Lifting Safety To A New Level

Backhoe-loaders and excavators are made primarily for moving dirt or powering attachments. But at times they are used in lifting applications, such as laying pipe or installing trench boxes. Using this equipment in such situations often makes more sense than bringing a crane onto a jobsite.

“Machine utilization, time restrictions and machine costs are some of the factors that contractors use for choosing an excavator over a crane,” says Michael Boyle, product consultant with John Deere Construction and Forestry Division. “The excavator can dig the trench, pull the trench box, spread the bedding material, set the pipe and backfill. The crane can only set pipe and lift the trench box.”

These advantages can bring profit and time savings to your company. However, rigging up your excavator or backhoe-loader for lifting applications also means taking on a new set of safety guidelines.

Built for safety

Manufacturers of excavators and backhoe-loaders understand that their equipment may be used for occasional lifting tasks. “We design our backhoes knowing that a portion of the time they will be used for lifting,” says Bob Tyler, product marketing manager for backhoes at John Deere. “On the backhoe, our PowerCurve boom narrows in the center of the boom for better visibility to the rear of the tractor. Our system pressure, cylinder sizes and component geometry make the Deere backhoes very capable in lifting and craning.”

Kobelco excavators also have several features that aid an operator during lifting applications, including Heavy-lift Hydraulics and Independent Travel, which gives the travel system one pump, eliminating multi-functioning loss of pump flow. “In craning, power and control are the most important criteria. Speed is secondary,” says Bret Berghoefer, marketing manager with Kobelco Construction Machinery. “The Independent Travel feature on Kobelco conventional heavy excavators separates the flow of the two pumps. One is dedicated to the travel system. The other provides hydraulic power to the other functions. This permits craning operations to be performed without requiring the operator to ‘feather’ the controls in order to maintain a constant speed.”

During craning applications with backhoe-loaders and excavators, a lift may be performed with or without the bucket mounted on the machine. “By removing the bucket, the operator can maximize the lift capacity and also improve the visibility,” says Rusty Schaefer, marketing manager at Case Construction Equipment. Case hydraulic backhoe-loaders have a coupler that allows for quick and easy hooking and unhooking of a bucket, with a lift point built right in the coupler linkage.

Caterpillar excavators work with a similar system consisting of a pin grabber mechanism that makes it easy for an operator to drop a bucket and pick up another tool. The pin grabber also has a convenient hole onto which you can hook the clevis. “With the bucket dropped, the operator has an unbelievably clear view when he’s lowering down to the laborers,” says Ken Karpuleon, demonstrator instructor, Caterpillar Inc. “Secondly, you’ve just gotten rid of 1,500 lbs. of weight, so now it’s much easier for your machine to pick that pipe.”

Load capacities

Every excavator and backhoe-loader is rated for a certain load capacity at different lengths of the boom and arm. Load capacities will change depending on whether the load is suspended across or along the undercarriage, the distance from the lifting hook to the ground and the length of the reach. Load charts listing how much your machine can lift in different situations should always be available in the cab. They are also included in the equipment’s operator manual.

Berghoefer notes that the ground the machine is sitting on can affect its lift capacity. “Consider the angle of incline carefully when making a lift,” he says. “A machine sitting on an incline will not be able to lift the same load at a given radius as a machine sitting on flat ground.”

According to Boyle, some of the most common errors operators make when lifting with excavators is they don’t check the lift chart before lifting or don’t know the weight of the load. In order to make your lifts as safe as possible, pay close attention to the load chart ratings and determine the total load weight. An operator must visualize how he will execute the lift in order to properly apply specifics of the lift to the load chart. It’s important that the bucket weight, or lack of a bucket, be figured into the allowed lift weight. And if the machine has an auxiliary hydraulics kit or coupler, the weights of those items must also be figured into the weight of the lift. The total weight being lifted should not exceed the recommended weight the machine can handle at its weakest point, usually when the boom is extended across the undercarriage.

“If an operator has been working with the pipe and the man boxes, he knows his machine, he knows the materials he’s working with and he knows exactly what the machine can take. The operators are really good with that,” Karpuleon says. But he adds that it’s a good idea for a contractor to go through a test lift if there’s any question about the weight of the item being lifted or the ability of the excavator or backhoe-loader.

Schaefer reinforces this suggestion. “Test the lift capacity before you start your job,” he says in regards to backhoe-loaders. “Put the machine close to the load. Use a cable or sling to fasten the load to the end of the dipper at the lift eye.

Lift the load with the backhoe so the load is 2 in. above the ground. Swing the load all the way to one side. Move the load away from the machine. Make sure you keep the load 2 in. above the ground. Lower the load to the ground if one of the stabilizers is raised above the ground or if there is any indication that the stability of the machine is reduced.”

Boyle offers some additional tips for lifting safely. “Make sure the sprockets are to the rear so you can utilize the heavier components of the excavator,” he suggests. “When lifting a heavy load, operators should place extra material under the front of the excavator track to compensate for the track settling into the ground when the load is raised.”

As for backhoe-loaders, Tyler offers these safety points. “When lifting with a backhoe, make sure the tractor is stable on the ground with use of the stabilizers,” he emphasizes. “Utilize harnesses heavy enough for the job. Lift items close to the tractor and close to the ground, then stretch out to where the item needs to be lifted. Lifting with the backhoe straight back behind the tractor will also improve lifting performance of the tractor.”