Telehandlers taking on lifts formerly reserved for cranes

Saul Chernos
December 03, 2015
By Saul Chernos
Caterpillar TL1255D telehander works at a coal plant. Photo: Caterpillar
Caterpillar TL1255D telehander works at a coal plant. Photo: Caterpillar

Telehandlers have long been frequent fliers in agriculture, retail, construction and other sectors, where they’re used to transfer materials as diverse as hay bales, pallets, and building supplies.

However, the last few years have marked a new, golden age for telehandlers. Thanks to the rising popularity of modifications allowing full-circle rotation, and attachments such as hydraulic winches and specialty hooks and lift shackles, these otherwise straight-forward lifting machines are taking on jobs more typically done by mobile cranes.

The breadth and complexity of telehandlers available for purchase or through rental companies is striking. Caterpillar, for instance, has eight different products in its current lineup. These include four with high-boom pivots, where the boom when lowered and retracted comes across the right side of the cab, and four with low-boom pivots, where the boom sits in the cradle of the machine frame.

Mike Peterson, a telehandler product specialist with Caterpillar, says the high-boom design has generally taken hold in North America whereas European markets have favoured low-boom machines.

The machines’ capacities vary markedly, as do their intended uses. At Caterpillar’s light end, the TH255C, a low-boom pivot machine, can lift up to 5,500 pounds. With a maximum lift height of 18 feet, common lifts include shipping containers in ports, large bins of grain in barns and assorted materials in commercial parking garages. At the other end of the spectrum, the TL1255D high-boom pivot machine can carry 12,000 pounds and achieve a lift height of 55 feet, just above the fourth storey on a construction site.

Genie-branded telehandlers produced by rival Terex Aerial Work Platforms offer similar performance. “Our product range varies from 19 feet in (lift) height all the way up to 56 feet,” says product manager Anders Mantere.

The smallest Genie, the GTH-5519, can fit into an underground garage and work in tight construction spaces. “It has a two-section boom and a hydrostatic transmission,” Mantere says. “It’s very manoeuvrable and can run typical telehandler attachments as well as skid steer attachments such as brooms and brushes.”

At the upper end, the Genie GTH-1544 can lift up to 15,000 pounds and achieve 10,000 pounds at the machine’s maximum lifting height of 44 feet.

Regardless of size, all Genie telehandlers can be fitted with attachments such as rotating or swing carriages, and starting this year all machines come with lift shackles, Mantere says.

Subhed: Deadly incident casts machines in the spotlight

However, it’s the more sophisticated attachments that can add dexterity and enable some telehandlers to do tasks traditionally assigned to mobile cranes that are attracting attention.

In June 2013, tragedy struck the Formula One Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal when a volunteer was killed by a telehandler that was using equipment, including a rope, hook and sling, to remove a car that had crashed. The 39-year-old was escorting the telehandler when he tripped and was crushed beneath its wheels.

An investigation by Québec’s Commission de la santé et de la sécurité du travail, an arm of the provincial labour ministry, determined the telehandler’s operator didn’t see his escort fall and kept driving. The commission ruled the method of hauling the disabled car dangerous and censured race organizers for using non-standard material handling attachments and for not sufficiently training equipment operators.

Sylvain Morissette, telehandler product manager with Hewitt Rentals, recalls the incident’s aftermath — it was his company that had supplied the telehandler through its rental arm.

“It’s very sad what happened there,” Morissette says. “It’s never good when you see your machine in anything like that.”

Ironically, an entire arm of Hewitt is devoted to training customers. “It’s everywhere on our website that we offer training, but in the end it’s their (user’s) responsibility,” Morissette says.

Indeed, telehandlers generally come with a detailed operator’s manual, and manufacturers, rental agencies and even third parties offer training that covers the nuts and bolts of the equipment and measures users can take to operate safely. Nevertheless, the mishaps continue.

In Britain in 2014, a company was fined after a telehandler overturned while lifting a pallet of tiles to a fourth storey roof, killing a worker. The U.K. Health and Safety Executive, Britain’s national regulator, concluded that space limitations and nearby obstructions left the operator with no choice other than to raise the boom, a manoeuvre that compromised the machine’s stability.

“He (the operator) should have been provided with alternative, more appropriate equipment and a better system of work,” principal investigator Steve Hull remarked in an official statement.

This past April in Fargo, N.D., a worker was on a hoisted platform alongside a load of shingles while it was being moved. The machine ran into soft, uneven ground and flipped over sideways, throwing the worker onto another telehandler and leaving him with serious arm and leg injuries.

While it’s widely considered a no-no to move a work platform with workers on it, tip-overs can occur for assorted reasons.

“If you’re not familiar with the load you are lifting and you’re not familiar with the stability of the machine you can easily tip over or fall off,” Sylvain Morissette says. “Users should be familiar with the operator’s manual. Every manufacturer has different functionality. No two companies are exactly the same.”

Some manufacturers, such as Caterpillar and Terex, don’t offer rotating bases and certain other attachments in North America. However, these are popular in Europe and demand is ever-changing. It’s also clear from incidents that have happened that users can get creative and fashion their own attachments without doing due diligence.

Subhed: Operators need competence and training

Regulators and standards bodies are paying attention. The Z150 mobile crane technical committee of the Canadian Standards Association is considering a proposal to include telehandlers within the scope of a mobile crane — when the telehandler has a rotating base coupled with advanced, specified attachments such as an electric winch.

“Telehandlers traditionally just had a boom beside the operator and would pick in front of them and just go up and down, in and out, boom up and down, and boom extension and retraction,” says André Brisson, chair of the Z150 technical committee. “But when they can rotate the turn, and basically take that load and go right and left without actually steering the whole unit, it can be considered a mobile crane. That’s the main reason we’re having the discussion.”

While labour regulations in Canada are provincially driven, CSA standards help chart the course. So, as Z150 committee members update the current 2011 standard to one slated for release in 2016, regulators will have new data to underpin their own workplace and certification rule-setting, and that could lead to crane-level training and perhaps even certification for people operating or working directly with certain telehandlers.

While the provincial labour ministries will still call the shots on actual regulation, Brisson says an updated standard “gives them a little more meat on their bone.”

Fraser Cocks, executive director of the B.C. Association for Crane Safety, says he welcomes the CSA review. However, while revamped definitions might change the face of training and other regulation, the bottom line is that training and individual competence aren’t necessarily the same thing.

“It’s becoming evident that just throwing training at people isn’t doing the job anymore,” Cocks says. “Training doesn’t necessarily mean that people have acquired the skills and are competent. It’s the outcome that’s important.”

Safety is also a coordinated, company-wide commitment, he adds. “One would certainly hope there’s a process whereby if a lift needs to be done it’s determined what the best piece of equipment is to make the lift, versus the one that’s the most convenient.”

Clinton Connell, branch manager with Eagle West Crane & Rigging, says he hopes any changes to CSA definitions ultimately ensure people operating higher-end telehandlers have the certification required for manoeuvring more complex lifts.

“Crane operators spend a lot of time in training and understanding the dynamics and physics of accomplishing those types of lifts,” Connell says. “As telehandlers effectively become a type of crane I don’t see why their operators would be excluded.”

— Saul Chernos

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