Did you know that even some of the most familiar and seemingly minor modifications to your lift truck could get you into serious trouble? In the last couple of years this issue has been highlighted by Britain’s major forklift truck industry trade associations – BITA and the FLTA. With the help of a Google search, I’ve tried to find out a bit more. The inevitable conclusion is that manufacturer approval is indeed very important.
Changing your forklift in any way can affect its structural or functional safety. If the change doesn’t have the truck maker’s authorisation, you are responsible for any adverse consequences.
We’re not just talking about substantial interference with the truck’s original structure here. Adding forklift attachments, swapping forks and replacing tyres are all examples of trucks being modified, and they require careful consideration.
A modification may well have an impact on the capacity, stability or some other safety-related characteristic of the truck. That’s why international safety standard ISO 3691-1:2015 on safety standards and verification for industrial trucks says clearly: “Unauthorised truck modification is not permitted.”
You may feel the change you have made is a minor one, but it could be enough to invalidate your warranty. Changes without the manufacturer’s approval can also invalidate the truck’s CE marking, which will make it hard to sell in the future. And, of course, a dangerous modification might result in an accident, along with injury, death, damage and legal action.
To protect yourself, your staff and your business, you should ideally have written approval from the manufacturer before modifying your lift truck. Your forklift dealer may be able to help you with this. The dealer should certainly not approve or carry out such work without knowing the manufacturer’s position on the type of change involved. What’s more, approved modifications must only be undertaken by professional engineers with relevant specialist expertise.
Always check first
Written conditions relating to tyre replacements are often included in hire or lease agreements, as well as warranties, so make sure you check. Differences in tyre type or specification can influence stability, braking and other truck behaviours.
Exchanging the original mast for one with a different height, weight and shape may significantly alter the truck’s balance and capacity. The same is true for forks, which come in a great variety of shapes and sizes – including some which are extremely long. Ask your forklift dealer to advise on which masts and forks fall within the manufacturer’s approved limits.
Your dealer should be asked whether your intended forklift attachment is suitable for your truck. Like the components discussed above, attachments alter the forklift’s geometry and weight distribution. Usually they require a reduction in its capacity rating. Even something like a retrofitted side shift takes away some of the lifting capacity and moves the load centre of the truck.
The engineer fitting an attachment needs to be appropriately qualified to do the job – following manufacturer instructions – and to calculate the necessary de-rating. Details of the attachment and the de-rating should be given on an additional capacity plate fixed to the truck.
In some cases, the attachment fitted to a forklift is a platform allowing personnel to work at height. This can be permitted under some circumstances. It must be a purpose-built product, from a specialist manufacturer, meeting specific legal safety requirements. Crucially, it can only be legally used for occasional emergency tasks. It should not be sold to you as being suitable for routine work.
Items like alternative overhead guard (OHG) designs for different applications are found in options lists from lift truck manufacturers and accessory suppliers. For instance, a lower OHG height is sometimes needed for drive-in racking or a low doorway. While full replacement may be allowed, the truck manufacturer is unlikely to approve of alterations to an existing OHG’s structure as this is such a vital safety feature.
Naturally, changes to the steering, braking or other systems would have to be approved by the manufacturer. Something you should never meddle with is the electrical system, as the precision of so many sophisticated functions depends on it.
Watch out for dangerous modifications
Extremes of unauthorised modification include things like lowering truck height by cutting through cab pillar and OHG structures, removing sections and then welding pieces back together. While the original OHG has been rigorously tested for strength and safety, the modified item is likely to be weaker.
Similarly, an OHG can be weakened by drilling holes to attach accessories. If the manufacturer has not included holes for this in the design, you should instead fasten an accessory mounting bracket to it externally.
When a forklift’s capacity is insufficient for a particularly heavy load, some people increase it by adding extra mass to the counterweight. This might be in the form of water-filled drums or concrete-filled boxes, for instance. The resulting shift in the truck’s centre of gravity makes it less stable, with potentially disastrous results.
Using the right attachments, available from reputable suppliers, a lift truck can be operated like a crane to hoist heavy objects. However, some choose instead to weld load-bearing chains to the fork tips, or drill holes for their attachment. This not only weakens the forks but leaves the operator with no way of knowing the maximum safe load.
When it comes to working at height, standing on a raised fork – or on a pallet lifted on the forks – is not acceptable. Nor is any ‘homemade’ platform, however ingeniously designed.
Be sure and be safe
Understanding the pitfalls of unauthorised forklift truck modification, you should be wary when buying second-hand. If a truck appears to have been modified, make sure there is paperwork to show the work has been approved.
There are many companies offering forklift modifications, but how can you tell whether they have the right level of expertise and work to the highest standards? If your forklift dealer is not equipped to make the modification you want, he or she should be able to recommend someone who can.
After the work has been done, new specifications must be shown in amended data and capacity plates, instruction labels, operating guides and maintenance manuals.
If you’re thinking of modifying your lift truck, remember that its manufacturer has invested heavily in design, development and testing to ensure its safety. Having met all requirements, it has been awarded a CE mark.
All of that will count for nothing if you make a non-approved modification. In fact, you will be making yourself into a manufacturer, and the responsibility for anything that goes wrong will be yours. So, think carefully and always leave forklift design and modification to the experts.
Contact: Mark Nicholson Copywriting