, you bump them up to the next level,” says Rush.

VR Training remains important to safety efforts, especially in terms of providing more tools for training operators, says David Norton, vice president of customer solutions and support at The Raymond Corp. However, he adds, VR should be considered as an adjunct to classroom training and hands-on instruction, not a replacement.

“VR fits well between OSHA-mandated classroom training, and actual required hands-on training,” says Norton. “VR helps new operators understand how the truck controls work, and how the truck will stop, turn, maneuver or put loads away, and that virtual experience the operator gets helps as they work through lessons. And, with VR, you are able to expose the new operator to emergency situations that you would never be able to put them in during hands-on training, because in the virtual environment, there isn’t the actual risk.”

Designing for safety

The core safety requirements for lift trucks are set forth in ANSI standard B56. This standard, developed with input from the Industrial Standards Development Foundation (ITSDF), focuses on core safety elements like overhead guarding and seatbelts deemed essential in lift trucks.

The lift truck OEMs adhere to B56 and contribute to standards development, but each OEM can come up with features like stability control to further enhance safety, or options or accessories useful for particular applications, explains Tom Lego, Toyota brand ambassador for Toyota Material Handling.

“B56 is an ANSI standard that is like the gold standard under which everyone agrees, if you are going to build forklifts, you need to make sure you are within these parameters,” Lego says. “That said, it gives latitude for manufacturers to continue to find ways to drive improvement.”

Some safety-related design features are influenced by the type of product being handled as well as narrow-aisle trends, points out Paul Short, president of North America with Combilift, whose lift truck lineup offers trucks designed to handle long loads often stored on cantilever racks. Cantilever rack can pose a particular safety risk, says Short, in that the arms of the rack protrude outward to hold long products like lumber or pipe, thus posing risk when backing up a truck.

To address this risk with its Combi-MR4 model, which comes in stand-up or sit-down models, the operator exit is at the side rather than the rear, with the rear of the truck protected by a guard structure. “Unlike with pallet racking, the rack arm can enter the cabin, so in our design, we secured the rear of truck so nothing can enter from the rear during operation, with the operator having side entry,” Short says.

Combilift’s trucks also work on the principle of keeping long loads low to the ground during transport, which helps with stability, explains Short. Another safety-related feature found on Combilift’s pedestrian stacker is a tiller design that can swing left or right, which allows the operator to remain at the side of the stacker, rather than behind it, while picking a load. Standing to the side of the stacker eliminates the risk of being trapped or crushed behind the stacker, while making the unit easier to steer and operate in narrow aisles.

“That feature removes the operator from the crush zone,” says Short. “We put a lot of emphasis on those types of features whose designs stemmed primarily from customer requests to make their operations safer.”

Use of autonomous lift trucks is growing, in large part because of operator shortages, but also because autonomous trucks use sensors to avoid collisions, and normally (there are dual-mode models that can be manually operated), there is no operator who can be injured. But deployment of autonomous lift trucks should still involve an update of safety best practices, especially regarding training for pedestrians working alongside the mobile automation.

“Autonomy is a hot topic in the market currently and will continue to grow, especially as customers are challenged with a shrinking workforce and labor retention challenges,” says Kai Beckhaus, president of MCJ Supply Chain Solutions, an automation joint venture formed by Jungheinrich AG and Mitsubishi Logisnext Americas. “With automatic guided vehicles or the use of any technology or change in process flow, businesses still need to consider how to establish proper safety protocols and how to properly train their employees to interact with the equipment in their workspace. Safety training and employee awareness will always be an important aspect for businesses to remain focused on, while the safety training itself will be adapted to the needs of the actual application.”

Basics first

The consensus among vendors is that the latest sensor-based solutions can be a good fit for many operations, even for a relatively small but busy site. The other area of agreement: Start with basics like having a rigorous training and certification program, as well as close attention to traffic patterns, layout, signage, or other programs that address safety, rather than relying on just the technology.

For example, Lego says that at Toyota’s facilities, every worker gets some instruction on how to safely interact with lift trucks. Workers are taught to use simple hand signals to indication the direction they are turning, including pedestrians. “There has to be this shared experience, these rules of road, when forklift and pedestrians come together,” says Lego.

Lift truck safety also is best approached as a continuous improvement effort, especially with ongoing employee churn, or changes to layouts. OEMs, dealers or third-party safety or fleet management firms can help, but ultimately, continuous improvement rests on follow-ups, such as analyzing incident data from telematics, or any record of incidents or near misses, to determine root causes and identify adjustments.

“With any near miss or incident, it’s best to stop and learn from those,” says Lego. “Look at what can be done to correct those things that led to an incident, before there are larger problems.”

Article Topics

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About the Author

Roberto Michel's avatar
Roberto Michel
Roberto Michel, senior editor for Modern, has covered manufacturing and supply chain management trends since 1996, mainly as a former staff editor and former contributor at Manufacturing Business Technology. He has been a contributor to Modern since 2004. He has worked on numerous show dailies, including at ProMat, the North American Material Handling Logistics show, and National Manufacturing Week. You can reach him at: [email protected].
Follow Modern Materials Handling on FaceBook

About the Author

Roberto Michel's avatar
Roberto Michel
Roberto Michel, senior editor for Modern, has covered manufacturing and supply chain management trends since 1996, mainly as a former staff editor and former contributor at Manufacturing Business Technology. He has been a contributor to Modern since 2004. He has worked on numerous show dailies, including at ProMat, the North American Material Handling Logistics show, and National Manufacturing Week. You can reach him at: [email protected].
Follow Modern Materials Handling on FaceBook

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