A busy loading dock is a beautiful thing for a facility manager. After all, a steady stream of deliveries and shipments coming and going means business is good. However, even the most well-trained dock workers get distracted and make mistakes that can bring business to an expensive and immediate halt.
Opportunities abound for incidents to strike loading docks, leading to damaged products and broken equipment or worse, employee injuries. These distractions include forklifts maneuvering in and out of trailers; preoccupied pedestrians looking at orders or mobile devices; and new shipments stacked high on pallets to create blind spots.
Besides the anecdotal accounts of loading dock distractions, there is staggering statistical evidence that confirms the dangers at the loading dock. OSHA states there is a forklift-related death approximately every three days. Overall, there are roughly 95,000 incidents involving a forklift every year, which lead to losses of $135 million in direct costs and another $650 million in indirect costs.
This doesn’t need to be the case. More than two-thirds of these types of incidents can be prevented with equipment and technology that already exist. But keep in mind that a single piece of equipment can’t solve every safety challenge at the loading dock.
One clear trend is toward technological upgrades of loading docks, specifically making them more automated. For example, there are dock controls that can interlock pieces of equipment to create a safe sequence of operations. Other new developments include motion-sensor technology that combines with LED lights and audible alarms to provide clear and consistent traffic warnings inside and out, and retractable barriers that can help prevent preoccupied workers from falling off of open docks or into recessed pits inside facilities.
Start with a Safe Sequence of Operation
At one time, each piece of loading dock equipment – vehicle restraints, levelers and overhead doors – were manually operated. Life got easier and safer for dock workers when technology advanced to the point that these operations became automated. No more setting wheel chocks or lifting levelers. This trend toward automation continues.
Now, there are dock control systems that can automate the loading and unloading process with just the touch of a button – starting with the vehicle restraint. Restraints that require minimal human interaction to automatically secure a trailer to the dock increase efficiency and safety by eliminating the need for dock employees to go outside and physically chock and un-chock truck tires. They also eliminate the opportunity for mistakes by the driver by clearly communicating with red and green lights when a trailer is restrained, ensuring the trailer can’t mistakenly pull away when a forklift still is inside.
However, there still exists a danger that workers can operate these pieces of equipment incorrectly or in the wrong order. If a leveler or door is lowered too early, a backing trailer can damage it. If a restraint is unlocked before the leveler is stored and a forklift enters or exits the trailer, a serious injury risk is created.
Dock controls now can be programmed to operate only in a safe sequence of operation, with individual elements of the system interlocked. For instance, systems can be programmed with a green light interlock, which disables the use of the push-button dock leveler or overhead door until the vehicle restraint is safely engaged; an overhead door interlock, which requires overhead doors to be opened prior to leveler operation; or a stored leveler interlock, which ensures that the leveler is stored safely before the restraint can release the trailer. If a worker presses the control box button for an individual system element in the wrong sequence, it won’t work – ensuring that no safety procedures will be skipped.
Additionally, some automatic restraints can be integrated into building management or security systems, providing another level of security and protection against external tampering.
Using Lights for Communication
Loading dock controls wouldn’t be complete without the red/green signaling system that has become a familiar fixture at plants and warehouses in the last several decades. Inside the loading dock, a green light indicates the trailer has been secured to the loading dock and it is safe for a forklift operator to enter. Conversely, a red light on the outside of the dock lets the truck driver know it is not safe to pull away from the dock. The lights flip colors when the restraint is unlocked, indicating it’s safe for the truck driver to depart.
The last 10 years have seen upgrades to this basic communication tool. For example, highly visible LED lights in the corners of dock doors have been developed to increase safety for forklift operators who might not be able to see the red/green light at the control box due to stacked pallets or other equipment. For forklift operators inside the trailer, LED lights inside the leveler provides visual confirmation that the trailer still is secured to the loading dock.
The most recent developments in dock safety involve motion sensor-based systems in the dock area. One such system projects a blue light (similar to forklift safety lights) onto the leveler when activity is detected inside a trailer, alerting workers that a pedestrian or material handling equipment could back out at any moment. This type of system can be integrated with advanced control boxes to keep the vehicle restraint locked until the activity stops, ensuring the trailer doesn’t pull away with a forklift operator still inside.
Protecting Workers Outside the Loading Dock
Distractions and risks are all around the outside of the loading dock, as well as inside. In fact, OSHA currently is considering a new rule that addresses backing vehicles and equipment, which are common causes of struck-by injuries. This type of injury and caught-between injuries are two of the four leading causes of workplace fatalities.
Backing trailers pose this exact type of threat. Due to the 70-foot-plus distance between the dock position and the truck’s engine, as well as other distractions in the loading dock yard, this back-over hazard can go undetected by workers until it’s too late for them to avoid being struck. There have been 40 fatal accidents involving backing tractor trailers in a six-year span, according to OSHA.
To address this challenge, a number of new safety solutions have been developed. Some vehicle restraints now incorporate an external motion sensor, which triggers an audible and visual alarm to alert workers outside the dock when a trailer begins backing in. These types of multisensory warnings immediately gain the attention of workers who might be in harm’s way.
Barriers: The Physical Safety Device
When all forms of visual and sound communication are ineffective or ignored, a physical barrier provides the ultimate safety for workers at the loading dock. The loading dock presents various opportunities for dangerous falls, including out of open dock doors.
The most advanced can stretch across wide dock door openings and are able to stop up to 30,000 lbs. with minimal damage to the barrier. These barriers also can be integrated into this safe sequence of operation. 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.
Manufacturing and industrial operations that have pits or recessed areas also should be protected with barriers. These operations require access in most instances, so removable options should be considered when specifying the right barrier.
While facility managers traditionally have chosen barriers based on relatively simple criteria (the ability to stop a 10,000-lb. load at 4 mph), a new formula quickly is gaining popularity. Called the Barrier Load And Speed Test (BLAST), it takes into account the typical mass and speed of loads moving around the hazard. BLAST 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.
The loading dock can be a busy place with many distractions. Facility managers should look beyond one piece of equipment to address these challenges. Finding the right system of loading equipment that incorporates a safe sequence of operation, motion-sensors and LED lights, audible alarms and barriers puts any facility manager on the right path to minimizing risk and increasing worker safety. Technology makes new advances every day, so it’s important to consider equipment that offers upgradeable features to enhance safety long-term and reduce future costs.
Chad Dillavou is a product manager at Rite-Hite.