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Preventing Forklift Truck Fires:

5 Tips for Warehouse Managers

Whenever high-powered electrical equipment is operated in dry areas of limited space there is always a serious danger of combustion. Each warehouse or depot will have its own protocols for mitigating the risk of fire which must be strictly observed by all personnel of whatever rank, and given the number of people who could be put in immediate danger by a sudden onset of fire, a company has an absolute responsibility, legally and morally, to ensure the dangers are minimized as far as possible.

The role of the warehouse manager in keeping his staff safe is twofold; firstly, to implement practical policies and ensure all personnel are properly trained to take measures to avoid the risk of fire; and secondly, to escalate matters of concern to the SHEQ or Health & Safety Manager when appropriate.

In addition to this, there are enormous financial and commercial costs to consider, including the impact on insurance, disruption of supply, legal liabilities and loss of reputation; these considerations are shared among managers of other departments, directors and board members. The warehouse manager’s foremost concern is for the safety and wellbeing of his workforce.

To this end, there are some ways you can ensure that your staff are safeguarded from these hazards.

1 Ensure battery cables are stored and checked correctly

Battery cables should be stored apart from other materials and in a place they will not be inadvertently tampered with. This is to prevent the risk of them being damaged when not in use. Cables usually are encased in a fire-resistant covering that prevents them from sparking; however, if this casing is damaged, sparks may emit from the cable when put in use, and, if they fall upon something flammable, a fire is likely to ensue.

Even adequate storage does not eliminate the need to inspect cables before and after every use. It’s crucial that everyone involved in forklift operation is trained to know how to inspect cables to ensure the casing is fully intact, and what to do if a defect is found. All staff members should be fully aware of how to report a defect and escalate it, and a robust reporting system should be implemented by the warehouse manager. If it is the responsibility of one properly trained and qualified individual to check all cables in this way, that authorized person should have access to a digital system which enables them to photograph, sign, and upload all visible defects to an online control dashboard; the warehouse manager, at the touch of a button, will see all reported defects and can act on them as appropriate.

2 Implement a rigorous cleaning regime

Forklift trucks come into contact with diverse substances in the course of a day, ranging from industrial leakage to fuel, product spillages to oil, and many more. It’s critical that a cleaning regime is in place to ensure the machines and equipment are not being operated while spattered with flammable liquids. A buildup of flammable materials poses great bodily risk to the operative and those in the immediate vicinity.

Operatives should be aware of the requirement to clean the machine they are using, how often, and the method for doing so. An effective strategy is to employ a rota system, which will display times of cleaning, which vehicle was cleaned, and the name of the individual who did so. A foolproof system, more for the benefit of the warehouse manager, would be to log this information digitally, using an online compliance system. This system could likewise be accessed by other managers. Operatives should also keep logs of cleaning for their own records. A simple record book can be used for this purpose.

3 Ensure your system of work in relation to LPG forklift trucks is crystal clear

Some operatives undergo their training and test on diesel- or battery-powered forklifts, so it is often the case that they employ the same habits of mind when using LPG vehicles. However, there is one area in which it is crucial the operative of such a vehicle reassesses his actions to avoid a potential accident.

As reported recently by the Health & Safety Executive, there have been numerous instances across the country of fires relating to the misuse of LPG trucks. The cause in most cases has been in the build-up of deposits in the vaporiser units, flow regulators and shut-off valves of these vehicles. When this occurs, the truck fails to start.

Repeated attempts to engage the starter motor can result in the release of unburned LPG, which can ignite and set fire to the vehicle.

The proper procedure for dealing with this situation is not to repeatedly try to start the truck, but to remove oneself from it, close the shut-off valve, and secure the truck so that no further attempts to start it are made. The operative is then to immediately report it to you as the warehouse manager; the truck is not to be used until it has been approved by a qualified forklift engineer for service.

4 Implement a strict procedure for the charging of lead acid batteries

Electric forklift trucks are becoming an increasingly popular choice for warehouse and purchasing managers due to their versatility; unlike diesel-powered trucks, they can be used in confined spaces for long periods and pose a minimized health risk to warehouse personnel.

One of the drawbacks, however, besides the greater price and shorter lifespan, of the battery-powered FLT is that a rigid procedure for charging them must be observed to avoid the potential of fire.

Ideally, the charging of lead acid batteries should take place in a separate building constructed of non-combustible materials and which is used solely for this purpose. Where this is impractical, charging must be undertaken in a designated area kept entirely free of flammable products or equipment. A clearance area of at least 1.5m must be maintained between the battery and the truck, and adequate barriers must be erected to prevent tampering.

The battery itself should be mounted on a non-combustible stand of at least 0.5m; alternatively, if the wall is made of non-combustible material, the battery may be wall-mounted.

An explosion risk is presented by the hydrogen that may be emitted from the batteries as they are being charged. The manufacturer’s guidelines and always to be consulted to determine whether the area boasts adequate ventilation.

5 Take extra precautions with lithium-ion battery-powered forklift trucks

An additional burden is placed on the warehouse manager by the use of trucks with lithium-ion batteries. This is because when the lithium-ion cell reaches high temperatures, which will often come about through continuous use or overcharging, the structure of the metal oxides is damaged, which will result in a high energy release that will cause the electrolyte fluid to boil. This in turn produces an extremely flammable gas. If the temperature continues to rise to the flash point, thermal runaway begins. The resultant fire is very difficult to extinguish, as the ion cells produce oxygen by themselves.

For this reason, it is crucial that a warehouse manager takes the following measures. One, never have the batteries charged when the premises are unattended. Charging equipment must be maintained by a contracted and approved service provider, and the batteries must be approved for use by the manufacturer of the vehicle. The batteries themselves are to be inspected at intervals recommended by the battery manufacturer.

Damaged batteries must be removed immediately and taken to a distance of no less than 10m from the building. Spare batteries are to be kept in a designed cabinet which is built to provide no less than 60 minutes of fire protection.

Extinguishers designed specifically for use against lithium-ion fires are to be made available to fire wardens and appropriate members of staff, and training must be delivered to these personnel by an approved fire safety tutor.

In Summary

Of course, to support all of these protocols you must ensure all staff are trained to perform their duties as fluently as possible in accordance with them, with no loss of efficiency and in satisfaction of all governing policies and principles that relate to each element of forklift driving and associated activities. With this in mind, it is imperative all new employees are thoroughly inducted, and that refresher training for all employees is regularly undertaken. A customized programme, tailored to the activities, challenges and requirements of your warehouse, can be put together to ensure your employees are fully equipped to tackle their day-to-day duties in a safe and compliant manner.

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