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FORK TRUCK NEWS – Time for diesel rethink? Health and performance improvements favour electric

Forklift health and safety issues are never off the trade press pages but has too much emphasis been placed on the safety half and not enough on the health aspect? The evidence suggests that the health side has been relatively neglected and therefore badly needs more public exposure and remedial action.

chazThe main concern about forklift health issues is the means of motive power – diesel and, to a lesser extent, LPG. To their credit, diesel engine makers have made great strides in cleaning up toxic emissions, though it must be said often only after EU legal directives. Back in 1996 the EU’s emission regulations, Stage I, were designed to regulate nitrogen oxide (Nox) emissions, particulate matter, (PM), carbon monoxide and hydrogen carbons from non road diesel engines. This year sees the latest EU regulation, Stage IV, coming into force to cut non-road exhaust emissions by 80%, compared with Stage IIIB standards they replace. Engines will also be required to use ultra low sulphur diesel. This latest legislation, however, is not retrospective so even forklifts fitted with catalytic converters and soot filters will still leave workers exposed to significant health risks, especially if working inside poorly ventilated premises.

Could, however, concern over diesel pollution in general be overdone and is there still an economic case for supporting diesel and LPG forklifts over electric? It might be thought that with all the legal directives to improve diesel emissions the overall level of air pollution should have fallen but the EU, it can be argued, has shot itself in the foot. In the pursuit of less carbon dioxide emissions to ease the perceived threat of global warming, the EU, unwittingly or otherwise, favoured diesel over petrol because diesel engines perform more efficiently and emit less CO2. But a by-product of burning diesel is nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and for more than 10 years governments knew that diesel was producing such harmful, potentially lethal pollutants. Even so, it meant that car makers switched heavily over to diesel cars, which now account for about 50% of cars and lorries on the roads compared with 10% a few years ago.

So how serious is the diesel threat to people’s health? The WHO says Nox is linked to  asthma, now affecting about six million in Britain and killing about 1,200 a year, with huge consequential medical costs for this and other pulmonary diseases, especially in children. Diesel combustion also generates easily inhaled fine particulates which probably killed 3,389 in London during 2010, according to the government agency, Public Health England. This kill rate equates with some of the worst smogs back in the 1950s. Latest research also shows that air pollution is arresting brain growth in children.

The health case for abandoning diesel forklifts, at least for internal work, seems unassailable but what about the case for diesel’s greater performance and economics over electric trucks? Technical advances in batteries and chargers mean that electrics are now at the same performance levels as diesel, says Matthias Fischer, president of Toyota Materials Handling, Europe. Recent examples abound. Mitsubishi has just launched a range of 4-5 tonne electrics, lift rates that a few years ago would have been shunned in favour of diesel. They combined high energy efficiency and high performance by using the latest AC motor technology along with intelligent chassis and components design. They use up to 20% less energy than previous models and can run for up to 12.5 hours on a single charge. Another example is BYD’s batteries using lithium-iron phosphate technology They claim 25-30% savings on operating costs and charging takes only 1-2 hours, compared with 8 hours or more for lead acid batteries. Add to all these advances the higher costs diesel manufactures will now have to face to meet compliance with the EU’s Stage IV emissions control then the future for diesel must surely look bleak.

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