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In the Worx

Vacuum Technology Promotes Safety and Productivity for Material Handling

A major task for most construction companies—whether they work on water and sewer, road and bridge, concrete or even landscaping projects—is handling heavy materials on jobsites. Safety should always be a priority, yet efficiency is also important to the bottom line. With the help of vacuum lifting technology, companies can complete jobs faster while keeping personnel out of harm’s way.

Traditional material handling methods include rigging materials with hooks, slings or chains. Loads, however, are at risk of shifting or coming loose. Furthermore, they are often free-swinging and difficult to control. Personnel must climb on top of materials to attach rigging. On the ground, it often requires several tag line operators to guide materials into position. All of these factors introduce potential hazards on the job and increase the risk of injury.

“Struck-by” and “caught in or between” hazards are two of the “Fatal Four” occurrences that have been identified by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and—along with falls and electrocution—were responsible for the deaths of 508 construction workers in 2014.

These types of incidents are often attributed to defective gear or equipment, hazardous locations between swinging loads and fixed objects, loads not being safely secured prior to handling, or improper use of a tag line. Falling objects, congested right-of-ways, shifting loads, swinging hooks and rolling pipe pose additional threats when lifting and moving materials.  

Vacuum Lifting Offers a Safer Way

Vacuum lifting is a safer alternative for material handling, providing many benefits over conventional rigging methods. Importantly, it eliminates the need for unsafe and time-consuming mechanisms such as hooks, slings or chains.

The principal components of a vacuum lifting system include a vacuum pump, a vacuum reservoir and valve, vacuum pad(s) and visible and audible alerts. A self-contained engine or hydraulic power from the host machine drives the pump, which maintains a constant vacuum in the pressure reservoir. 

When activated, the system pulls a vacuum between the pad and the object to be lifted, creating a positive engagement of the load for secure and dependable material handling. The vacuum seal will hold until the operator activates the release—even in the event of a power failure.

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Vacuum lifting systems are able to go in areas where people should not be. There is no need for workers to climb on materials or for tag line operators to work in close proximity to suspended loads while on the ground.

Given that crews do not have to stop between lifts to attach rigging, there is less downtime. Materials can also be lifted without displacing adjacent pieces and placed with more precision.

Systems are Customizable for Different Needs

Vacuum lifting devices should never be treated as “general purpose” material handling equipment. Vacuum lifters and pads are available in a wide variety of configurations, so it is important to choose the proper components based on the specific material to be lifted 

As an example, Vacuworx manufactures lifters with capacities from 1,700 lb. to 55,000 lb. The company’s standard pads start at 4 in. diameter for pipe and 8 in. by 12 in. for flat materials.

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A vacuum lifter can be used with multiple pads to accommodate different material types, weights and sizes, which in turn increases the versatility of the system. Vacuum lifters and pads are also available for rent to meet short-term or unusual material handling needs.

As with any equipment, operators should undergo training to ensure safe and proper use. Contractors should consult manufacturer's instructions to determine the regular inspection and maintenance schedules, and safety checks should be performed prior to each use to make sure the lifter and pad are in proper working order. 

Safety with Bottom Line Benefits

A 2015 study by Travelers Insurance, which evaluated more than 1.5 million worker compensation claims submitted from 2010 to 2014, found that material handling was the most common cause of accidents, accounting for 32 percent of the claims for all businesses and industries analyzed.

By employing safer material handling methods such as vacuum lifting, construction companies can minimize the occurrence of accidents while also benefiting their bottom line. When vacuum lifting systems are utilized as part of an overall safety strategy, contractors find that their costs are reduced by fewer insurance claims as well as increased productivity.