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Note the brake pedal (middle) is depressed on this unit because the system has recorded that the operator has left the forklift.  (Photo: Devon Brooks)
Note the brake pedal (middle) is depressed on this unit because the system has recorded that the operator has left the forklift. (Photo: Devon Brooks)

The magic forklift

by - Story: 55289

Written by Devon Brooks

When he was presenting his prototype in Dallas, Rick Shervey, co-founder of Pro-active Safety Systems Technology Inc. (PSST), gave his spiel to representatives from 22 industrial companies whose relation to each other was that they were all covered by the same insurance company.

Statistics show a fatality costs an insurance company from $2 to $5 million, which is reflected in a client company's premiums.

Shervey and his partner John DaSilva, who are both industrial electricians, got the idea for PSST back in 2006 after hearing about a second worker killed in a loader accident inside of a month close to where they were working.

They set about building a warning unit that would alert people when they were in the path of a moving piece of equipment. Says Shervey, “We’d seen the need because there was no equipment [like it] out there and we’d seen people killed and injured.”

The numbers are significant. The Workers Compensation Board, in a report published in 1999, recorded 1,482 work related deaths over a 10 year period. Of that number approximately 35% or 519 were caused in industrial vehicle accidents. The WCB calculated that for every fatality there were 29 injuries.
Shervey’s company uses RFID (radio frequency identification) technology to provide a two-point ranging system (a moving gauge of distance), which is accurate from 70 cm to 400 m. Shervey says the zero to five meter range is the critical zone for preventing accidents and it is the short range detection that has frustrated previous attempts at making a mobile range finder.

Their idea is that every piece of equipment has a detector on it and every worker has a vest with a RFID tag in it. As equipment moves around it senses every worker passing in to the critical area, and reacts by sending signals to the unit.

The system can be tailored to suit almost any set of parameters. The test unit at the PSST workshop is set up on a forklift. An antenna broadcasts at a 30º angle to the front and back of the machine. If a worker moves into that zone the machine activates a two-stage warning light system and the brake.

Shervey says they searched through 7,600 patents to make sure they weren’t duplicating work done by others.

Kevin Fisk is the senior engineer at PSST and he says this is something that major equipment manufacturers have been after for years.

Asked how major corporations with multimillion dollar research budgets have been unable to do what PSST has, Fisk says most companies have been trying to do it using triangulation based on GPS technology. Fisk suggests, “If you go down a road long enough, you can’t get off it.”

PSST now has four patents pending.

The insurance company and its 22 clients were wild about the possibilities.
They weren’t the only ones. PSST has gathered nearly $1 million in grants, research loans and investment money over four years, including $350,000 in federal government Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) grants.
WorkSafe BC gave them another $247,000 in innovation grants. Shervey says it is very rare that WorkSafe BC gives a grant for product development, which proves their interest in this product although Shervey quickly points out WorkSafe supports the development of this kind of product, not PSST itself.
Still, he confides the women at WorkSafe refer to the test unit as the “magic forklift”.

The U.S. companies are under no such compunction about endorsement and are keen for a pilot project. The first pilot was done at Alcan’s pot smelter production lines in Kitimat, but now PSST wants a more robust test.
The next test will occur at a shipyard in Tacoma, the closest of the 22 American firms they presented to. Down to observe the operations, Shervey says they saw a perfect example of why these units are needed. With a carefully balanced load, an operator backed his forklift up 30 m, never once looking behind him. The operator’s attention was focused on the load, trusting that workers would hear his beeper and keep out of his way.

As Fisk points out, “A worker has to be cognizant of the operating equipment – [unfortunately] people can tune out six beepers.”

The engineer believes it is the RFID tag in the worker’s vest that makes the PSST system unique. Says Fisk, “When it’s your own safety device I think that will be different.”

The test unit actually activates the brakes on the forklift if someone comes too close to the machine, but Shervey says pilot projects won’t incorporate that aspect because it takes away control from the machine’s operator.
Still, he says if equipment manufacturers were to allow them access to the electronic control chips built into modern vehicles they could set up the system to activate the brake or reduce engine RPM (thereby reducing moving speed).

While the forklift is the source of the greatest number of industrial vehicle accidents, many other industrial vehicles cause serious injuries and deaths each year.

Notes Shervey, “We started out to make this work on every [kind] of equipment.”

There are several other benefits besides injury reduction. Shervey says he talked to a forestry company who pay about $25,000 in repairs each time a forklift hits the warehouse doors, which tends to occur twice a year. With a sending unit on the door, or posts next to narrow entrances (another place for frequent collisions) Shervey believes collisions like this could be substantially reduced.

Similarly, accidents where forklifts or loaders go over the edges of loading platforms could be reduced.

The final benefit was pointed out by the insurance company representative. The PSST system includes a processor, so if the operator of a vehicle exits the vehicle that is recorded. It can be set to prevent the vehicle from moving.

The insurance company says a frequent problem is that unqualified (and therefore uninsured) operators will sometimes get in the vehicles to move them. The PSST RFID tags and processors can be set to record the information, including qualifications and permissions. If an unqualified operator gets in the processor will recognize that and could be set to prevent the unit from moving.

The possibilities for the PSST units are revolutionary. The profound safety implications (with huge financial savings) suggests this system could be found around the globe within a few years.

For PSST it is one step at a time. At a rough guess, Shervey believes the units could be set up for as little as $3,000 per vehicle and $250 per worker. With a likely cost of $2 million for a single fatality, there will be no companies that couldn’t afford to adopt the technology when it gets on the market.

When might that be?

Shervey says, “We need approval from Industry Canada and the FCC [in the United States], but we’re hoping to start production within a year.”

Fisk believes it is possible the first production units could be ready by January 2011.

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