The repair order read “vehicle pulls to the left.” The owner of a Ford Excursion wanted an alignment. The job started out like any other — a preliminary test drive to confirm the symptoms and then it was run up onto the alignment lift.
The front tires were carefully steered onto the turn plates. The four-post electric lift was raised to the needed height where the four swing-in style leveling locks could be set, which is approximately 3’ off the ground. As the technician’s hand was on the first lock, ready to swing it into place and, with the technician in less than arm’s length from the front of the vehicle, it happened unexpectedly… BANG!! The ground shook. The chain on the lift broke and the front half of the lift’s ramps came crashing to the floor.
The technician was standing at the very corner of the lift, holding the leveling lock. The truck bounced hard enough that the bouncing action unplugged both turn plate locking pins, and the truck was able to bounce its way to the stops at the ends of the ramps.
I was that technician. It was startling to see the lift that I’ve trusted my life to countless times before fail in such a manner. It failed in two aspects. The first was the obvious chain breakage. The second was the safety locks. This particular lift used three sets of locks. The first is a huge overhead lock that only really protects against a hydraulic failure. The lift wasn’t quite high enough for the first tooth of that lock to engage. But even if it had, it wouldn’t protect against a chain breakage. Chain breakage is protected against by emergency locks at each of the four posts. This style of lock is constantly in the “disengage” position by the chain tension. If the chain were to suddenly go slack, the emergency locks fly into place. It’s the same idea as used for emergency brakes on an elevator. They only engage when needed — or, at least they are supposed to. On my lift, only the rear locks engaged, the front locks did not. This lift only had the manual swing-in leveling locks added to it because it was an alignment lift. Examining a standard service lift style from the same manufacturer revealed the service lift doesn’t have the manual swing-in locks.
Although this experience has seriously changed my preferences on locking systems for lifts, I want to say that the biggest factor here is a lack of maintenance. The chain should have never been allowed to wear to the breaking point, and the auto locks should have been professionally inspected. Instead, this lift was used for about 15 years with little to no inspection or maintenance. Regardless of design, any lift (and other pieces of shop equipment) can become a death trap if it’s not properly inspected and maintained. If a customer attempted to drive a car that long without any maintenance performed to it at all, would they make it that long? Then why expect that from the equipment we use?
Occasionally, safety devices are even bypassed by the user. Something as simple as holding the lock release in the “unlocked” position while lifting a vehicle, for quieter operation, could prove disastrous if the lift suffered a hose or cable failure. I can tell you first hand that the vehicle falls very fast, and very unexpectedly, with such a failure. If you’re holding the release lever, it’ll all be over before you can react.
Also, be aware that the safety catch on in-ground lifts can rust in the unlocked position from water on the floor going down into the lift. Plus, in-ground lifts usually only have one lock that only engages in the fully lifted position. The problem is, not every technician is that tall. If you’re one who tends to get under an in-ground lift that isn’t fully extended, for height reasons, then it would be wise to either fully extend the lift and use a properly designed step or place screw jacks under the body of the lift where the cylinder(s) push against. So please, inspect your shop equipment — especially your lifts. Always remember that if the weight of the vehicle is not on the locks, then ultimately you’re trusting your life to a little rubber seal or a pin in a chain link … whichever piece happens to be the weakest.