CAUTION: Challenging Setups for Compact Lifts

Booms must have the proper dielectric-insulating rating when working in proximity to power lines, especially when clearing storm damage. Photo courtesy of Tracked Lifts.

A compact lift is only as safe and effective as its operator can make it – often a challenging task, especially in awkward or downright dangerous situations. And as much as manufacturers of this equipment are champions of their brands and the equipment’s efficacy in accessing tight spots, they also are to a person adamant about the need for its safe and intelligent use.

“Compact lifts are often called to duty when other access equipment cannot provide safe access to an elevated work area,” says Ebbe Christensen, president and CEO of ReachMaster. “The most obvious reason is size, of course, where the compact lifts excel over the more mainstream solutions like boom lifts. Other reasons can be ground pressure and weight concerns, where the compact-lift category again excels by being lightweight thanks to off-setting reach capabilities with outriggers rather than weight. So whenever there is limited access and weight restriction in combination with a need for working safely at height, the compact lifts represent by a fair margin the safest solution.

“However,” he adds, “the incredible abilities and agility of the compact lifts come at a price: complex in nature from an operational point of view, they’re more fragile, more top-heavy and more sensitive to unintended uses such as overloading, incorrect setup or misuse as a crane.”

Christensen advises, “Whenever you use a lift, pre-inspection of the work area prior to bringing in the lift is the most important starting point, and especially for compact lifts. You should ask:

• Can I arrive, park and safely unload the lift at the job site?

• Do I have a safe travel path to the job site that corresponds to the maximum slope rate of the equipment?

• Will I be able to drive the unit through the narrowest spaces?

• Do I have enough set-up space for the outriggers in the required configuration for the desired work height?

• Is the ground solid and suitable for traveling and setting up the lift?

• Do I have to travel over sensitive surfaces to get to my work area? (The immediate deck around a pool is often just cantilevered off the main wall of the pool, with no structural support for heavy weight, whereas a larger patio deck may be supported by a solid slab that provides structural support, but can still have a fragile top slab).

• At any point, will the entire weight of the lift be supported only by a tiny contact area between the edge and the roller under which the track is moving? Generally, a track-based lift can travel on a soft surface due to distributing its weight over both tracks. That is not the case when it has to travel over some kind of edge.

• Can I safely set up the lift a safe distance from power lines, as well as secure the area below and around the lift?”

Proper support of outriggers always remains a key safety issue with compact lifts. Use good, correctly sized outrigger pads underneath the outriggers. Even on seemingly solid ground, it is a good idea to also use the extended outrigger pads. Photo courtesy of ReachMaster.

Christensen stresses, “These precautions may sound like both common sense and too logical; nevertheless, many accidents happen because the operator either brings the wrong equipment or does not have enough knowledge about the equipment he or she brings, relative to the surroundings.”

Outrigger pads should be slip resistant and properly sized. Photo courtesy of Tracked Lifts.

For example, he continues, “Any compact lift is top-heavy by design, so traversing slopes is a common reason for tip-over accidents, even if the unit has adjustable tracks that help keep the body of the lift level. Any proper unit should have an automatic warning and shut-down system, but for now that is basically only available on units operating on a CANBUS system (essentially a controller), not with simpler technology that may sound a warning but not stop the movement.

ArborCare PC, of Panama City, Florida, set up this UP Equip Easy Lift 87-48AJ around landscape obstacles. Photo courtesy of UP Equip.

“Another major hazard is power lines,” he maintains. “Because compact lifts can travel into areas where boom lifts and truck-mounted lifts cannot, they often can get a lot closer to power lines in backyards and alleys. Sadly, accidents happen on this account too often. The matter doesn’t get any better when some manufacturers promote the use of fiberglass baskets on non-insulated lifts. While fiberglass baskets offer better protections for the operator against branches and sharp cut-offs getting into the basket, it doesn’t change the risk of an operator believing his lift is ‘insulated.’ In the perfect world, all operators would be duly educated to know the difference between a fully insulated lift (of which there are very few compact units, and all with a relatively low working height) and a non-insulated lift with or without an ‘insulated’ basket. We can put 100 warning decals on the lift and basket, but we all know that doesn’t change reality.”

Next Christensen states, “Proper support of outriggers always remains a key safety issue on compact lifts, as the safety of the operator in the basket is 100% based on proper support of the outriggers. For the tree care industry, it is common to be on soft ground, prompting mandatory use of good, correctly sized outrigger pads underneath the outriggers. Even on solid ground, it is a good idea to also use the extended outrigger pads in case there are any hollow areas below (drainpipes, etc.) that an operator cannot see.

“Finally, thanks to the flexible outrigger systems on compact lifts, they can set up on slopes, which is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing when all safety parameters and standards are obeyed, because it brings the operator closer to the work area in a safe manner. However, it is a curse when operators set up on slopes beyond the safe limits, quite often because they do not differentiate between the sloping limits for driving and the sloping limits for outrigger setup. Sadly, the industry has not been able to agree on a uniform safe standard, resulting in units being set up on slopes that are way too steep without proper precaution,” Christensen maintains.

“A unit may be rated to travel on a 20-degree slope when the unit is entirely folded up and the mass (weight) is concentrated on the chassis. This is combined with a large travel surface under the tracks that provides the needed friction ratio between a moving mass (the unit) and the sloping ground to safely keep the unit in a stable position without risk of sliding. What happens when you replace the center of gravity (by erecting the lift 75-plus feet in the air) and replace the traction of two large tracks (belts) with four relatively small outrigger pads? Quite a lot, and now 20 degrees is no longer a safe angle, representing a high risk of sliding or moving, which is a worst-case scenario that can cause a tip-over accident.”

As Christensen explains it, “The main problem is that the units with the so-called knee-joint design actually can set up with a big vertical difference between the highest and lowest outrigger, but on level surfaces. These units are not just designed for the tree care industry, but for generic use, no matter what people may state. As a matter of fact, when the first compact lift was invented by the Danish company Falcon Schmidt in 1977, its use in the tree care industry was far down the ‘productevolution line,’ so the outrigger configuration was designed to allow for, say, one outrigger being placed on a set of stairs while the other is placed on the ground, all with the principle of the outrigger plate itself always being level.”

He notes, “When today we see the tree care industry use this great feature of ability to set up on uneven and sloping ground, conditions are rarely level for the foot plate, so the maximum incline a lift should be set up on should be much less than travel sloping, about 10 degrees. For anything above that, a level area should be carved under the outrigger.” There are choices to be made, Christensen says, “but if it is on a nice sloping lawn, the customer may not like digging it up to make 3-by-3-foot level areas for the outrigger pads.”

The flexible outrigger systems on compact lifts can enable setup on slopes safely as long as safety parameters and standards are obeyed. Photo courtesy of All Access Equipment

Christensen summarizes, “It all boils down to education and training – educating users of the equipment to fully understand the fantastic wonders of compact-lift equipment, yet also to understand their limits and dangers, of which there are plenty.

“As manufacturers, we can do more,” he says. “I currently serve as the chair of IPAF’s (International Powered Access Federation) North American Regional Council, and with the new ANSI standards out and conformity around the corner, we focus a lot on how we can not only educate the operators but also inspire manufacturers to provide better, clearer, more uniform safety information. These matters are not simple to understand and, with an industry that is characterized by very ‘hands-on’-minded people, it should be a strict responsibility on the manufacturers’ side not to ‘oversell’ the product.”

Christensen is adamant that certain points be considered.

“Any talk about ‘overriding’ systems is downright insane and should be totally eliminated, as you cannot take for granted that an operator is skilled enough to understand the risk and responsibility he/she takes on when operating a unit outside the preset safety parameters (which were established by the manufacturer for a reason).

“Make sure to better explain the difference between dynamic and static forces when working and setting up on slopes; driving is one thing, setting up the lift is a completely different thing.

“Encourage users to only use the equipment for what it is intended. It is not a crane, you should not use the lift to support cut-off pieces and you should not overload the lifts. The new ANSI rules will mandate the use of load cells (or other technology) in the future to monitor and limit the weight in the basket to the manufacturers’ settings. While it is bound to create a lot of ‘screaming’ from many industries, including the tree care industry, it is really a great and long-needed move toward a higher level of safety. The technology has been there for decades, but that is about as long as it has taken for common sense to prevail on this issue in the U.S.”

Mike Hrycak, president of Tracked Lifts, acknowledges that these machines can be “top-heavy” and echoes some to the concerns regarding tip-overs. “They have a tendency to tip over on severe side slopes if safety procedures are not exercised,” says Hrycak.

So, Hrycak advises, “The first step is to establish and ensure that side-slope or up-and-down-slope setups are within the safety parameters of the machine.” He explains that these parameters are published in owner documents.

Your tracks are your stability when traveling. To get through tight areas, tracks are drawn in. However, outriggers can be deployed as a safety net once through the gate or obstruction. Photo courtesy of Skylift.

“Establish if the ground is firm and will not give out under the weight of the machine. In certain situations, the side-slope angle may be within safety limits, but the ground may collapse and set the machine outside of safety limits,” he warns.

Hrycak says that to avoid a tip-over when moving the machine in difficult environments, “Deploy at least the downhill outriggers to within a few inches of the ground so the machine, if it does start to tip over while moving, will be prevented from a complete tip-over if it momentarily exceeds the tip-over angle, essentially catching the machine and bracing it from a full tip-over.

“There are a lot of misconceptions regarding these machines,” he states. “They are designed for extreme off-road capabilities, but circumstances also can lead to events that will exceed their limits. Consider a situation that prevents the operator from setting outriggers in place, such as proximity to a fence or structure, or needing to crib under the downhill track or make a ramp to ensure the machine is not set at an unsafe angle.”

Additionally, Hrycak observes that traveling over a curb can present a dangerous situation. He advises, “Approach the curb at 90 degrees, not at a slant, and always create an intermediate step (from the roadway over the curb), using a piece of wood, plywood or even an outrigger pad if the machine is so equipped.” He explains that, in doing so, you minimize the approach angle and thus help keep the machine more stable as it moves. “Always minimize the severity of the angle of approach over obstacles such as a curb,” he stresses.

Difficult, unexpected and short-lived situations are part of the business. “In storm situations,” Hrycak warns, “evaluate for exposure to downed or partially downed wires. In the worst-case situations, wires will still be energized. In post-storm environments, it is even more critical to watch out for dangerous situations like this than when working ordinary job sites.

“Bad terrain created by a natural disaster is much the same as operating on uneven terrain,” Hrycak observes. “If possible, put out all four outriggers during travel in case you do encounter a bump, root or depression that puts the machine outside safe operating parameters.”

He warns, “When you move through overgrown brush, the ground may seem flat, but there are inevitably bumps and depressions that may keel the machine off balance. Again, partially deploy the outriggers.”

Regardless of the job, Hrycak is a proponent of “always using an outrigger pad.” He favors using heavy plywood with the outriggers, especially if you are unsure of how solid the ground is, but “never deploy outriggers close to a retaining wall or embankment, because the machine’s ground pressure may cause the soil, along with the wall or embankment, to collapse.”

Here’s a warning that may be obscure and is often overlooked, according to Hrycak. “Never exceed published wind-speed guidelines for your machine. If they say the machine can withstand 20- to 25-mile-per-hour wind speeds and remain stable,” Hrycak emphasizes, “that should be determined by top gust speeds, not the average wind speed.”

An early and longtime proponent of compact lifts is Lenny Polonski at All Access Equipment, who has a lot of experience using compact lifts in varied terrain. In his opinion, “The first thing to keep in mind if you are going to operate in difficult situations is that you need machines with very large outriggers, which allows you to keep level in steep terrain.”

Average machines, he maintains, can level only 8-10 inches, but those with bigger outriggers can adjust the level up to 43 inches. “Our machines, which level from 39-43 inches, have larger outriggers that give you a significant advantage on uneven terrain … more safety and security,” Polonski says.

Furthermore, he states, “Our lifts are designed to self-level up to 19 degrees, which is a 34% grade, which is significant when you consider that is four times the steepest grade in the U.S. highway system.”

He adds that automatic chassis-leveling capacity makes it easier to set up on a slope. “What could take you a half-hour to do manually takes about five seconds to achieve automatically.”

Andy Price, market manager for tree care at Altec Industries, says, “It’s important to read the owner’s manual and to follow its instructions.

“This is especially true when it comes to setting your machine in place,” Price says.

According to Price, “The Altec TDA58 is rated for use on a 15-degree slope front to back or for 10 degrees side to side.”

Price says before you operate your machine, “you must examine the area around where you set up to make sure there are no rocks, stumps or debris for the outriggers to hit.

“Likewise,” he continues, “it is important to inspect for hidden holes and ditches and to ensure the ground under the outriggers is solid – no septic covers – so they do not sink in.”

Price also emphasized the importance of watching out for any overhead impediments.

“It is so easy to be concerned with looking at the ground setup that one does not look up. The TDA58, for example, is fully insulated, but even with the protection, it is always important to do everything you can so as not to hit a power line.”

Andrew Jarmoszuk, manager of sales and marketing for Skylift, takes a broader view, stating, “Each set-up scenario is unique to some extent, but there are issues common to all setups. For example, you always have to worry about traveling, angles of approach and setup.”

For the tree care industry, Skylift makes the chassis and lift carrier and installs Versalift assemblies with working heights from 37 to 64 feet that are sold through distributors such as Custom Truck One Source and Versalift, but also sells finished Skylift units, according to Jarmoszuk.

“The number-one thing to remember with equipment such as our backyard lifts is that your tracks are your stability when traveling. To get through tight areas, tracks are drawn in. However, outriggers can be deployed as a safety net once through the gate or obstruction. As soon as you get through a gate or other obstruction, the tracks need to be extended to their most stable position. That is why there are alarms on the tracks, to remind operators the tracks are retracted. The only time they are to be drawn in is to get through tight areas,” he stresses.

He adds, “Make sure you know your surroundings and never stand on the low side of a machine on a grade in case the ground shifts. This is especially important in environments with a lot of debris. Always work uphill of the machine.

“Make sure you know and stay within the approved traveling angles of your machine shown on its display. There are readouts on the machine and information is in the owner’s manual,” Jarmoszuk continues. “You do not want to set up with too great an angle even with the boom stowed, and note that each machine has slightly different limits, so get to know them.”

It is important, Jarmoszuk notes, “to make sure you plan your way in and out of a job and how you will set up. Don’t wing it. Know the soft areas and walk the property, looking for soft or marshy areas, loose rocks and debris.”

Jarmoszuk says he is involved in numerous in-service trainings and demonstrations and has been through a lot of situations. “One thing I can say in all of those scenarios is to go slow. Don’t go fast or be jerky with the machine. Going slow makes it easier to control.”

The main point here is to acknowledge that, while the mini, compact or tracked lifts are a boon to the tree care professional, one has to be alert as with using any machine – especially in tight spots, figuratively and literally.

It is so easy to be concerned with looking at the ground setup that one does not look up. Be vigilant so as not to hit overhead obstacles. Photo courtesy of Altec.

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