Safety First: Compact Wheel Loaders

Compact articulated wheel loaders are machines that require care when operating. These are self-propelled machines that are unique in their compact, rugged and maneuverable design. The use of an articulated wheel loader has inherent dangers that can only be eliminated with the exercise of intelligence, care and common sense. Machine stability is affected by the height and weight of the attachment, as well as load, speed, angle of turn, control movements, terrain and the width of the machine across the tires. Disregarding any of these factors can cause the machine to tip. Therefore, an operator should always wear a seatbelt and operate the machine in a safe manner as described in the operator’s manual.

All operators should ensure that they are dressed for the job. This includes heavy gloves, a hard hat, safety glasses and other personal protective equipment. Loose clothing or anything else that could catch on controls or moving parts should not be worn around the jobsite. If the loader needs to be transported to the jobsite, ensure that the trailer is in good running condition per its manufacturer. The loader should be checked to ensure the machine is properly secured, and all DOT regulations should be followed.

To assist the transporter in properly securing your small wheel loaders, most models have four tie-downs. Two are located at the front of the machine and two at the rear. These tie-downs should be used when transporting the machine on a truck or trailer. If equipped with a cab, the doors should be closed and locked to assure they remain in that position during transportation. When loading or unloading the machine, be sure that the trailer is parked on a flat, level surface. Ramps should be securely fastened and provide unobstructed entry or exit from the trailer. Always back the loader up the ramps when loading, and drive the loader forward down the ramps when unloading to ensure the heavy end of the loader is uphill. This precaution prevents tipping.

Once on the jobsite, operators need to be familiar with the site and its personnel. Operators should pay particular attention to potential jobsite hazards such as overhead power lines, underground power lines, gas lines and excavations. If work must be completed in an enclosed area, make sure there is adequate ventilation; exhaust fumes can be deadly. If entering or exiting an enclosed area, proper machine clearance should be verified. An operator should be aware of all personnel and equipment working in the vicinity.

Once the operator is familiar with the jobsite, he/she needs to become familiar with the loader. Understanding the equipment is the next essential step for safe operation. For the purpose of this article, the focus is articulated loaders; however, some manufacturers produce steerable axle wheel loaders which have drastically different operating characteristics. Another characteristic that affects loader operation is lift arm design. Typical lift arm designs include, but are not limited to, Z-Bar, parallel linkage and telescopic lift arms. Each type operates slightly different and operators should refer to their operator’s manual for exact operational characteristics.

A final configuration that impacts loader safety is the ROPS. Typical configurations are an open canopy and a fully-enclosed cab. Some loaders are also available with a foldable two-post ROPS that allows access through low entryways. The two-post should be returned and locked in the upright position before any work is started. Next, the operator should take a quick walk around the loader, taking note of all access panels, the hood and mechanical lift or tilt cylinder lock-outs and adjustable down-stops. The operator should also look for hydraulic leaks, frayed wires, loose hardware or other areas showing unusual or excessive wear.

After completing a thorough walk-around, the operator should enter the loader to review the features and controls. Typical wheel loader controls include a steering column/wheel, braking/inching pedal, accelerator pedal, parking brake, instrumentation cluster, hand throttle, electrical controls and a multifunction joystick. The multifunction joystick allows an operator to raise and lower the lift arm and tilt the bucket. This joystick may also control other functions like auxiliary hydraulics, travel direction and travel speed. Refer to the operator’s manual for the exact control configuration.

Once an operator is familiar with the features and basic controls of the machine, operation can begin; just be sure to perform any pre-operation procedures outlined in the operator’s manual. For instance, use a three-point mount when getting in and out of the machine. Adjust the steering column and the seat to the desired position and fasten the safety belt, ensuring that it fits snugly across the hips. To start the engine safely, the travel control switch must be in neutral and the parking brake should be engaged. NEVER attempt to start the engine or operate the controls from outside the operator’s station. Warn all nearby bystanders that the machine is being started and start the engine. Check indicators and displays for normal conditions, listening for any unusual sounds. Release the parking brake.

Articulated loaders are designed to carry only one person safely — the operator. NEVER carry other people on the machine or in the attachment. Always keep hands and feet inside the operator’s compartment while operating the machine.

Before getting to work, an operator should become familiar with the controls and performance of the loader. Drive forward, brake. Before backing up, always look to the rear and over both shoulders to look for other jobsite personnel and equipment. Shift into reverse and then back up. Brake, change direction and go forward, taking a few turns. Brake to a stop and get familiar with the joystick control. Raise the load arm. Tilt the bucket out and lower the load arm. Notice if the bucket returns to the level position automatically, indicating the loader is self-leveling.

To transport a load safely, lower the bucket to the transport position. Never drive or make turns with a raised bucket, as this can cause the loader to become unstable and tip over. When loading trucks or delivering loads, the inching pedal is a great feature. It allows an operator to slowly and precisely move forward. The operator can then use the foot throttle to increase the speed of the load arm and reduce the cycle time.

Machine stability is affected by several factors, including the attachment, load, speed, angle of turn and terrain. Disregarding any of these factors can cause the machine to tip. Therefore, always wear the seatbelt and operate the machine in a safe manner. Every machine has a rated operating capacity, which is listed in the operator’s manual and on the serial plate. Based on the tipping load of the machine, it is important to know that the rated operating capacity is reduced when the machine is turned. For safety, the rated operating capacity MUST NOT be exceeded. Overloading can cause the articulated loader to tip. It is the operator’s responsibility to be aware of the safe lifting limits of the machine and attachments, as well as the weight of the load that will be lifted and carried.

There are many attachments which can be used on wheel loaders. It is the responsibility of the operator to know if the attachment is compatible in size and power to the articulated loader it is mounted upon. Finally, when parking or leaving the articulated loader, never leave it with the lift arm raised or the engine running. Always follow the mandatory safety shutdown procedure, which is described in the operator’s manual.

Nathan Ryan is a product manager for wheel loaders at Gehl, based in West Bend, Wis.

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