In his legendary soul ballad "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay," the late Otis Redding sang of whiling away the hours watching the tides roll in and out of the San Francisco Bay. If only life on the loading dock were so tranquil. But if days spent on the dock ever did unfold at a leisurely pace, that's all behind us. These days, it's strictly business. Get the truck in, load or unload it, move it out. No time for breaks. No room for delays.
If activity on the nation's loading docks has appeared particularly frenzied lately, you can credit the new federal truck driver hours of service (HOS) rule that kicked in Jan. 4. Aimed at preventing accidents caused by driver fatigue, the new rule cut back drivers'work shifts from 15 hours to 14. But more to the point, it overhauled the system drivers use for reporting their hours. In the past, drivers could go off the clock during idle periods. They were not required to count time spent waiting at loading docks or refueling as part of their work shifts. Now, there are no timeouts. Whether they're driving or idling, every minute counts.
Time has always been money in this business, but the new driver service restrictions have upped the ante. Carriers who once viewed delays at the dock as annoying now find them intolerable. To make the point, some are reportedly charging detention or demurrage fees of up to $100 an hour.
The threat of financial penalties has gotten their customers' attention. DC managers across the country are revamping their procedures and even upgrading their equipment in hopes of revving up operations … or at least cutting downtime. At Saddle Creek Corp., a Florida-based third-party provider of logistics services, for example, executives have been brainstorming ways of documenting truckers' arrival and departure times across the entire DC network. "This is an issue for all of us," says Bruce Abels, Saddle Creek's president and COO. "We're taking steps at all of our facilities to do a much better job of documenting that information because we anticipate carriers will make an effort to charge for detention or demurrage."
Another third-party warehousing company, Murphy Warehouse Co., has taken it a step further: The company has notified carriers arriving at its dock that they must now schedule appointments for outgoing loads. By limiting access to its docks during peak periods, the warehouse hopes to reduce congestion. It also hopes to avoid fines. Richard Murphy, the company's president and CEO, reports that one of his major customers has already modified its contract to include a provision holding the warehouse responsible for any fees levied by truckers for delays at the loading dock.
Other distribution center managers have rejiggered their schedules in order to stay open longer and smooth out peaks and valleys in dock traffic flow. Paul Delp, president of Lansdale Warehouse Co. in Lansdale, Pa., has instituted staggered hours for dock workers so he can keep the docks open longer. Though he hasn't yet added a second shift, he says he'll do so if that's what it takes to keep the loading dock congestion-free.
Delp and other DC execs predict that more carriers will adopt drop and hook programs in the months ahead. That's not a decision carriers make lightly. Drop and hook, which lets a trucker pick up one trailer while leaving another behind for the customer to load or unload at its convenience, would require them to keep extra equipment on hand. But truckers may be willing to accept the tradeoff if it cuts waiting time and, ultimately, their average cost per mile.
Then there are the companies that have DC building projects under way. In more than a few cases, dock equipment manufacturers report, anxiety about productivity has actually led companies to tear up their old plans and revise their dock layouts in order to move trucks in and out faster once construction is complete. Some have gone so far as to add docks to make sure they can load and unload cargo quickly and accommodate their carriers' drop and hook programs.
This new willingness to invest in docks is more common than you might think. Whether spurred by the HOS rule or by safety and security concerns, companies that once balked at replacing leaky seals are suddenly putting big money into their docks. "People are definitely spending more money on the dock area," says Mike Pilgrim, executive vice president at Systems Inc., a dock manufacturer in Germantown, Wis. "Years ago somebody might have invested $2,500 or so for a mechanical lift. Today, it's not unheard of to spend up to $25,000 to be fully outfitted with a master control panel, door seals and dock door."
Some distribution centers, for example, are replacing manual dock levelers with hydraulic push-button operated dock levelers, Pilgrim reports. Oftentimes they're motivated by safety concerns: Hydraulic levelers can reduce accidents by preventing free-fall of the leveler if a truck departs from the dock too early. That's a real danger, according to Pilgrim, who reports that almost two-thirds of all dock levelers are sold without vehicle restraints. Other times, companies are looking to boost productivity: Hydraulic systems are much easier to service than their manual counterparts, Pilgrim says. That reduces downtime and keeps dock operations humming.
Another popular feature is the master control panel, which consolidates the controls of multiple dock components into one easy-to-use centralized panel. Combining these controls in a single master system promotes safety by integrating the operations of the dock leveler, truck restraint, overhead door and other dock equipment. Installing a single power source also reduces electrical installation costs.
However, Pilgrim cautions, companies interested in installing master control panels should be aware that it's far cheaper to incorporate these panels into the original design plans than to commission them as an add-on once the DC is built. "We're spending a lot of time getting involved with upfront building design in order to save the customer money," he says. But it's clear that the message hasn't gotten out yet where the majority of docks are concerned. "Most control panels are sold after the fact, once the building is already designed," he says. "When that happens, the only winner is the electrician."
After the second fire broke out at printing company American Color's loading dock, Mike Mason knew he wouldn't sleep well until he rooted out the cause. A volunteer firefighter and one of the company's logistics PICs (Persons in Charge), Mason has a healthy respect for fire. And a low tolerance for fire hazards. When an internal investigation traced the problem to head pad seals at the Marengo, Iowa, company's dock, Mason led the charge to rip them out and replace them with special heat-dissipating models.
Unfortunately, American Color isn't alone. A rash of loading dock fires have been reported in recent years—more than 80 since July 2001, according to Frommelt Safety Products' Web site. And though the statistics are hard to come by, the horror stories aren't. "It would be one thing if there were one or two fires periodically," says Walt Swietlik, customer relations manager for loading dock equipment manufacturer Rite-Hite Corp. "But we're hearing of at least one or two fires a week."
What's causing all these fires? Hot-burning rear trailer marker lights. Under federal safety standards, trucks must be outfitted with rear marker lights, which increase the vehicles' visibility at night and in foul weather. Technological advances in the last five years have produced lights that are increasingly smaller and brighter. And the brighter they are, the hotter: Today's incandescent bulbs can generate enough heat to push temperatures to 900 degrees F in as little as 20 to 30 minutes. That presents a hazard when a truck is backed into a dock seal made of foam and fabric. If the truck is left idling with its lights on, as often happens, the foam dock seal acts as an insulator, retaining the heat generated by the lights. Once the truck pulls away from the seal, permitting oxygen to rush into the area, the smoldering fabric and foam can burst into flames.
Usually, dock workers douse the flames quickly, before major damage occurs. But in some cases, entire trailer loads of products have gone up in flames. And trailers are not the only asset at risk; dock fires frequently cause smoke and water damage inside the DC. Expenses can run into the thousands of dollars, and it's likely the industry's tally will continue to mount. Officials at Frommelt, one of Rite-Hite's subsidiaries, estimate that more than 200,000 loading docks in the United States use the compression-style foam dock seals, which means they're at risk for fires.
What's the solution? Some truckers are outfitting their tractors with LED lights that run at much cooler temperatures. Others are prohibiting drivers from leaving trucks idling while backed up to a dock, which is admittedly tough to enforce.
Not wanting to take any chances, DC managers like those at American Color are replacing their dock seals. American Color swapped its old dock seal head pads for Frommelt head pads that use the company's Firefighter technology. The seals contain a solution that dissipates heat created by the marker lights, limiting heat buildup and reducing the fire hazard. As an extra precaution, American Color is planning to equip its docks with side pads that feature Firefighter technology as well.
Replacing seals costs money, to be sure, but the printing company didn't balk at the expense. "There are simply too many fire risks in this industry," says Mason. "If we can identify a fire safety risk such as this and resolve it as easily as we can with this new technology, the decision's an easy one to make."