Articles & Case Studies

Taking the strain out of gully cover handling

Posted: Monday 13th October 2008

An innovative solution for lifting gully and drain covers has been developed by Penny Hydraulics in conjunction with Atkins Highway Services to eliminate the need for manual handling of these heavy grids. Trials with the prototype completed by Atkins’ Somerset Highways Commission at the end of 2007 suggest that staff can now clear more gullies in the same period, more safely and with no need for manual handling. Atkins’ Somerset Commission has now placed an order to equip its entire fleet of gully tankers with the new device, known as the Penny Hydraulics Grid Lift.

“We are committed to significantly reducing the number of work related injuries year on year and the Grid Lift is really going to help,” says Simon White, Network Contract Commission Manager at Atkins Somerset. “It lifts the full range of covers in an effortless and controlled manner and has ended repetitive manual handling. From what I can see there is nothing else like it on the market.”

Atkins is the network service provider for Somerset County Council with responsibility for emptying the county’s 132,000 gullies. Its fleet of six specialist tanker vehicles cleans and empties gullies on a regular basis. Each vehicle and its two-man crew needs to inspect and clear around 26,000 gullies a year, a daily average of 85. At each gully the cover has to be lifted off to provide access for cleaning and then replaced before the vehicle moves on. In the past the covers, which can weigh up to 100kg, had to be lifted by hand using basic tools and levers. Atkins Somerset recognised that historically around 20 per cent of its reportable “over three day” workforce injuries were related to gully operations. Most of these were back injuries but about one third were related to hands and fingers. It was clear that reducing manual handling would cut the number of injuries.

“We had a real concern about the manual handling of gully covers based on risk assessments and injury statistics,” says Simon White. “Like the rest of the industry we ask our crews to lift and replace around eighty to one hundred covers a day, each weighing between 10kg and 100kg. In effect each crew was lifting around four tonnes of ironwork a day, five days a week. This was not good for backs, arms, shoulders or trapped fingers.”

Atkins’ Somerset Commission had previously worked with Penny Hydraulics when the load handling equipment specialist had supplied 45 of its Swing Lift Kerb Lift cranes for lifting kerb stones and similar items on and off highways maintenance vehicles. The contractor was keen to involve its workforce in finding a solution for handling the gully covers. Informal discussions highlighted scepticism about mechanical handling among operatives who believed that the winch based lifters fitted as standard to their vehicles were not up to the job. Staff reported that these devices were slow and cumbersome to use and could be potentially dangerous if the wire rope became detached under tension.

The health and safety team at Atkins and the company’s fleet services division, Atkins Transport Management (ATM), asked one of their tanker crews, Eryl Bale and Neil Forrester, to attend meetings and give their opinions as they had experienced strained backs and shoulders in the past. ATM then asked Penny Hydraulics if they could work together to find a suitable solution based on their ideas.

“I had a few ideas about what would and wouldn’t work and sketched these out on paper,“ says Eryl Bale.

Penny Hydraulics devised a design based on two hydraulic rams, one mounted horizontally to extend and retract the lifter and one mounted vertically to lift and lower the gully lid. The unit is mounted laterally on the tanker’s chassis and can pivot through a small arc which allows the cover to be moved aside for easy access and cleaning of the gully. One of the main challenges was to work out how the new device would pick up the gully cover. The solution was to design a small frame which locks into place on the end of the vertical arm and then attaches to the gully cover by simple twist clips that can accommodate castings with different profiles.

“We have a lot of experience working with customers to devise solutions based on their unique requirements,” says Rob Thomson, Area Sales Manager at Penny Hydraulics. “The hydraulic arm presented a relatively complex design issue but this is our area of expertise. The tricky bit was designing a suitable grapple that would connect to the range of gully covers used in Somerset. We went out on site to understand what was needed.”

The resulting prototype was fitted to a new gully tanker purchased by Atkins Somerset during 2007 and taken through extensive field trials. These showed that the new device had great potential and would enable a crew to clear each gully in an average of around two minutes. The Grid Lift can lift up to 500kg but this is restricted to 300kg for normal operations. A remote control key pad allows the tanker crew to stand safely away from any moving parts during lifting and lowering. The hydraulic mechanism provides smooth, precise and accurate movements for the best possible combination of performance and safety. Two independent locking pins secure the device safely in the retracted position when the vehicle is moving.

“We were really impressed with the prototype,” says Simon White. “It is much safer but there has been minimal impact on productivity. It has also been useful in un-seizing covers that are stuck fast which in the past have been a major cause of strained backs.”

During the trial Eryl Bale and the ATM team identified a number of potential improvements that were then introduced by Penny Hydraulics to produce the first production model in January 2008. These included extending the reach of the device by 300mm (12in) and increasing the amount of lateral pivot slightly to make it easier to access and handle covers at the roadside, shortening the grapple to make it easier to handle, repositioning the clip for the remote control handset for greater convenience, and replacing the black finish of the moving parts with a distinctive metallic coating that will deteriorate less under arduous working conditions.

“I really noticed the difference when I had to use one of the older vehicles while the new tanker was being modified,” says Eryl Bale. “After the first day my back was aching again so I was really pleased when the new vehicle was ready. Hopefully other operatives around the country will have a chance to benefit from this device.”

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