Not a Wheel Loader, a Dedicated Mover

Purpose-Built Machines for Handling Poles or Pipe Create a Safer Operating Experience

By Mitch Fedie

The material handling industry rightly places a lot of emphasis on safety. From operator training to various machine design standards, a lot of care goes into ensuring the work environment is safe. A particular challenge is to utilize the proper material handling equipment given the size, shape, weight, or quantity of the items or substances being moved.

Over the years, equipment manufacturers have developed several solutions to best fit a given operating environment or application. However, there are certain segments of the industry that occasionally rely on traditional machines when better options exist.

Moving Pipe and Poles

One such example is the handling of heavy pipe (for oil and gas pipelines) and wood poles (for utility or telecom lines), whether moving the objects around stockyards or placing materials during actual construction in the field. 

Material handling personnel have commonly relied on wheel loaders for this work, equipping them with fork and baler attachments for lifting wood poles or pipe. Wheel loaders have become known for their versatility, but what’s sometimes forgotten is that a wheel loader is primarily designed to move dirt. As a result, users have to compromise on certain performance characteristics when using it for a secondary handling function.

Meanwhile, there are dedicated pieces of equipment, such as rough terrain forklifts, that are engineered specifically for material handling applications like lifting and placing pipe and poles. These types of purpose-built machines offer a number of design features that help accomplish the task in a safer and more efficient manner.

Seeing Much More

The length of a pipe or utility pole is always greater than the width of the machine carrying it. This makes them awkward items to move, since operators are automatically put into a situation where the material they are handling falls outside the footprint of the vehicle they are driving. In order to maneuver safely, it becomes vital to have as much visibility as possible around the vehicle.

Whether moving poles through stockyard aisleways or handling pipe on a jobsite, transporting the load from one point to another generally requires the machine to be driven while its load is lifted up in the air. With a wheel loader, operators experience obstructed visibility under these circumstances, since the lift arms of the vehicle are located directly in front of the windshield. 

A safer design found on some dedicated pipe- and pole-moving vehicles – such as the Pettibone Cary-Lift – incorporates overhead lift arms that are mounted behind the cab, rather than at the front of the machine. When lifting, placing or transporting loads, this overhead arm design gives the operator full forward visibility of more than 180 degrees with no obstruction, which can prove advantageous when precision placement is a must.

Of course, when it comes to material handlers, which are constantly shifting and changing direction during use, rear visibility is also very important. Rear-view cameras are now commonly standard on such machines. High output LED lighting is another improvement. By better illuminating the jobsite, these lights naturally create a safer work environment.

Turning Stability

Another major safety factor when handling pipe or wood poles is stability. Operators need to be aware of the circumstances that can impact the stability of a loaded vehicle while in use, including speed, grade and ground conditions. There are numerous other factors related to the design stability of the machine itself. Weight distribution, suspension, wheelbase, and tires can all influence a vehicle’s resistance to tipping, even during completely normal operations.

The level of stability will also depend on the vehicle’s intended function versus its actual use on the jobsite. Looking at a wheel loader again as an example, in addition to the front-mounted lift arm obstructing visibility, wheel loaders feature articulated steering that is not conducive to carrying heavy loads and turning at the same time.

A wheel loader can lose as much as 50-percent of its rated load capacity when going into a turn. Because of this, drivers with sharp turns in front of them may have to resort to multiple-point turns, moving forward and back as needed until the turn is complete.

Unfortunately, not all operators are aware that the physical dynamics of a loader are changing when turning or otherwise maneuvering the machine. Simply relying on the vehicle’s specification data under normal use – and failing to make proper adjustments to the speed, load or turning approach to account for these changes – will lead to a greater likelihood of an accident. 

Personnel who work in stockyards where wheel loaders are routinely used might be familiar with the sight of a loader lying on its side with pipe scattered nearby. Of course, a danger exists not only to the operator in this type of scenario, but also to any bystanders in the vicinity.

Unlike forward reaching loaders that have an articulating joint, the Cary-Lift has a solid steel frame design that provides the ability to take full loads into sharp turns without sacrificing load capacity or stability. The machine also has a shorter wheelbase that allows for a better turning radius. A wider stance for the lift arms is another feature of similar rough terrain forklifts, providing additional stability when carrying long poles or pipe.

Some stockyards might rely on traditional straight mast forklifts, but these machines are designed to operate on a smooth, graded work surface and aren’t capable of going into rough terrain applications. Using an all-terrain, four-wheel drive machine is a basic necessity when driving along a pipeline project or moving wood poles during the utility construction process.

Another feature offered on some machines to enhance stability is hydraulic frame sway control. Vehicles with this capability can essentially level themselves and the lifting frame to a certain degree in either direction. This leveling action compensates for the irregularities of uneven terrain, helping to ensure operators are carrying a safe, stable load.

Safe Operation and Maintenance

Over the past several years, equipment manufacturers have implemented smarter operating station arrangements to help drivers work more safely and avoid freak accidents that can happen in a split second. Many material handlers use joysticks to provide intuitive fingertip control of the hydraulics for simultaneous lifting, tilting, and reaching. Ergonomics have also improved to reduce fatigue and help keep the operator alert.

A less obvious factor in the safety aspect of operating a forklift, wheel loader or other material handler is proper machine maintenance. When routine maintenance is neglected, there’s a greater risk that something could cease to function correctly, and these outcomes could lead to safety issues. 

Though maintenance is ultimately the responsibility of the operator or a service technician, manufacturers have helped the cause by centralizing the locations for lubrication and other service tasks, as well as making these areas more accessible. Keeping maintenance tasks simple helps ensure that machines are running smoothly and that fewer incidents occur while performing the service itself.

Pipeline, utility, and construction professionals are highly cognizant of safety factors and put forth an excellent effort to make jobsites safe. Manufacturers of heavy lifting vehicles are doing their part to provide better-designed, purpose-built equipment that fully delivers on speed and efficiency, while prioritizing operational safety as well.

This material appears in the January  2022 issues of the ACP Magazines:

California Builder & EngineerConstructionConstruction DigestConstruction NewsConstructioneerDixie ContractorMichigan Contractor & BuilderMidwest ContractorNew England ConstructionPacific Builder & EngineerRocky Mountain ConstructionTexas ContractorWestern Builder