Our objective was to evaluate the efficiency and safety of lift gates used on U.S. Postal Service cargo vans.
The Postal Service owns and operates a fleet of over 227,000 vehicles. The Postal Service has 7- and 11-ton cargo vans that Postal Vehicle Service (PVS) drivers use to transport mail between facilities and to load/unload mail from cargo vans.
In September 2017, the Postal Service began replacing 7- and 11-ton cargo vans and adding new lift gates. A lift gate is a piece of equipment on the rear of a cargo van that helps load/unload mail transport equipment (MTE) containing mail. When the Postal Service replaced the older cargo vans, transportation managers could choose between a tuck under lift gate (84 inches wide by 50 inches long) or rail lift gate (89 inches wide by 54 inches long). Tuck under lift gates tuck beneath the cargo van while rail lift gates fold against the back of the cargo van when not in use. The Postal Service purchased 1,167 tuck under lift gates and 446 rail lift gates on the 7- and 11-ton cargo vans for an estimated total cost of $6.5 million.
Cargo vans with lift gates provide the ability to load/unload mail safely and effectively and were designed to save time and decrease the handling of MTE compared to cargo vans without lift gates. If an employee identifies unsafe conditions with a lift gate, they should complete and submit Postal Service (PS) Form 1767, Report of Hazard, Unsafe Condition, or Practice. A supervisor is then required to investigate the alleged hazard and resolve the issue if applicable.
The new tuck under lift gates installed on 7- and 11-ton cargo vans may not be as efficient as the previous lift gates and potential safety issues exist if PVS drivers aren’t trained properly.
When the Postal Service solicited suppliers for the new cargo vans, the only specification for the lift gate was weight capacity; no specific dimensions were provided. Postal Service transportation managers preferred tuck under lift gates over rail lift gates because they tuck beneath the cargo van and are out of the way while rail lift gates require lowering to get into the back of the cargo van. However, the tuck under lift gates require PVS drivers to be cautious when loading/unloading MTE. Specifically, the new tuck under lift gates are narrower and shorter than previous rail lift gates; therefore, less MTE can be placed on the tuck under lift gate at the same time compared to what could be loaded with previous rail lift gates.
Further, Postal Service transportation managers and supervisors, and PVS drivers informed us that the new tuck under lift gates are not as durable as the previous lift gates and tilt when loading/unloading MTE. However, Fleet Management personnel stated the new tuck under lift gates are durable and there have been no reported maintenance issues related to durability. The new tuck under lift gates are made of aluminum and support 3,300 pounds while previous lift gates were made of steel and supported 4,400 pounds. Despite this difference in capacity, the new tuck under lift gates should support MTE that is loaded with mail since they weigh anywhere from 600 to 2,000 pounds.
As a result, the size and construction of the new tuck under lift gates is one of the factors that could lead to PVS drivers being at the facility longer, which increases the risk for late PVS trips. For example, we analyzed the amount of time PVS drivers spent at 54 selected stations that use the new lift gates. In January 2018, we reviewed 1,945 trips and found the average time (arrival and departure times) spent at stations without docks using the previous lift gates was 12.5 minutes. In comparison, in January 2020, we reviewed 547 trips and the average time spent at these same stations with the new lift gates was 16.8 minutes (a 34.4 percent increase).
Additionally, we found potential safety issues related to training and concerns from employees with the new tuck under lift gates that resulted in three Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) complaints, 55 PS Forms 1767, and two grievances filed. One of the OSHA complaints resulted in a fine of $5,783. We also conducted interviews and received comments from various users addressing safety concerns related to the tuck under lift gates. The main safety issues we identified were:
- No safety rails on the side of the lift gate to prevent MTE from rolling off.
- More difficulty operating the lift gate on uneven surfaces.
- Some MTE has to be loaded sideways.
- Not sufficient room for a PVS driver to stand alongside MTE.
- Some MTE has to be pulled, not pushed, when loading/unloading.
We surveyed transportation managers and supervisors, PVS analysts, vehicle maintenance managers, and area and district safety managers to see if the new lift gates improved the safety of loading/unloading MTE. We received 215 responses out of the 686 surveys sent (31 percent) but only 140 were familiar with the safety of the new lift gates. Of the 140 managers, supervisors, and analysts who responded, almost half either disagreed or strongly disagreed that the new lift gates improved safety. However, managers from Fleet Management and Employee Resource Management stated the purchase of new lift gates were not intended to improve safety since equipment is only purchased if it is safe.
We further identified that the Postal Service does not have a national training program for operating the new lift gates. The Postal Service did train employees on the new lift gates at deployment; however, the training was not standardized. As a result, there is a potential safety concern with the new tuck under lift gates and further evaluation and training is needed.
We recommend management:
- Reevaluate the effectiveness of the new tuck under lift gates and the process of loading/unloading mail transport equipment to determine if changes are needed to increase efficiency.
- Perform a safety assessment to evaluate the new lift gates and develop a national training program and create a standard operating procedure on the operation and safety of the new lift gates.