Previous articles in this series have addressed the importance of selecting appropriate lifting equipment and using it correctly. However, no matter how well designed, manufactured and specified, if the condition of lifting equipment is neglected, its safety and effectiveness will inevitably deteriorate over time. It should go without saying that all lifting appliances must be maintained in a safe condition. But while most companies would recognise immediately the significance of appropriate service regimes, implementing an effective maintenance programme is a wide-ranging process that requires careful consideration and planning.

As far as safe, efficient and legally compliant lifting operations are concerned, maintenance should be taken to include not only routine servicing and repairs but also effective storage procedures and a programme of in-service inspections and thorough examinations. The maintenance schedule provided by the equipment manufacturer is a good starting point but it certainly does not represent the whole story. The condition of lifting equipment should be continually monitored while it is in use and all operators should be trained to look for any signs of damage, deterioration or malfunction and report them immediately to the person responsible. Furthermore, a formal inspection programme should be carried out at intervals, in line with the degree of utilisation, the environment and the conditions of use. Less frequent, but more rigorous ‘thorough examinations’ are also likely to be required in most countries to comply with the national law, and even if this is not the case the LEEA would endorse it as a common sense approach to ensuring that equipment is safe to operate. The provision of appropriate storage must also be considered as part of the maintenance programme.

Clearly, in all these areas, specific requirements will vary according to the particular item of equipment involved and the application/s in which it is employed. As far as storage is concerned, in general terms the area used should be dry, free from potentially damaging pollution and not subject to extremes of temperature. Ideally lifting equipment should be kept in specifically designated stores that are locked to prevent entry by unauthorised personnel. Appropriate bins and racks should be provided and only heavy equipment should be left on the floor.

Particular care should be taken to protect equipment that has exposed screw threads or machined bearing surfaces that are liable to damage or corrosion. Special attention should also be paid to equipment that is returned to stores wet or contaminated. Bear in mind that chemical solutions will become more concentrated as they evaporate but care should also be taken with the methods used to clean and dry equipment prior to storage. The use of solvents and pressure washers can cause essential lubricants to be washed out or to migrate to areas that should be kept lubricant free, such as brake linings. Some solvents and chemical washes may also damage the material from which the equipment is made. Acid, for example, can cause hydrogen embrittlement of high-grade chain and textile slings are susceptible to various chemicals depending on the polymer they are made from. Direct heat should be avoided as it can also have a deleterious effect. If the equipment has been wet or contaminated for any length of time before being returned to stores damage may already have occurred. Corrosion can easily affect the operation of ratchets, brakes, operating levers, springs, etc. If such damage is suspected the equipment should be quarantined against further use until maintenance has been done.

The question of inspection and thorough examination, and the differences between them, can be the subject of some confusion. In the UK the Lifting Operations & Lifting Equipment Regulations require periodic thorough examination at either maximum periods or in accordance with a written scheme of examination based on factors such as frequency of use of the equipment concerned. Thorough examinations will be the subject of the next article in this series, but significant characteristics include the fact that they are conducted by a ‘competent’ person, are fully documented and may encompass appropriate testing to confirm the safety of the lifting equipment.

In-service inspection, in contrast, is a visual process carried out by what the LEEA has defined as a ‘responsible’ person – someone with sufficient knowledge and training to enable them to recognise obvious defects. Effective in-service inspection will identify signs of damage or wear which might affect a piece of equipment’s fitness for use. Although wear generally occurs over a longer period, damage can occur accidentally every time equipment is used, particularly to lifting accessories and portable equipment such as hand chain blocks. Frequent inspection is therefore essential. In larger companies, with a considerable inventory of lifting equipment, the implementation of an inspection regime is likely to require a planned control and issue system and colour coding of equipment, for example. Above and beyond both the formal inspection and thorough examination regimes, operating staff should also be trained to identify and report any obvious defects in equipment that come to light during the course of day-to-day lifting operations.

So much for the theory. What, in practice, is the inspection of equipment likely to entail? Using the example of an electric chain hoist, an inspection, conducted before use or at appropriate intervals, is likely to cover not just the hoist, but the fixing, suspension points and supporting structures. As far as the hoist itself is concerned, the inspection will need to embrace the state of the chain, correct operation of the brake, hoist, controls and (where fitted) the upper and lower limits, as well as a visual check for faults.

In terms of the chain, defects that would warrant further action include signs of wear, particularly on the bearing surfaces inside the crown of the links, links that are bent, notched corroded or stretched, failure to hang or articulate freely, an insecure slack end anchor or missing slack end stop. Furthermore, is the hook safety latch missing or broken? If it appears to be too short, this may be a result of the hook opening out due to overloading.

A number of performance tests should be performed; again, defects that demand reporting to the employer or immediate withdrawal from service include the load slipping during hoisting, an erratic lifting operation, the trolley skipping or skidding on the runway, damage to the electric cable or cable gland, damage to the pendant control handset, excessive noise or unusual sounds from any part of the hoist and travel and hoist motions that operate in the opposite direction to that indicated on the control unit. This may seem quite an onerous list for frequent inspection, but all are potentially dangerous and can be checked surprisingly quickly by suitably trained and experienced personnel.

The maintenance programme for an electric chain hoist is also likely to cover a wide array of tasks and will need to be conducted by a person with the necessary skills and experience. Of course it should be based on the manufacturer’s instructions, but the programme will typically address issues such as appropriate lubrication of the chain, checking contactors for signs of arcing and inspection and adjustment of the brake and slipping clutch mechanism. Crucially, where maintenance involves repairs to the load bearing elements of any type of lifting equipment, a thorough examination must be conducted after repair and prior to use. If certified spare parts are used, this may be restricted to a visual examination and functional tests; if uncertified spare parts are used, the equipment will also need to be re-verified, for example, proof load tested.

The consequences of failure to take maintenance seriously are likely to be wide-ranging. Certainly the working life of equipment will be shortened and it will fail to operate at optimum efficiency. Furthermore, the cost of emergency repairs and replacements will soon escalate and fines could result from a failure to meet legal obligations. At worst, poorly maintained equipment will lead to accidents, threatening both health and safety and the security of the loads in question.

For a real-life, worst-case scenario, admittedly not in the lifting field, one need look no further than the UK railways. The accident at Hatfield exposed abject failure in basic maintenance procedures by railway owner Railtrack, resulting in four deaths, more than 30 injuries, the massive cost and upheaval of subsequent emergency repairs and, ultimately, the financial collapse of the company itself. At the time of writing, legal action, including the possibility of corporate manslaughter charges, is still under consideration.