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Improvements in aerial equipment bolster safety and enable sign mechanics to work more efficiently.

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DURING MY EARLIER career as a sign mechanic, I had a couple of close calls when crane operators inadvertently swung a suspended sign against my ladder, nearly toppling it. I also recall a tragic incident in which a mechanic who worked for a nearby sign company was killed when a gust of wind collapsed his portable scaffold. These experiences underscore the necessity of aerial devices that provide stable, fixed platforms and remote controls.

Sign mechanics typically perform operations that involve pushing, pulling and lifting objects from their work positions. For these reasons, ladders or scaffolds are not ideal for many sign projects. Even simple operations (e.g. drilling or hammering) can be more difficult and time-consuming when working without both hands free. Furthermore, the need to periodically stop work to reposition portable ladders or scaffolds translates to more time and effort on the job.

In the past, a sign company might typically dispatch a crane truck along with a separate bucket truck to perform an installation project – even in cases when the signs to be installed were relatively small and lightweight. Alternatively, the sign company might dispatch only a crane truck equipped with portable ladders or scaffolds. The same equipment options also have commonly been chosen for operations such as replacing large, plastic faces in existing signs.

But handling sign projects in this manner entails significant drawbacks. In the first case, the sign company might need to tie up two trucks for the entire workday, even though the crane truck might be used only briefly on the job. And when the sign company opts to dispatch only a crane truck, then workers must deal with the disadvantages of freestanding ladders or scaffolds.

installation of large, heavy signs

Projects involving installations of large, heavy signs heighten the importance of equipment which incorporates larger and more-stable work platforms.

TRENDS AFFECTING EQUIPMENT NEEDS

While years ago, any experienced sign-company employee was permitted to operate cranes, today’s rules are considerably more stringent. OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) now requires operators to be certified when using any material-handling device rated to lift more than 2,000 lbs. For certification, operators must attend classes conducted by an accredited crane-operator testing organization and pass a written and practical exam.

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While sign company owners throughout the US largely have adapted to the requirements for crane operator certification, they might be less familiar with the OSHA requirements for cranes used to lift personnel. OSHA requires that operators conduct trial lifts and proof tests with test weights before lifting personnel in machines certified to the ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers) B30.5 standard for mobile cranes. This requirement applies to cranes and dual-purpose machines (those usable as aerial lifts or cranes) which are certified to both the ANSI (American National Standards Institute) A92.2 (aerial) and ASME B30.5 (crane) standards.

Another significant challenge affecting sign company operations involves the distinction between trucks requiring the driver to maintain a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) and those which do not. This requirement is based on the truck’s gross vehicle weight and frequently creates job-scheduling difficulties for sign companies, particularly for smaller firms that might employ only one or two CDL-qualified employees. It’s a struggle for sign companies to find employees in today’s labor market that possess the requisite experience and skills for sign installation work – and who also are CDL-qualified. For this reason, many sign companies prefer equipment that can be installed on truck chassis light enough that their employees don’t require CDLs.

Kurt Stoner, president of Stoner Graphix Inc. (Hummelstown, PA), has been using Elliott’s M43 HiReach equipment on various sign projects for three years. “In the past, we always used one-man, articulating bucket trucks,” Stoner said. “But the need to have two workers in the basket seems quite common for us on our larger projects. Also, the limited reach and stability of the single-man, articulating boom wasn’t efficient or productive because it was necessary to move the vehicle several times to complete a job that we now do in a single set-up.”

This need is reflected Elliott’s product line, which includes machines providing working heights in the range of 48-87 ft. (when used as personnel lifts), in addition to material handling machines compatible with non-CDL truck chassis. The firm also offers a broad range of accessories designed specifically for use with their aerial equipment to facilitate sign projects.

Equipped with the EZR Jib, a stowable, platform-mounted crane rated at a maximum lifting capacity of 500 lbs., Elliott’s EZR Work Platform is large enough to accommodate two installers. The platform offers access at basket level to connections for electric, hydraulic compressed-air power and more. Extendable sign forks are available for the front of the work platform to lift signs, channel letters and signfaces to the working position.

A contemporary trend impacting the sign installation trade is the substantial decrease in weights typical of the most common types of electric signs. In particular, the now-dominant use of LEDs in channel letters and cabinet signs has eliminated the need to incorporate heavy internal frameworks and lighting components in many signs. Such framing formerly was necessary in many signs to maintain spacing dimensions for fluorescent lamp sockets, as well as for attachments of heavy sign ballasts and transformers. Today, however, structural aluminum more commonly replaces steel in electric signs.

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Based on feedback from sign companies, a majority of all installation projects involves signs weighing less than 200 lbs. Rick Kinder, lead installer for Precision Signs (Austin, MN), uses the Van Ladder Model 3931-HDX aerial lift, which incorporates a maximum bucket capacity of 400 lbs. This enables a 200-lb. installer standing in the bucket to simultaneously lift tools along with various lightweight signs or large channel letters. The firm’s Chariot Bucket features sign-holding forks which rotate across a 130° range. These enable the installer to position a sign squarely against a building wall for attachment. Various bucket-mounted accessories are available that enable the installer to keep both hands free when installing signfaces, attaching letter-mounting patterns or unfurling large, rolled banners for installation.

Sign installers appreciate the advantages of aerial equipment that enable them to complete projects without the need for a helper. Having used the Model 3931-HDX on various projects, Kinder said, “They make a two-man job very easy with one person.”

The Van Ladder Model 3931-HDX equipped with the firm’s rotating Chariot Bucket enables one-person installations of many signs weighing 200 lbs. or less.

The Van Ladder Model 3931-HDX equipped with the firm’s rotating Chariot Bucket enables one-person installations of many signs weighing 200 lbs. or less.

LET’S BE SAFE OUT THERE

Sign installation work entails potential hazards stemming from the need to perform projects at varying heights. In particular, the ability to work hands-free from a stable, standing position affords a substantial safety advantage when tackling projects involving larger, heavier and higher signs.

To safeguard your employees and avoid accidents, understanding the proper way to use cranes and aerial equipment is essential. Perhaps the most important precaution when using a dual-purpose machine is that personnel are not permitted to occupy the work platform or bucket at the same time the main boom winch of the crane is hoisting materials. Operators should be trained to operate the machine safely, wear the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and follow regular equipment inspection and maintenance procedures in accordance with the manufacturer’s specifications.

The prohibition against hoisting objects with a crane’s main boom at the same time personnel occupy the basket/platform does not prevent usage of basket-mounted lifting accessories designed, engineered and rated by the aerial equipment manufacturer. For example, Elliott’s platform-mounted, material-handling jib may be used while working in the platform. Also, the various basket-mounted forks and work-holding devices available as accessories for these manufacturers’ aerial equipment may be used when baskets are occupied, as well. But in these circumstances, the basket’s maximum weight capacity must not be exceeded.

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In contrast to many older types of aerial equipment, today’s aerial-lift products offer modern basket controls affording smoother, more precise operation while incorporating safety devices that prevent boom or basket movements beyond machines’ designated ranges of operation. Regardless of these improvements, however, fall-protection equipment (e.g., personal harnesses and lanyards) is required by OSHA for any occupation in which personnel are positioned at certain heights above ground level.

Improvements in aerial equipment bolster safety and enable sign mechanics to work more efficiently.

Improvements in aerial equipment bolster safety and enable sign mechanics to work more efficiently.

PLANNING FOR THE LONG RUN

Having the equipment necessary to facilitate sign installation and maintenance operations significantly reduces the time and labor spent completing each job. Over time, these savings add up and represent a significant, bottom-line benefit. For this reason, users of modern aerial equipment typically find they recover their investments more rapidly today than in the past. Even more importantly, these investments pay invaluable dividends in terms of enhanced safety for a sign company’s field personnel.

Whether inside your shop or in your company’s outdoor operations, improving operational efficiency remains an essential element of the challenges in today’s sign industry. In these highly competitive times, aerial equipment manufacturers are offering better tools than ever before to help sign companies meet these challenges.

Bill Dundas is a 40-year veteran of the electric-sign industry, and former executive for both a national sign association and industry foundation.

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