May 10, 2011
material handling update | Dock Equipment

What you need to know about dock safety

What you need to know about dock safety

The typical loading dock is a dangerous place, with people and heavy machinery moving around in tight quarters. Here are some things you can do to keep accidents at bay.

By Susan K. Lacefield

Accidents on the loading dock may not happen every day, but when they do occur, the results can be catastrophic. Just imagine a 10,000- to 15,000-pound lift truck falling off a four-foot high ledge with an operator sitting or standing on it. It's not a pretty picture.

In such an event, the operator is unlikely to walk away with just cuts and bruises. "In many cases, you're lucky to see these employees ever come back to work, and if they do, often it's in a diminished capacity," says Walt Swietlik, customer relations manager at dock equipment manufacturer Rite-Hite.

Keeping employees safe isn't always easy. The typical dock is a hive of activity, with a lot of heavy machinery and people passing in tight quarters while trying to meet tight schedules. Nonetheless, there are steps DC managers can take to reduce the likelihood of accidents in their own operations. Here's a look at some measures that can help.

Not ready for takeoff
When it comes to the loading dock, one of the biggest hazards is unexpected trailer movement, which can occur when a truck driver pulls away from the dock without warning. In this instance, prevention is largely a matter of ensuring good communication. "At a minimum, there should be some way for the dock attendant to communicate with the truck driver and vice versa," Swietlik says.

A common solution is to install a traffic-light-style system both inside and outside the building. When they see a green light, dock attendants inside the facility know it's safe to load or unload; likewise, a green light outside the building notifies the driver that it's safe to start the truck.

Of course, the lights won't have much effect if they're blocked, which happens more often than you might expect. To avoid this, Swietlik recommends placing lights in multiple locations—i.e., not just on the corners of the dock door but also on the sides of the dock leveler.

Consultant Dave Piasecki offers a further suggestion for preventing unexpected departures. He advises DCs to prohibit drivers from getting back into the truck until all loading and unloading is completed.

Mind the gap
Another source of unexpected trailer movement is the phenomenon known as "dock walk" or "trailer creep." Dock walk occurs when the force exerted by a lift truck entering or leaving the trailer propels the truck away from the dock, creating a gap between the vehicle and dock leveler.

To prevent dock walk, companies should, at a minimum, use wheel chocks and if the trailer is not connected to the cab, a trailer jack stand, says Swietlik. But wheel chocks are prone to slippage, particularly in icy or snowy conditions. For that reason, most experts recommend using some type of vehicle restraint.

Vehicle restraints come in two varieties: those that attach to the rear bumper/rear impact guard (or ICC bar) and those that attach to the wheel. Rear-impact guard restraints are the most popular and least expensive, says Steve Sprunger, senior vice president of sales and marketing for dock equipment maker 4Front Engineered Solutions. But these types of restraints have their limitations, Swietlik says. For instance, they may not work with trucks with hydraulic tailgates or lift gates or trailers with damaged bumpers.

With wheel restraints, there's no such problem. "A wheel restraint works on all vehicles because all vehicles have wheels," says Jay Jette, president of GMR Safety Inc., which makes the devices. "Where there's a wheel, there's a way."

Both types of restraints are available in automatic or manual models. Manual devices are generally cheaper, but automatic versions offer the added advantage of stabilizing the trailer. That's a particular plus with trailers equipped with air-ride suspensions, which have a tendency to jiggle when forklifts enter the vehicle.

Regardless of the type of restraint used, Bob Kerila, manager of product engineering at The Raymond Corp., advises companies to make lift truck operators—not truck drivers—responsible for securing the vehicle. "Since the action is designed to protect the forklift operator, it is best to require that the lift truck operators ensure the chocks or restraints are in place," he says.

Companies that don't want to rely on workers to see that vehicles are properly secured have the option of using mechanical safeguards. For example, with hydraulic dock levelers, the master control panel can be configured to prevent operators from opening the door or activating the dock plate until the restraints are engaged. There are similar solutions for mechanical dock levelers, such as alarms that are activated if the leveler doesn't sense a restraint.

The advantage of these systems is that they eliminate the possibility of human error. "You want people to be thinking about safety and be involved, but you don't want to rely on good will and peoples' memory," says Jette. "If you don't make safety automatic, [your procedures] will often not be followed."

Companies looking to take safety to the next level can buy software to monitor trailers and dock equipment, says Sprunger. These systems can be set up to send customized alerts, such as notifications that a restraint hasn't been properly engaged or that a dock door has been left open.

No matter how many safety precautions they may take, companies still need to train forklift drivers on what to do if the vehicle tips over or falls off the dock. Kerila points out that the appropriate response depends on what kind of lift truck is being used. With stand-up end-controlled lift trucks that have an open back, operators should be taught to jump clear of the vehicle, he says. Operators of sit-down trucks, however, should be trained to remain in position with their restraints in place, brace themselves, and lean away from the direction of the fall, he adds.

Staying off the collision course
Unexpected trailer departure isn't the only hazard on the loading dock, of course. There's also the risk of collisions. Often as not, the cause turns out to be some type of visibility issue—like visual obstructions or low lighting. To reduce these risks, the experts urge DCs to avoid letting pallets, trash, and packaging material pile up around the dock and block lift truck drivers' view. They also stress the importance of ensuring that forklift operators can see into the trailers they're loading and unloading. Sprunger recommends using LED lights, noting that they burn brighter and last longer than incandescent bulbs.

But visibility problems are tough to avoid altogether. For instance, lift truck drivers will almost invariably find their vision is obstructed to some degree when the forks are raised. For that reason, Piasecki recommends keeping pedestrian traffic separate from lift truck traffic where possible and making sure everyone on the dock receives proper training on safety. "Pedestrians are probably at greater risk than the lift truck operators, so make sure they understand the hazards of working around lift trucks and delivery vehicles," he says.

But perhaps the biggest hazard of all is a false sense of security about safety, says Piasecki. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that just because you haven't had an accident—or a near miss—on the dock, you are safe, he says.

"But operating in unsafe conditions does not always result in serious injuries," Piasecki points out. "Some businesses can chug along for years ... without something really bad happening. Unfortunately, not every business is this lucky. The facility you read about in the paper where someone died was not necessarily any less safe than your facility. That facility just happened to be on the wrong side of the statistics."

About the Author

Susan K. Lacefield
Editor at Large
Susan Lacefield has been working for supply chain publications since 1999. Before joining DC VELOCITY, she was an associate editor for Supply Chain Management Review and wrote for Logistics Management magazine. She holds a master's degree in English.

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