Lessons in lift safety for the modern shop

April 7, 2023
Experts offer three ways to improve a shop’s lift safety program.

From our sister publication Fleet Maintenance

Buck Gasner has worked with lifts for more than 25 years, starting at Mohawk in the 1990s making two-post lifts. He’s now business manager for DEKRA Automotive Services’ machinery, equipment, and asset inspections unit, overseeing 11 lift inspectors certified by the Automotive Lift Institute. Gasner, who spent much of his career as an ALI-certified inspector, also served three terms as a class representative on the safety group’s board of directors. In short, Gasner knows lifts and has seen it all.

He’s also seen lift safety get a lot better over the years.

“I think we’ve made a lot of big gains,” he acknowledged, “but I definitely think there’s a lot more to be had.”

One area is in inspections, which the ALI recommends are done annually. Larger, corporate-run shops typically take lift inspections seriously, Gasner noted, though independent shops, who don’t have corporate motivators, haven’t really adapted to the importance of safety inspections.

During these inspections, shops will need to ensure paperwork, such as employee training, is up-to-date and the proper labeling is on the lifts themselves. [For more on inspections, check out this month’s lift supplement.] But inspections can only reveal systemic problems with lift safety. Attacking the root causes will help improve a shop’s safety culture and ideally prevent technician injury or vehicle damage. Gasner and other experts spoke with Fleet Maintenance to identify the top three. And one important note: advice here is meant to put you on the right track; but always follow OEM recommendations along with ALI and ANSI guidance.

#1: Focus on training

Gasner often gets called in to investigate lift accidents, and while ALI doesn’t track the data, he’s noticed one trend.

“Anytime there’s a lift accident, the most common culprit is operator error/training,” Gasner said. “And in the majority of my time, an operator error still rolls back to lack of operator training.”

One easy thing all shops can do is have technicians take ALI’s “Lifting It Right” online course, which covers spotting, lifting, and lowering vehicles, along with basic maintenance and maintaining load stability. The course costs $16 for the English version and $24 for the Spanish, and takes about 30 minutes to complete.

“A big part of that training is to know how to use that [ALI/ANSI] lifting point guide,” Gasner noted. This book shows the OEM-recommended points to position the swing arms on a frame-engaging lift. ALI released a digital version this year, which covers relevant vehicles from 2000-2023.

The web-based guide is in the form of a digital PDF, so techs can quickly search the make and model on their smart device. Gasner, who noted his vision isn’t what it used to be, said the zoom feature is particularly useful.

It’s also important to train on various types of lifts. For a frame-engaging two-post lift, a technician will need to know how to find the correct lifting points, while mobile column lifts, which raise vehicles via the wheels, have their own rules to follow.

“There are a lot more steps involved in doing brake, tire, and hub work on a mobile column, because you need to remove the wheels,” noted Tim Kerr, in-ground product manager at Stertil-Koni. “You’ve got to pick them up, set a jack stand, and get a high-lift wheel dolly to remove the wheel and tire before you can do brake work or hub work on it. And anytime you add any additional steps, you’re just adding possibly an element for human error.”

Kerr noted additional lifting steps will be needed to service electric vehicle batteries, which are typically positioned center under the body. An additional scissor lift will be required to lower the battery, which weighs as much or more than an engine or transmission.

“What we have right now is actually is a transmission jack that’s on wheels,” Kerr said. “It has its own hydraulic piston that would come up to meet the batteries and then lower that down safely.”

#2: Watch the center of gravity

With lifts, it’s important to remember what goes up can come down. This is especially true if the vehicle’s center of gravity becomes disrupted, which will cause the car or truck to tip over, at minimum damaging the vehicle and at worst causing a fatality.

“When a technician pulls an engine out of a truck, or drops a differential, then that causes a shift in the center of gravity,” Gasner explained. “The next thing you know, that vehicle flips one way or the other.”

When considering the center of gravity, a technician should be aware of how the weight is distributed in a vehicle.

“Some guys are not going to take into consideration that they just removed the engine and transmission, which is going to be about an 800- or 1,000-lb. shift in the center of gravity,” warned Steve Perlstein, president of Mohawk Lifts.

“What’s the safest thing you can do?” Perlstein asked. “It’s really simple. The answer is always lower the lift onto the mechanical locks. Just like your grandpa probably told you: ‘Never use a jack without a jack stand.’”

This keeps the swing arms from kicking out and causing a serious incident, he explained.

“High Reach Supplementary Stands should be used whenever adding or removing components to a lifted vehicle that may cause a shift in the center of gravity—or even when any extreme torquing or shaking of vehicle may take place during the vehicle repair,” Gasner reiterated.

These stands should be certified to the current edition of ANSI/ASME PASE, and should not be replaced by transmission jacks, engine stands or other unapproved substitute devices.

#3 Know your lift capacity

Just because a lift’s capacity rating exceeds the total vehicle weight doesn’t mean it’s safe to lift.

“I don’t know how many times a guy has called us up and said, ‘My 13,000-lb. ambulance has bent the arms on this 15,000-lb. lift,’” Perlstein said. “But the rear arms’ capacity and the rear end of the ambulance are what matter. Don’t overload the arms!”

Gasner concurred, saying that the total capacity on a two-post lift is equally divided by the four swing arms. A 10,000-lb. lift would have 2,500 lbs. per arm, or 5,000 lbs. per axle.

“We see a lot of times where a vehicle is 8,500 to 9,000 lbs. but you may have it break like 6,000 or 6,500 lbs. on a rear axle and 2,500 on the front,” Gasner said. “At that point, you are drastically overloading those rear arms.”

You should not just go off the standard model weight either.

“A vehicle may say that it’s 7,000 lbs. and you feel comfortable putting it on a 9,000-lb. lift. [Then you add in] the fuel tank, the auxiliary fuel tank, and the toolboxes, and all of a sudden now you’re trying to lift a 9,500-lb. truck on a 9,000-lb. lift.” 

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