Why Won’t Owners Do Maintenance on Compact Lifts?

During TCI EXPO last fall, and in subsequent discussions, compact- or tracked-lift distributors expressed frustration with lift owners and operators who don’t do regular lift maintenance, even for safety-related functions. For this article, we asked the lift distributors how large a problem this is and what, if anything, they can do about it.

The answers might be summed up as “pretty big” and “not much.” But read on for the details. In a future issue of TCI Magazine, we’ll ask lift owners and operators about these maintenance issues and look at the systems in place at some companies that are doing it right.

These pictures are of a lift that is two years old, but the owners did no maintenance or service – and apparently no cleaning – for two years. “Equipment that is clean is a strong indication that the equipment is being maintained,” says Lenny Polonski. Photos courtesy of All Access Equipment.

Are owners/operators of aerial lifts doing the required preventive maintenance to keep their equipment operating safely?

“My hope is they are doing all the necessary, scheduled preventive maintenance to their machines, but in reality, the majority are not,” says Rick Girard, president, RBG Inc., a 16-year TCIA corporate member company based in Raymond, New Hampshire, and a distributor for Finland-based Dinolift. “They typically will only do it once a problem arises.”

“In general, no, but of course some are,” says Ebbe Christensen, president & CEO of Ruthmann Reachmaster North America L.P., an 18-year TCIA corporate member company based in Porter, Texas, and U.S. distributor of Italian-made Bluelift compact lifts.

“Too many owners still don’t do the required maintenance on their lifts,” say Alain Pare and Martin Leblanc, operators of UPequip, a 10-year TCIA corporate member company based in Vercheres, Quebec, Canada. UPequip is the North American distributor of Italian-made Easylift aerial platforms.

“While most tree companies reasonably maintain their equipment, there is always that small group of people who are not very proficient in the maintenance area,” says Lenny Polonski, with All Access Equipment, a 12-year TCIA corporate member company based in Wilmington, Massachusetts. “Hence their equipment, for some mysterious reason, malfunctions and often breaks down.

“While the majority of tree companies reasonably maintain their equipment, we find that oftentimes the maintenance on their compact aerial-work platform is lower than the manufacturer’s recommendations,” says Polonski.

“During annual safety inspection, we require that all needed maintenance that relates to operational safety is performed before we approve a lift for passing its annual inspection,” says Christensen. “At the same time, we point out items that are about to wear out and recommend replacement, but only a few actually do it. For the most part, they hope it can last another year, which it rarely does. So instead of a planned repair, it becomes a ‘panic’ repair, as the unit has to be taken out of service.”

But not everyone was so grim.

“We feel that most of our owners/operators are doing the required preventive maintenance to keep their equipment operating safely,” says Ben Taft, president with Spimerica Access Solutions, a five-year TCIA corporate member company based in Hollywood, Florida.

“It can be challenging for owners/operators of aerial lifts in the busy arborist market to keep up with the required proactive maintenance,” says Tom Schneider, general manager with Tracked Lifts Inc., a 15-year TCIA corporate member company based in York, Pennsylvania. “However, there are customers who prioritize the proper care and maintenance of their equipment to ensure safe operation.”

How big an issue do you think this is, i.e., can you say, in your experience, how many are or are not doing the maintenance?

“Among our customers, fewer than 25% do preventive maintenance,” says Christensen. “A majority run the units as far as they can, not realizing that, looking at long-term ownership cost, it always pays to keep up with preventive maintenance.”

“I would say this issue is fairly significant,” says Schneider. “Based on what we see in our service operations, it’s clear that there is room for improvement across the industry.”

“It is a big issue,” say Pare and Leblanc. “It is impossible to know precisely who does their maintenance and who does it halfway or not at all. When a breakdown happens and we investigate from a distance, the words used and the images shared help us to determine the cause.

“Beyond maintenance itself, what owners and operators lack most in North America is general safety awareness,” continue Pare and Leblanc. “Although the situation has improved, the United States and Canada are lagging behind many jurisdictions because the laws, regulations and standards are not enforced. A lift supports the life of the operator at height. Rigor and additional respect are required. Internal procedures must be put in place by each company so their employees pay due respect. A lift is not a chipper or a stump grinder.”

What efforts do you make to encourage owners/operators to do the recommended maintenance?
“Probably not enough,” says Christensen. “When we do the annual inspection, we offer to do some of the preventive work as included in the labor, and the customer is only paying for the parts costs. But I think the industry as a whole could do better by providing maintenance programs along with the programs most manufacturers offer, as far as annual safety inspections.”

“We offer annual and safety inspections to our customers,” says Schneider. “Additionally, we recommend our customers take advantage of our proactive maintenance programs to help eliminate potential downtime due to equipment issues.”

“All Access Equipment provides a familiarization session for all direct sales,” says Polonski. “This is a three- to four-hour in-person meeting where we educate and familiarize new operators upon lift delivery. This includes hazard recognition and avoidance, how to perform a thorough inspection of the aerial lift before each use, the controls and operation of the lift, requirements to wear fall protection, emergency procedures, load capacity and stability, special features and the knowledge and skills necessary to operate the equipment safely and efficiently.

“We emphasize the importance of following safe operating procedures and complying with all regulatory requirements,” Polonski adds. “We include a detailed owner’s-and-operator’s manual and a maintenance schedule. We also offer expert technical support by email or phone, providing everyone with access to information they may need to perform preventative maintenance. We consistently encourage everyone to read the owner’s manual and perform maintenance.”

“We provide a printout list of what should be done daily, weekly, monthly, etcetera, along with all this information being in the manual,” says Taft. “We encourage our customers to call us with any questions, and we provide a decal on every machine that lists our phone number for service. Additionally, we are starting a program that will reach out to our customers reminding them when their annual inspections are due.”

“We have implemented policies in our service department to reach out to customers yearly to remind them and try to schedule a time to come out and complete the service,” says Rick Girard.

“Once the unit is sold and delivered throughout North America, it is on the owner’s plate to either do the maintenance or find a resource they already work with and trust to perform that for them,” say Pare and Leblanc. “Aside from the documentation provided by the manufacturer and a tailored schedule of maintenance we provide upon delivery, it falls on the owner.

“We will not hesitate to share our way of thinking with a lift owner who is negligent,” Pare and Leblanc continue. “We do not hesitate to be insistent, sometimes bordering on being rude, so they understand we are there to protect their lives.”

A lift with all covers removed for inspection for loose hydraulic and electrical fittings and checking motor-fluid levels. Photo courtesy of Spimerica Access Solutions.

Is there a way, i.e., electronic or otherwise, for manufacturers to prevent equipment that has not been properly maintained from operating?

“Remotely controlled systems that would shut down an aerial lift, stump grinder or chipper because the operator did not perform the recommended maintenance are not currently an industry standard and are not included on our lifts,” says Polonski.

“New systems are being used in the trucking industry that require the operator to use a mobile smartphone to read various QR-code decals placed around a vehicle and engine. These must be captured with a smartphone to complete a pre-trip inspection report,” adds Polonski. “This system prevents the engine from starting unless all QR codes have been captured and entered into the report and the documented safety-circle-check report has been submitted. We expect these types of systems to be implemented in many different types of equipment in the coming years.”

“From a safety standpoint, I wish there was, but in reality there is nothing we can do to stop them from using the machine,” says Girard. “Even if we were to find something we find unsafe, we are not legally allowed to make it so they can’t use the machine. We can have them sign paperwork stating it is unsafe in our view, but they can still use the machine. All we can hope for is that they listen to our reasoning and understand the concerns we have over the continued use of the unsafe piece of equipment.”

“Not really, not as far as the preventive maintenance that is not safety related,” says Christensen. “On the safety-related items, a unit should never pass an annual safety inspection unless safety-related maintenance is performed. So in that way, we have some influence on the use. Also, OSHA stipulations require that a unit must have a valid annual inspection, so that, too, helps. Other than that, it is first and foremost up to the owner.”

“There is no way currently to stop owners/operators from using their equipment if they are not keeping up with the recommended maintenance,” says Taft.

“As of right now, there is no way to track if ordinary maintenance on equipment is actually being done,” says Taft. “There are systems available to electronically trouble shoot the equipment and track electronically documented issues.”

“While there are ways to prevent owners/operators from using their equipment if they have not completed the recommended maintenance, ultimately, they are the owners of the equipment and have the final say,” says Schneider.

“Manufacturers can use CPU (central processing units) and telematics add-ons that provide remote checkups, maintenance notifications and geo-fence tracking to ensure that owners/operators are keeping up with the required maintenance and have better tracking of their equipment overall,” says Schneider. “By implementing these tools, manufacturers can help promote safer and more efficient operation of their equipment.”

“Yes, but no,” say Pare and Leblanc. “With our special EasyCom + GPS system, we could make some great remote fix, but also could disable the whole operation. Other than units from the rental fleet, we have never used this, because we would infringe on the rights of the lift owner. We prefer to use our persuasive skills to convince people to do what they must do and put their unit out of service if major damage is reported.”

“Dino has implemented its MyDino system in the new 2023 models that will track how the unit is being used,” says Girard. “This will help them and RBG to diagnose when an issue comes up. It also will let the owners see how the equipment is being operated so that, hopefully, they can make internal changes within their own company. The MyDino system is by no means there to act as a Big Brother oversight, but more as another tool to help keep the equipment operating at its peak performance on a daily basis.”

“Technically, yes. There are systems in place that can monitor the use of equipment and, if certain parameters are not in working order, the manufacturer can, in reality, shut down the unit,” says Christensen. “However, that, too, has a lot of risk elements involved. It is impossible for the manufacturer to see exactly where and how a unit is being used, and shutting it down can have very serious consequences.

“Instead, we operate more with so-called ‘black boxes’ that can explain how a unit worked before a breakdown,” continues Christensen. “These also can help guide the manufacturer to evaluate whether it was properly used. That said, I can foresee systems in the future that will allow the manufacturer to follow the health of the unit electronically.”

Is there anything you would like to see done to force owners/operators to do the maintenance?

“Unless an accident happens and it is serious enough to be reported to OSHA or local authorities, it’s extremely rare for anyone to be fined for a lack of maintenance on any kind of lift,” say Pare and Leblanc. “Who has the authority to pull a lift out of service if the 10-year structural inspection (which must be done by an engineer) is not completed? What insurer has ever required proof of maintenance from its client who has a lift? We’ve almost never heard that. If the maintenance process has many gray areas according to CSA (Canadian Safety Association) and ANSI standards, it is the responsibility of the owner to ensure the safety of their team.”

“While regulations can seem like a hassle, ANSI has provided well-written standards to protect operators of aerial lifts,” says Polonski. “While we would not like to see draconian enforcement of regulations, there are many instances when safety is at risk. Following manufacturer’s recommendations, industry best practices and the enforcement or the threat of regulatory enforcement can prevent accidents, injuries and, as an extension, downtime.”

“While I would love to try and force them to do things, in reality, I don’t feel that anything can be forced on anyone who really doesn’t want to be told what to do,” says Girard.

“Psychology and education help to a certain limit,” say Pare and Leblanc. “However, we have had situations where the lifts were so damaged and the owners were clearly and willfully negligent that we ended our relationship by refusing to sell them parts or offer them technical assistance. Readers who follow our social media will be able to identify some who are dissatisfied with our decisions. We believe life is worth more than a few negative comments on Facebook! Unfortunately, to quote Forrest Gump, ‘Stupid is as stupid does.’”

“While it would be ideal for all owners/operators to prioritize the proper maintenance of their equipment, it is ultimately their responsibility to do so,” says Schneider.

“I will beat my drum on this since I have decades of experience with my fellow tree workers and the tree industry and find that many tree-company owners are truly fantastic and extraordinarily talented people,” says Polonski. “Hand any of them a chain saw and they will perform incredible feats. However, this is a weak area for many when it comes to being a good business manager. Failure to perform regular equipment maintenance is a symptom of weak business management.”

What would you say to owners/operators of compact lifts who are not doing the maintenance?

“By keeping their equipment maintained to the factory standards and completing the required maintenance, they will have a machine that they will not have to replace sooner than needed because it broke down,” says Girard. “While many owners recognize this, many do not.”

“What must be defined first is what is important to maintain,” say Alain Pare and Martin Leblanc. “Many owners are convinced that maintaining their engine is the ultimate priority, and neglect what is essential. It is certain that servicing the engine is essential, but never lose sight that the engine is not what keeps you in the air. Even if your engine breaks, you will still be alive.”

“I would first tell owners/operators that they are putting anybody who gets in their compact lift in extreme danger,” says Taft. “I would then tell them they are risking their company’s productivity, reliability and name by not properly taking care of all their equipment.”

“I would strongly advise them to reconsider. Neglecting maintenance can lead to expensive repairs and costly downtime that can eliminate revenue-generating tree-cutting time, resulting in a double whammy to their pocketbook,” says Schneider.

Closing thoughts

“Anybody who does not keep the equipment in a safe operational condition is risking the lives of themselves, the employees and (anyone in) the surroundings in which the machines are used,” says Christensen. “There is no excuse whatsoever for an owner not to maintain the equipment to a standard where all the safety issues are fully functional and perform to the manufacturer’s requirements.”
“No matter what brand of lift it is, operators should follow the manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule and comply with any regulatory requirements, such as those set by OSHA,” says Polonski.

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