Loading Dock Safety

Three-Dimensional Dangers Require Three-Dimensional Safety

Facility managers can enhance their fall protection plans by taking a systematic approach to safety.

Production facilities, distribution centers and warehouses are essential components in any supply chain and economic lynchpins of their communities. Unfortunately, the operations carried out in these types of facilities can present many potential risks for workers. These dangers don’t only come from one direction, either. In a three-dimensional world, dangers come from every angle.

Every area of a facility brings its own unique set of safety challenges. Loading docks long have been recognized as dangerous work areas – with risks ranging from forklift accidents to dangerous falls from improperly protected dock openings, among other things. Fall-related accidents also are an ever-present danger in elevated work areas such as mezzanines. Additionally, an increasing number of plants and warehouses have pit areas that workers can fall into if they are not guarded properly.

Smart facility managers address these dangers by taking a systematic approach to safety. In order to keep workers safe and stay up to date with new safety standards, more and more facility managers are – or should be looking at – ways to enhance safety in every dimension.

Defining OSHA’s Fall Protection Standards

Fall protection is a good starting point for effectively addressing safety. Falls from heights and the same level consistently rank as the leading causes of serious work-related injuries and deaths every year. In fact, falls account for 20 percent of all fatal (345 annually) and lost-work-day injuries (202,066 annually) in general industry, according to OSHA.

Taking these staggering numbers into account, it’s no surprise that OSHA recently updated some of the regulations in its Walking-Working Surfaces and Fall Protection standards. While some of the changes of this updated rule are active, some aspects will not go into effect until later this year, next year and even 20 years into the future.

The most noteworthy aspect to the updated Walking-Working Surfaces standard is to slip, trip and fall hazards (subpart D). The rule requires employers to protect workers from fall hazards along unprotected sides or edges that are at least 4 feet above a lower level. OSHA defines fall protection as “any equipment, device or system that prevents a worker from falling from an elevation or mitigates the effect of such a fall.” Under the final rule, employers may choose from the following fall protection options (among others):

Guardrail system: A barrier erected along an unprotected or exposed side, edge or other area of a walking-working surface to prevent workers from falling to a lower level.

Safety net system: A horizontal or semi-horizontal, cantilever-style barrier that uses a netting system to stop falling workers before they make contact with a lower level or obstruction.

Personal fall arrest system: A system that arrests or stops a fall before the worker contacts a lower level. Consists of a body harness, anchorage, and connector, and may include a lanyard, deceleration device, lifeline or a suitable combination. Like OSHA’s construction standards, the final rule prohibits the use of body belts as part of a personal fall arrest system.

OSHA estimates that all of these changes will help prevent 29 deaths and nearly 6,000 lost-work-day injuries every year.

In-Plant Barriers

Safety barriers typically are used to separate workers and pedestrians from potentially hazardous operations or dangerous situations. In some applications, they are used to visually and physically define work zones on the plant floor in areas where industrial vehicles typically aren’t present – including restricting access to corridors where forklifts might be operating.

Barriers absorb an impact by distributing the impact energy into the materials the barrier is constructed. As the barrier absorbs energy, the materials that comprise it elongate and the barrier deflects. During the impact, the barrier deforms elastically to the point at which energy reaches equilibrium. After most impacts, the barrier returns to its original position. After a severe impact, the barrier may sustain permanent deformation. In more major impacts, the barrier might break or become inadequate to protect against future impacts. Before installing a barrier, facility managers should consider the maximum elastic deflection to ensure adequate protection of personnel and equipment.

Due to varying speeds and loads of forklifts in industrial workplaces, a test methodology has been developed to quantify specific application variables and determine barrier ratings in terms of total kinetic energy absorption, instead of generic mass (10,000 lbs.) and speed (4 mph) assumptions.

Known as the barrier load and speed test (BLAST), it is centered on the formula for kinetic energy (EK = ½mv2, where m=mass [weight] and v=velocity), which takes into account both the weight and speed of the impacting object. Expressing the impact rating in terms of energy allows the user to understand the effects of various speeds and weights to determine a more appropriate barrier for their application than would be possible with a single one-size-fits-all speed and mass rating.

Elevated Platform Safety Solutions

Based on current standards, industrial mezzanines must have handrails and gates around all edges; however, these gates need to be opened from time-to-time to accommodate the loading and unloading process. According to the ANSI standard, companies must provide full-time protection when loading and unloading materials from an elevated platform – there can be no exposed areas where an employee potentially could fall. As a result, many companies are seeking a solution to secure elevated work environments.

Dual reciprocating barriers are a common choice for this application, since they create a controlled access area in which the inner gate and outer gate cannot be opened at the same time. Leading models use a link bar design that ensures both gates work in unison. When the outer gate opens to allow pallets in, the inner gate automatically closes to keep workers out. After the pallet is received, mezzanine-level workers open the inner gate to remove material from the work zone while the outer gate closes to secure the leading edge of the platform. A safety latch only can be accessed when standing outside the work zone prevents the outer gate from being raised by a worker inside the work area. Although automatic barriers are available, leading manual barriers are relatively easy to use. Look for designs with a raised toe board to prevent materials from accidently being pushed off the elevated edge.

Pick Module Safety

In addition to mezzanines and elevated work platforms, many companies are integrating multi-level pick modules within their facilities to handle order fulfillment. Pick modules typically are constructed using a metal support structure, flooring, stairways, handrails and landings. Products are stored in shelving and racks and are “picked” to conveyors, totes, carts and other transportation systems.

Multi-level rack systems pose a number of challenges when it comes to securing open areas during the loading and unloading process. The work areas typically are very small and are contained within the rack system itself, which makes it difficult to integrate traditional safety barrier designs.

While they function similarly to reciprocating mezzanine barriers (inside gate can’t open when the outside gate is, and vice versa), they utilize the existing rack structure to minimize the footprint in existing or new installation rack bays. Leading models can fit within virtually any type of rack configuration and meet applicable OSHA standards, as well as other types of regulations.

Protecting Vacant Docks

Falls from elevated platforms like mezzanines or pick modules aren’t the only type of fall that can occur. Other falls can happen at the loading dock out of open dock doors that aren’t adequately protected. By foot or forklift, a fall from a dock door opening can be extremely dangerous.

Because of this, many facilities use barriers positioned near the edge of the dock door to prevent falls. In many instances, these barriers are made from reinforced fabric that offers resistance. The most advanced barriers – made from PVC-coated fiberglass mesh and heavy-duty polyester – can stretch across openings 16 ft. 5 in. wide and are able to stop up to 30,000 lbs. with minimal damage to the barrier.

Unlike rudimentary protection devices, such as chains, some barriers even can be integrated into a safe sequence of operation programmed into a control box. Once the trailer securely is in place, the lock button is pressed, the light on the control box turns green and the barrier releases for easy access to the trailer.

Protecting Employees and the Bottom Line

Dangers exist at every level of a facility. Whether these work areas are elevated (mezzanines) or on the plant floor (loading docks and pit areas), it’s essential that facility managers find OSHA-approved ways to protect their workers from catastrophic falls.

Barriers should be placed at all loading dock door positions, surrounding pits and at mezzanine edges due to the risk of workers or equipment falling. Recognizing the hazard is the first step in handling this common challenge. The next step is choosing the right barrier. Facility managers should examine all the choices before selecting the best option to protect their workers.

Looking at safety from every angle sets companies apart and demonstrates a proactive and effective approach to protecting workers from hazards. 

Andy Olson is a marketing manager for Rite-Hite, Milwaukee, a manufacturer of loading dock equipment, industrial doors, safety barriers, HVLS fans and industrial curtain walls. For more information, visit www.ritehite.com.

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