The Heights of Sign Safety

As a sign shop grows and expands, it often becomes necessary to purchase a service truck to complete installation and service jobs. But before a sign shop employee’s feet leave the ground in a bucket or aerial platform, there are requirements and precautions that must be followed to ensure that they stay safe both in the air and on the ground.

“Any time a person is in a man lift, he is at risk,” says Randy Robertson, director, Sales & Marketing at Manitex. “Even though it’s the safest way to do the job, personnel need to understand the risks and follow manufacturer’s recommendations as well as local regulations when working elevated above ground.”

Choosing a Truck

Before purchasing a truck, sign shops need to ask themselves whether they’ll be using it for installation or service.

“For installation work, you should make sure to consider all of the accessories needed to get the job done including a main winch for material handling, a jib winch for lifting from within the platform, and tool accessories from the bed to the basket for hand tools or welding,” explains David Phillips, International Sales and Communications manager, Elliott Equipment Company. “For service, you should make sure to consider payload capacity and storage and look into non-CDL solutions out on the market to maximize your investment.”

Shops should also figure out what heights they will typically be working in as well as how much side reach they will need in a truck.

Just how those heights will be reached is also a factor, and shops can choose between articulating or telescopic booms. Articulating booms work well in confined spaces because they unfurl, bend, and flex over obstacles. However, these booms can’t be used as a crane. Telescopic booms, which are more frequently found in the sign industry, are more stable with baskets that don’t move around a lot. They allow for the installation of a main winch and tools in the basket, and they also offer more of a side reach.

One of the final considerations is weight. Shops should not skimp on the truck chassis if it’s going to be hauling a lot of weight in equipment and/or signage. “Make sure the chassis that’s under the equipment is adequate to haul not only the aerial work platform, but that it has adequate payload for tools, inventory, and equipment,” says Robertson. “It may cost a little more at the time that you buy it, but it will help to preserve the value of the equipment when you’re ready to sell it as a used piece of equipment.”

It’s also valuable to know how much weight a truck is hauling—especially as most sign shops choose non-CDL-rated chassis, which have specific weight limits.

“A huge challenge for a lot of companies is understanding what their truck will weigh when it’s operating,” says Phillips. “It just takes getting the truck to your shop, understanding how much weight you’re adding to the truck on a daily basis, getting it weighed, and knowing what your limits are so you can avoid expensive tickets.”

(Note: Most truck stops have drive-on scales where shops can weigh their trucks.)

These weight considerations also extend to the load the truck is lifting. Manufacturers stress that operators must know how much weight they’re lifting to ensure compliance with lifting charts and to avoid damaging the boom.

And guessing often won’t cut it—it’s better to know the exact weight of the load. Boom trucks typically have load detection systems, but most cranes do not, so shops can buy a load cell. The small device attaches to the tip of the rope and tells the operator how much weight is being lifted.

Another safety feature on new trucks is the anti-two-block system. A sensor warns the operator when the crane’s “headache ball” or hook assembly is in danger of hitting the sheave and breaking the line, which could cause the lift to tip and fail.

Shops should also be aware of the OSHA requirement going into effect in 2017, which says all operators of cranes with winches rated above 2000 pounds must have crane operator certification. “This new law is tied to the rated capacity of the equipment, not the job being performed, so even if the equipment is being used for aerial access only, the operator must have a crane operator’s license,” explains Phillips.

To avoid the need for certification, shops that don’t require the ability to lift 2000-plus pounds are de-rating their existing winches to below 2000 pounds. In some cases, those buying new trucks are not purchasing the winch at all.

“A lot of the users of this type of equipment are now buying them without the capability of lifting,” says Robertson. “They’re just buying it strictly as an aerial work platform mounted on a truck and they’re not buying the other equipment needed to make it a crane.”

Knowledge & Training

Aside from the upcoming OSHA mandate on crane certification, training requirements necessary to work in an aerial lift or to operate one differ from state to state and even job site to job site.

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“They can range from simple in-house training to specific training courses depending on local, state, and federal laws, as well as requirements of customers (certain job sites may require additional training),” says Bryan Wilkerson, vice president of Wilkie Manufacturing.

However all manufacturers recommend that sign shop employees working with a truck receive some training on the vehicle. And service equipment manufacturers and dealers typically offer training programs or can point shops in the direction of where to find a program.

“They need to make sure that the operator is familiar and trained in the proper use of the equipment and has read the operator instructions/manual of the particular piece of equipment,” says Wilkerson. “The operator will also need to be trained in fall protection and prevention. Also the operator will need the proper safety equipment, which will include safety harness and fall arrest system, hard hat, and other miscellaneous items.”

Safe Practices

Proper training and knowledge of the service vehicle can go a long way in preventing accidents, but there are other precautions a shop must take even before a job starts.

For one, daily, monthly, and annual inspections of the vehicle are a must. “Inspections really help prevent accidents and help ensure that the crane will last as long as possible,” says Phillips. “Daily inspections include the following components: truck chassis, work platform, work platform controls, boom and bearing, outriggers, under vehicle, hydraulic system, and addressing any issues that have been found.”

In between inspections, Phillips tells shops to pay attention to their trucks and how they’re running. “If something doesn’t sound right and doesn’t feel right, stop and figure out what’s going on,” he says. “Respect the equipment.”

(Note: Routine maintenance and lubrication on the truck according to the manufacturer’s recommendation is also important in keeping the vehicle running.)

Another safety practice is to do a site survey before installation day. “Planning your work will save you a lot of time in getting that work done,” says Robertson. “It’s a lot easier to go in there ahead of time with a passenger vehicle and do a site survey as opposed to showing up the same day the work has to happen and finding out I don't have enough equipment, I don't have enough reach, there’s not enough room to set the truck up where I need to be able to reach.”

On the site survey, shops should pay attention to overhead hazards like power lines. “Contact with power lines is the number one killer of people involved with cranes and aerial work platforms,” says Robertson.

For this reason, on install day, shops must set up their truck in a place that provides the aerial lift with safe clearance from power lines. “Maintain a clearance of at least ten feet between any part of the aerial lift and its load and any electrical line carrying up to 50,000 volts,” explains Phillips. “One foot of additional clearance is required for every additional 30,000 volts or less. Set up in such a manner as to allow for the boom to sway, rock, or sag and for movement of the electrical lines due to wind.”

Robertson notes that in cases where power lines will be difficult to avoid, it may even be beneficial to call in the power company and have them place insulators over the lines, or in rare cases, disconnect power while work is performed.

(Note: Weather conditions on the job site should also be monitored, as unstable ground conditions or wind speeds over 30 mph can put workers on aerial lifts at risk.)

When deciding on where to park the truck, overhead hazards are not the only things shops should look for. “Check the clearances above, to the sides, and the bottom of the platform when raising, lowering, and swinging the boom,” says Phillips. “The operator is responsible to avoid operating over ground personnel and to warn them not to work, walk, or stand under a raised platform.”

Checking below the lift also includes the ground the truck is parked on. The vehicle should only be parked on firm, level surfaces and never over a manhole or other underground opening. “Do not operate the unit near ditches or on muddy or unsolid ground,” explains Phillips. “If operating the machine on grades and side slopes exceeding five degrees, the outriggers must be cribbed with suitable material to allow for leveling. The unit must always be positioned to allow the unit to be re-leveled so that the level bubble is within the center marks. At no time can the unit be operated with the turret box more than two degrees out of level in any direction.”

The use of cribbing or outrigger pads is especially helpful in leveling the truck, and Robertson advises using pads that surpass the manufacturer’s recommendations. “You want to put an outrigger pad that exceeds the diameter of the manufacturer’s supplied outrigger pad by two, three times so that it spreads the load of the equipment out over a larger surface,” he explains.

Shops can purchase larger outrigger pads from truck manufacturers or suppliers like DICA. Some manufacturers even have an online service to help you find the right size pad for your equipment.

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The outriggers must be properly spread out before the boom or lift is raised. “The aerial lift is designed to operate with a certain stability profile, so if the legs aren’t all the way out or if one side is only partway in, and you work over that side with the partway in, you could flip it,” explains Phillips.

Most trucks now come with an outrigger boom interlock system, which prevents the boom from lifting out of stow without the outriggers fully deployed.

Once a worker is in the bucket, he should once again check his surroundings. “Any time an operator enters the basket, bucket, or platform, they should immediately attach their fall protection and also take a look around at what is above them to make sure that they are clear of any hazards,” says Wilkerson.

Overall, manufacturers emphasize that the operator of the service vehicle should practice caution and discretion on the job site. “Ultimately the man operating the equipment is responsible for his own safety as well as the people working around him,” says Robertson.

By Ashley Bray

Photos (top to bottom): Elliott Equipment Company, Manitex, Elliott Equipment Company.


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