Safety is a critical aspect of the utility maintenance industry. Whether dealing with electrical hazards, working in stormy conditions, or ensuring you have the correct personal protective equipment and fall protection measures, safety is an ever-present consideration.
Construction of a utility or telecom line brings its own set of safety concerns. One of these concerns is having the proper material handling equipment to manage the sheer size, weight, and quantity of the various components of utility construction, including wood utility poles.
Over the years, equipment manufacturers have developed a multitude of solutions for handling utility poles to cover everything from moving them around stockyards to placing poles during in-field construction.
Most of the solutions developed involve the makeshift application of available construction equipment. For example, the wheel loader is a versatile machine that can be equipped with several attachments to tackle different jobs, including fork and baler attachments for lifting wood poles. Unfortunately, it is often overlooked that a wheel loader is primarily designed to dig and move dirt. As a result, operators have had to compromise on certain performance characteristics when using the wheel loader as a pole handler or in other secondary functions.
It is important to note that there are dedicated pieces of equipment, such as rough terrain forklifts, that are engineered specifically for material handling applications like lifting and placing wood poles.
These types of purpose-built machines offer several features that are specifically designed to help accomplish tasks such as handling utility poles in a safer and more efficient manner.
The length of a utility pole is always greater than the width of the machine carrying it. This immediately makes it an awkward item to move, since operators are automatically put into a situation where the material they are handling falls outside the footprint of the vehicle they are driving. To maneuver safely, it becomes vital to have as much visibility as possible around the vehicle.
Whether moving poles through stockyard aisleways or handling them on a jobsite, transporting utility poles from one point to another generally requires the machine to be driven while its load is hoisted into the air. With a wheel loader, operators experience at least some degree of obstructed visibility since the lift arms of the vehicle are located directly in front of the windshield.
A safer design found on some dedicated pole-moving vehicles incorporates overhead lift arms that are mounted behind the cab, rather than at the front of the machine. When lifting, placing, or transporting loads, this overhead arm design gives the operator full forward visibility of more than 180 degrees with no obstruction. This can prove advantageous when precision placement is a must.
Of course, when it comes to material handlers which are constantly shifting and changing direction during use, rear visibility is also important. Rearview cameras are more commonly standard on such machines.
High output LED lighting is another improvement that provides the double benefit of increasing light output while requiring less electricity than older style light systems. By better illuminating the jobsite, these lights naturally create a safer work environment.
Another major safety factor for pole handlers is stability. Operators need to be aware of the different circumstances that can impact the stability of a loaded vehicle while in use, including speed, grade, and ground conditions. There are numerous factors that can adversely affect the design stability of the machine itself. Weight distribution, suspension, wheelbase, and tires can all influence a vehicle’s resistance to tipping, even during completely normal operations.
The level of stability will also depend on the vehicle’s intended function versus its actual use on the jobsite. In addition to the front-mounted lift arm obstructing visibility, wheel loaders feature articulated steering that is not conducive to carrying heavy loads and turning at the same time.
A wheel loader can lose as much as 50% of its rated load capacity when going into a turn. Because of this, sharp turns may require drivers to resort to multiple-point turns, moving forward and back as much as needed until the turn is complete.
Unfortunately, not all operators are aware that the physical dynamics of a loader change when turning or otherwise maneuvering the machine. Simply relying on the vehicle’s specification data under normal use – and therefore failing to make proper adjustments to the speed, load, or turning approach to account for these changes – leads to a greater likelihood of an accident. Personnel who work in stockyards where wheel loaders are routinely used might be familiar with the sight of a loader lying on its side with wood poles scattered nearby. This scenario poses a danger to the operator and any bystanders in the vicinity of the machine.
The most reliable forward-reaching loaders for this application are constructed with a solid steel frame that provides the ability to take full loads into sharp turns without sacrificing load capacity or stability. A shorter wheelbase allows for a better turning radius, while a wider stance for the lift arms provides additional stability when carrying long poles. Look for these features when selecting a forward-reaching loader.
Using an all-terrain, 4-wheel drive machine is also a necessity when moving wood poles during the utility construction process. Some stockyards might rely on traditional straight mast forklifts, but these machines are designed to operate on a smooth, graded work surface and are not capable of going into the rough terrain applications common to stockyards and construction sites.
Hydraulic frame sway control can also increase vehicle stability. Vehicles with this capability can essentially level themselves and the lifting frame to a certain degree in either direction. This leveling action compensates for the irregularities of uneven terrain, helping to ensure operators are carrying a safe, stable load.
Safe Operation & Maintenance
Over the past several years, equipment manufacturers have implemented smarter operating station arrangements to help drivers work more safely and avoid freak accidents that can happen in a split second. Many material handlers use joysticks to provide intuitive fingertip control of the hydraulics for simultaneous lifting, tilting, and reaching. Ergonomics have also been improved to reduce operator fatigue.
A less obvious factor in the safety aspect of operating a forklift, wheel loader, or other material handler is routine machine maintenance. When maintenance is neglected, there is a greater likelihood that something could break or cease to function correctly, which could lead to safety issues.
Though maintenance is ultimately the responsibility of a service technician, manufacturers have helped the cause by making locations for service tasks more centralized and accessible. Keeping maintenance tasks simple helps ensure that machines are running smoothly and that fewer incidents occur while performing service.
The utility industry puts forth an excellent effort to make jobsites safe. Manufacturers of heavy lifting vehicles continue to provide better-designed, purpose-built equipment that fully delivers on speed and efficiency, while ensuring that operational safety remains an uncompromisable priority.
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