It is a fact that many young truck drivers and machinery operators don’t realise how lucky they are compared to machinery operators of the past – cabin comfort and safety has come a very long way, writes Richard Campbell.
Safety features are a relatively modern consideration when it comes to earthmoving and mining machinery, the first ROPS (roll over protective structure) only appeared in the late 1960s and weren’t mandatory in the USA until 1972.
New Zealand lagged even further behind the world in this respect, with legislation making ROPS structures and seat belts a requirement only coming into force in the 1990s.
Not a great deal of thought was given to ergonomics on early machines and operators were faced with a multitude of levers and pedals to operate their machines.
Some of these required a good deal of physical strength and stamina to operate.
For example, just to engage the master clutch on a 1950-era Cat D8 tractor required a pull of over 10kg, and this operation was repeated every time the machine went from forward to reverse (which was many, many times during a working day).
Although hydraulic machinery operation was pioneered during the late 1920s, hydraulics didn’t really come into their own until the 1970s, and the most prevalent means of machine actuation was, until then, by winch and steel cable.
A great deal of skill was required to manipulate the various levers to achieve any effective result and the learning process was often long and hard, with knuckles barked, wrists sprained and fingers broken in the process.
Add to this scenario the scant regard for operator safety displayed by machine manufacturers who commonly routed highly-stressed unguarded steel cables very close to the driver.
The risk of losing a limb, or even decapitation, was always a threatening possibility. For that reason, many operators preferred to help with the maintenance of their machines to ensure their own safety and usually always did their own lubrication with a handheld grease gun and clutch of grease cartridges. And woe betide the operator who didn’t look after his machine!
Ear protection was not a consideration, with a great deal of machinery supplied from the manufacturers with exhaust pipes coming straight off the exhaust manifold and no muffler in between.
Many ‘old hands’ are now near deaf as a result, not to mention the discomfort this must have caused to anyone in the vicinity that the machines were operating.
The author well remembers stuffing cotton wool into his ears to lessen the bark from an un-muffled GM 6-71!
For many decades machinery operators relied on layers of warm clothing and a knee blanket during cold weather, and during the summer months a sun hat and bottle of water were a must. Umbrellas were often attached to broom handles roped to strategic parts of the machine to provide some shelter from the sun’s rays.
Seating was often in the form of a rigid bench or steel seat on a short pylon. Yesterday’s operator certainly wished that the manufacturer had provided a decent seat cushion to absorb shocks and more often than not supplemented with a cushion brought from home.
Operator stress from lack of seat suspension was recognised in the late 1950s as a significant problem and efforts to improve seating have been ongoing, notably by Swedish manufacturer Bostrum, an innovator in this field.
The advent of power steering was another notable breakthrough in improving the operators’ lot, especially for haul trucks as it reduced the incidence of injuries sustained through steering wheel shock and vibration through the steering system which could cause long term nerve and capillary damage.
Brakes on many of the older machines usually only worked properly when the machine was new. Keeping them operating correctly was always a problem as they aged. Brake fade from excessive heat was never far away and often the easiest way to stop suddenly to avoid a worse accident was to run it into a bank or the quarry wall!
Even in these modern times a fully laden diesel electric haul truck takes a fair bit of stopping and efforts to improve matters in this area are still a work in progress.
Today’s operator, faced with low-effort joystick controls, sound-suppressed ROPS cab, ergonomically designed suspension seat that adjusts to their weight, multi-adjustable air conditioning system, CD player, cup holders and machine auto-lube system would have the old timers shaking their sunburnt heads in disbelief.