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Fluid Power Safety Alerts

(Ref. No. SA-035)

The LETHAL STRIKE DVD is now available!


By Rory S. McLaren - Director

I have conducted a study on the mighty aerial-platform industry for a number of years. My study focussed on four areas of the industry pertaining to hydraulics:

1. Quality and type of training currently available.
2. Qualifications of maintenance personnel.
3. Current maintenance practices.
4. Diagnostic methods and practices
5. Availability, and use, of proper diagnostic tools.

I am afraid the news is bad - really bad! In fact, so bad that I would be remiss if I did not issue this warning, on behalf of the Fluid Power Safety Institute™, to all personnel whom, in the course of doing their work, "fly" any type of hydraulic powered personnel lifting machine (aerial-platform, scissor lift, basket truck, etc.):

"if, in the course of doing your job, you "fly" any type of hydraulic powered aerial-platform, your life is in danger."

Here's why:

"Illegal Technicians" -
One of the largest manufacturers of aerial lifting equipment in the world is reportedly "rubber stamping" credentials, which state that persons whom attend their training courses are "duly certified and licensed" to service, repair, and, troubleshoot every aspect of their wide range of aerial platform machines - including hydraulics (certification is granted on a machine-by-machine basis).

The credentials, while baseless, sport an impressive appearance. They consist of a credit-card sized document with the "certified" person’s name typed neatly across the front. Along with the persons name is a list of the respective models the person is licensed to service, repair and troubleshoot. The license is protected by a plastic laminate, which gives it the appearance of a driving license. It is sized to fit in a person’s wallet much like a credit card.

Little do the tens of thousands of people across the country who daily "fly" aerial platforms to heights exceeding 100 feet to perform their various tasks know that the people who work on the hydraulics systems on these "flying machines," in reality, have little or no training. They are "illegal technicians" or "imposters" posing as highly trained and certified technicians – through no fault of their own!

Failure is not an option! -
In my opinion the need for aerial platform technicians to undergo thorough training is arguably more important than that of aircraft technicians, if for no other reason than the fact that aircraft are generally equipped with redundant hydraulic systems.

Aerial-platforms have no redundant hydraulic systems. Many cannot be lowered in the event of an engine malfunction. Also, the aircraft industry operates on the basis of proactive maintenance - hydraulic components are automatically replaced after being in operation for a pre-determined number of hours.

On the contrary, the aerial-platform industry operates on the basis of, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” which simply means components have to fail before they are replaced. Consequently, the unexpected failure of a hydraulic component could cause a fatal accident.

History will testify to the fact that the chances of surviving an aerial lift accident are slim to none.

OSHA, MSHA, NFPA, and, NIOSH look the other way! -
Ironically, the only aspect of aerial platform activity that is regulated by the federal government (OSHA, et al) is operation – the machine operator has to be properly trained in all aspects of safe machine operation. However, OSHA exhibits no interest in the qualifications of personnel who service, repair, and troubleshoot aerial platforms, they simply look the other way (refer to SA-027).

According to insiders, rental companies are given autonomy by OSHA to train and license operators on their behalf. Once trained they are given OSHA approved certification. However, according to insiders, many of them "pencil-whip" the certification to please the client – or more truthfully, to get the rental! It’s all about the money!

Fortunately for the flying public, the FAA is looking over the shoulders of the people who service, repair and troubleshoot aircraft electrical and hydraulic systems, otherwise, the airlines, especially in their self-induced difficult financial times, would operate aircraft companies in the same manner as rental companies operate.

Here’s an account of what it took for a rental fleet mechanic to become a fully accredited "aerial-platform technician:"

"I graduated from a technical college with an associate degree in motor mechanics. During the course of my studies I never learned hydraulics. I worked for an automotive dealership for a number of years. However, I decided that I needed a change and applied for a job at a local rental company.

I worked on a wide variety of equipment, including aerial platforms. From time to time I was assigned work on the hydraulic systems of various machinery. However, since I had no formal training in hydraulics, I, like my fellow mechanics, figured things out by "trial-and-error." I always felt uncomfortable working on the hydraulic systems on the aerial platforms because I feared that if I made an error it could result in an accident.

Obviously, I replaced parts, which had nothing wrong with them - we all did. However, it never seemed to bother the supervisor, as long as the machines were ready to rent.

After approximately two years with the company, my supervisor advised me that he had scheduled me to attend a training course on one particular manufacturer's aerial platforms.

I attended the course, which lasted for about two-and-a-half days. The hours were from 8.00am to 2.00pm for the first two days, and, 8.00am to 12.00pm on the final day.

On the first day, immediately after registration, the instructor gave us a written "pre-test," the objective being to determine our "knowledge/skill level." Upon completion of the test he handed us an answer sheet, which we were advised to use to correct any questions we answered incorrectly - indeed there were many!

I was surprised when he told us to keep the answer sheet because the final test would be identical to the pre-test, and it was important for all of us to pass the final test so we could receive "certification."

During the course we learned about the safe operation of the machine. However, the majority of the time was spent studying the machine's electrical and hydraulic systems. I understood some of the electrical information because I had studied 12VDC systems in school. However, when he moved onto the hydraulic systems I was completely lost.

I could not relate to the various hydraulic components he discussed, and when he put the hydraulic schematic on the screen and started showing how the oil flows, I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about - I could not read a single symbol! The, approximately two-and-a-half hours he spent on hydraulics during the course, most of which was reading hydraulic schematics for the machine, were an absolute waste of time - I understood nothing.

Finally, on Wednesday, at approximately 2.00 pm we were given our final test. The instructor was correct, it was identical to the pre-test. I could not help but achieve a perfect score because all I had to do was simply copy the answers that were written on the answer sheet. There is no way I would have passed the test had I not copied the answers from the answer sheet.

Needless to say, everyone in attendance passed the test. We received our "certification" cards, which attested to the fact that we had successfully completed a course of instruction, and passed a written test, in the operation, maintenance, repair, and troubleshooting of a particular aerial platform model.

Amazingly, in the space of two-and-a-half days I went from knowing nothing about the hydraulic system on an aerial platfrom to being a "factory certified aerial platform technician," and, I still know nothing about hydraulics other than what I learned on the job!"

Untrained Trainers -
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the factory trainers are apparently themselves untrained. Graduates of this particular manufacturer’s course tell me that the instructors are generally unable to answer questions about many aspects of the machine’s hydraulic system – especially diagnostics.

Considering the fact that an aerial platform is, for all intents and purposes a "mobile hydraulic system," the total time devoted to hydraulics during the course is approximately two to three hours. Bear in mind that this time is devoted exclusively to the hydraulic circuit for the subject machine. Ironically, less than 5% of the students know how to read a hydraulic schematic! Very little time is spent on the most important aspect of safe aerial platform operation – component adjustment and diagnostics! The little time that is spent discussing troubleshooting methods is generally wasted because the students are reportedly taught to execute test procedures that contradict the manufacturer’s warnings about discharging high-pressure oil to atmosphere.

The unscrupulous rental industry -
Unscrupulous - this is a serious accusation! However, it is made after careful analysis of the giant rental industry. These highly profitable organizations rent equipment to people who rely on the safe operation of these machines for their lives.

Rental company fails to conduct proper inspection of machine -

According to a report in the Rental Pulse magazine written by Kim Phelan, Contributing Editor, "a rental company's failure to properly inspect an 80-foot telescopic boom lift resulted in serious injuries for an operator in May 2003. The job was installation of windows to a new portion of a commercial building. Working at third or fourth-story height, the lift operator tried to move the bucket closer to the building but other buildings on the site obstructed his efforts. Instead, he tried to straighten the boom to a more vertical position, but the controls were not functioning."

"His last resort was to extend the boom, at which point a 20-foot section of the extended boom suddenly collapsed, slamming the operator against the interior of the bucket as it sharply dropped. Cause of the collapse was discovered inside the boom where bolts on the chain were not properly attached."

"The operator incurred multiple bone breaks in his legs, which required surgeries to implant and remove pins; he also suffered serious back and neck injuries. Besides steep medical expenses, paid initially by Workers' Comp, the operator was not able to work for a year, a major factor that was rolled into the claim."

"Investigation revealed that the rental company, which bought the lift used, had not inspected the equipment according to manufacturer standards. A key component of the guidelines was an annual inspection of the machine with a list of specific functions to check. That inspection should have included complete inspection of the boom and inspection of the chain. The rental dealer failed to do so."

Most equipment operators have no idea that the vast majority of the work done on the hydraulic and electrical systems is done by trial-and-error. By people who are, for the most part, denied training for the simple reason that it "cuts into the bottom line."

Almost one out of every two aerial platforms built in America is destined for a rental company. However, the rental industry is well known for its priorities – profit over education!

Rental company again fails to conduct proper inspection of machine -

In the same article by Mr. Phelan, he wrote about a second incident in which a towable boom lift failed due to the fact that a critical safety device was purposely disconnected.

Mr. Phelan reported that "a second rental dealer wound up with a $1 million claim for neglecting to inspect the 40-foot towable boom he rented to a homeowner. The machine was purchased used and was not properly inspected before its rental."

"The homeowner's teen-age son picked up the equipment from the rental yard and received safety instruction about extending the lift's outriggers and wearing a safety harness. He took the lift home and began to operate the machine alone, following none of the safety precautions he had been given."

"His failure to extend the outriggers for stabilization should have triggered a safety mechanism that would have prevented the lift from operating. But that safety feature had been disabled, a critical point that would have been discovered and corrected if the rental dealer had performed an inspection. The top-heavy lift tipped over, and the boy suffered spinal cord injuries that left him paralyzed from the chest down."

It is easy to conclude that the work was not performed due to negligence. However, negligence can only occur if the person performing the work was properly trained and thus knowingly neglected his or her responsibility. However, one must also consider the fact that the work might not have been performed because the person doing the inspection was not properly trained to conduct an inspection in the first place.

Maintenance mechanics are "powerless" when it comes to making the final decision about the rental status of machinery. It is a well known fact that the Profit Center Manager (PC) has the final say with regard to the rental status of an aerial platform - even if the mechanic is strongly opposed to the rental because of a serious defect. It comes down to, "do the job, or I will find someone else who will!" This problem reportedly doesn't end in the service shop.

According to insiders, a number of high profile rental companies "pencil-whip" the mandatory employee OSHA training. In one instance a mechanic told me that the maintenance supervisor walks around the repair shop stopping at each person to ask him/her to simply sign the safety meeting attendance sheet. However, they apparently never attend safety meetings.

There is no industry that I am aware of that surpasses the rental industry when it comes to excuses for not training technicians:
1) If you train them they leave!
2) Too busy!
3) Too slow!
4) Too expensive!
5) They will want more money!

The real reason? – most Profit Center (PC) Manager’s bonuses are tied to the tool and training budget – I rest my case!

Less than 1% of the hardworking men and women who work as mechanics for rental companies are properly trained. Accordingly, the tens of thousands of aerial platforms, which are rented each day, are in my very strong opinion "accidents looking for a place to happen."

Sound Advice for Technicians -
Based upon the current situation with respect to the rental industry, you are inevitably going to be faced with an ultimatum, “fix it, or find another job!”

On the positive side, corporate America has created an unprecedented shortage of skilled technicians, so jobs are plentiful. If you are confronted by a “dictator” who’s only purpose in life is to make tons of money – move on. Find a job with a company with a genuine concern for your safety. If the company does not provide at least 40-hours of training a year, don’t waste your time.

Remember, the company hired you for your unique skills. Don’t let a “dictator” override a decision you make about the condition of a machine. If you are ever “forced” to sign-off on a machine which you believe is unsafe, do what a colleague of yours in Arizona did – sit down and draft a “waiver of responsibility” letter and have your supervisor and the safety officer sign it.

If you ever wind up in court because you signed-off on a machine due to the fact that an irresponsible supervisor “made” you do it, always remember that you are going to be the fall guy/gal – in the final analysis, YOU will be held responsible for your actions!

Conclusion -
Would I ride an aerial platform – absolutely not! As I told a group of "certified" aerial lift technicians whom attended my workshop recently – "you are the reason why I will NEVER ride an aerial platform." They knew my comments weren’t personal.

After attending my safety presentation, they admitted that their "certification" was baseless - it was simply handed to them by a company, which satisfied its own self-interest rather than that of technicians and the people who "fly" their machines. Incidentally, the hydraulic crane and forklift industries are in the same boat!




Graduates of the Fluid Power Training Institute™’s workshops carry legitimate qualifications -
Graduates of the Fluid Power Training Institute™’s workshops are the most qualified in the nation to work on aerial platforms. However, what they learn generally causes immense frustration back on the job. Supervisors rarely invest in the diagnostic instruments needed to perform what they learned in the workshop. As I understand it, the most common rebuttal students hear is, “you have managed fine up 'til now, why do you need all this expensive test equipment?

The aerial platform manufacturer’s instructor’s don’t help the situation at all. Their troubleshooting techniques – the few they know – generally collide head-on with mine. I have no use for the profoundly hazardous practice of “testing” hydraulic components by removing transmission lines and discharging the oil to atmosphere – a practice they generally recommend.

Incidentally, I might point out that their recommendations collide head-on with their own warnings about discharging hydraulic oil to atmosphere. The general tone of their warnings are, “discharging oil to atmosphere can cause severe injury, death, or, substantial property damage.

Supervisors will thus argue that manufacturers are better equipped than the Fluid Power Training Institute™ to decide what procedures to follow and which tools are needed to do the job – it’s a no win situation for the technicians.

“Fluid power safety doesn’t just happen, it has to be pursued."

Rory S. McLaren
Fluid Power Safety Institute

The Fluid Power Safety Institute welcomes constructive dialogue regarding our safety bulletins. Your comments are welcome.


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