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Musculoskeletal disorders

how well-designed handling equipment can help
Ben Haseley

Although accidents and fatalities in materials handling make the headlines, musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) pose a problem almost as severe… and certainly more widespread. According to recent figures from HSE an astonishing 477,000 UK workers are currently suffering from this nasty condition.


Key to solving the problem is reducing harmful factors… which is why the design team at leading manufacturers of materials handling equipment are so committed to identifying and reducing MSDs, along with other ailments caused by stress, vibration and poor ergonomics. Interestingly, that approach involves the development of not only innovative machinery but also transformative software.


One obvious example of improvement is to seats. Modern suspension seats cater to an ever-greater size range in operators, allowing individuals to select their optimum driving positions. Importantly, they also allow operators, at the start of a shift, to adjust the cushioning to match their weight. This is important in minimising vibration and jolts, especially since electric trucks – unlike IC engine models – have no suspension systems.


Indeed, if you haven’t explored the market in recent years, you may be surprised at the number of developments introduced to ensure trucks are smooth and effortless to operate and, crucially, utterly predictable.


Mitsubishi Forklift Trucks are at the forefront of research and development in this area, winning a host of Archies and Red Dot Design Awards for ergonomics. 


Award-winning ergonomic features 


Here are a few examples of ergonomic features you may want to consider for your next forklift or warehouse truck:


360-degree steering is still under patent but promises to become widespread because it ticks so many boxes. Not only does it greatly reduce the number of whole-body manoeuvres involved when changing truck direction, but it also boosts productivity.


By enabling the operator to switch direction effortlessly, without pausing, and without a laborious and time-consuming three-point turn, precious seconds are shaved off every manoeuvre – making the truck far more productive in fast-paced operations.


Importantly, that smooth, continuous motion not only reduces strain on the operator but, by greatly reducing centrifugal forces, it reduces the risk of loads being thrown from the forks.


Adaptive lift control (ALC) is another new development whose function is to automatically control lift/lower, tilt and side-shift speeds regardless of the weight of the load (which can be a particular issue when trucks are unladen).  


Sensing the weight of the load (or lack of it) ALC automatically delivers the appropriate power, meaning the speed always remains constant and predictable. No jolts, no surprises. 


Another product of increasingly sophisticated software is the use of intuitive drive systems. Already a feature on top-end cars, this enables the truck to quickly learn how each operator prefers to work… and adjust its performance parameters accordingly.  


It means that, without changing the truck set-up at the start of every shift to accommodate different styles and capabilities, the truck makes operations entirely predictable for any driver, whether they be a novice, or a confident operator, working in a heavy-duty environment, or one where delicate loads need careful handling.  


Even now, most trucks require the operator to accept a generic, one-size-fits-all set up and endure unexpectedly aggressive acceleration and turns – with compensatory actions putting unnecessary strain on limbs and spine. 


Innovations to reduce MSDs aren’t confined to counterbalance trucks, however.


Taking one example from the latest range of Mitsubishi pedestrian-operated warehouse trucks dampened platforms significantly reduce vibrations with a “triple-suspension floating floor” now standard on its low-level order pickers. Great attention has also been paid to entry/exit on models across its entire warehouse range. As a result, shifts are less tiring and trip hazards minimised. Controls are better positioned to save operator stretching or adopting unnatural positions.   

PREMEM3 Powered Pallet Truck

Changing inappropriate processes 

One simple but profound change to reduce MSDs in many thousands of businesses would be the switch from hand pallet trucks to powered models, especially in applications involving heavy loads or frequent use.  According to HSE, many injuries are caused by strains from using inappropriate equipment with the advice being that, unless you can reduce the size of every load to 500kg or less – whilst also minimising the number of operations – the only realistic (and legal) option is to mechanise the handling process by switching from a hand pallet truck to a battery electric power pallet model.  

To find ways to improved operator welfare in your materials handling operations you can take advantage of HSE resources such as its MSD Online Assessment Tool and its award-winning Safety Climate Tool, which assess the attitudes of individuals within an organisation towards health and safety issues.  


For more guidance on equipment that has won international awards for ergonomics and operator wellbeing call us on 0845 3713048 or visit our contact page.

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