It won’t be long before much of North America will be dealing with colder temperatures that bring a host of winter-weather challenges to the loading dock. Experts say now is the time to prepare for the change by inspecting docks to identify potential problems and perform any maintenance required to keep things running smoothly, safely, and energy-efficiently.
“It’s very important for companies to evaluate and prepare their loading docks for colder weather,” explains Joe Ellestad, director of customer relations and sales support for loading dock equipment manufacturer Rite-Hite. He says late summer and early fall are the best times to start evaluating docks for safety and energy efficiency, leaving time for maintenance and upgrades to be done before the freezing temperatures and accompanying ice and snow settle in. “There’s always a push around this time of year to get ready for the cold weather months—so we can be as tight as we can be at the loading docks.”
Dirk Seis, director of marketing at Ideal Warehouse Innovations, which makes dock safety accessories, agrees.
“The big one everyone thinks of first is energy savings,” he says, pointing to companies’ growing desire to reduce energy use as part of corporate sustainability and cost-reduction strategies.
But he says safety is also a driving force behind prepping your docks for winter.
“Things that come out of the sky during cold months cause safety issues at unprotected docks. A slip and fall or a forklift falling off a loading dock can be horrible—and costly in time, potential legal issues, and shutdowns,” Seis adds. “Those are the things that I would really look at first: energy savings and safety.”
Here are three steps to put you on the path to a smooth-running, safe, and energy-efficient loading dock.
Experts agree the place to start is a loading dock inspection, which can be done by an outside partner, such as a supplier, or internally by the warehouse manager or loading dock supervisor. Many manufacturers offer loading dock inspection checklists to guide managers through the process. According to Seis, it’s important to check that dock levelers, dock doors, and door tracks are operating properly, with no gaps, cracks, or other damage. He also points to the need to check dock seals—including weather seals around the door and seals under the dock leveler—and dock shelters for gaps and wear. Inspections should include a check of the truck-restraint system as well, and a look at the dock drain to make sure there are no clogs that could allow water to collect and freeze.
“You should look at all the pieces of the loading dock and see what needs attention,” Seis says, adding that Ideal Warehouse offers a loading dock inspection kit that includes a simple, paper-based checklist that provides an easy way to get the job done. “In our case, it’s a pad of carbon paper. It’s old tech, but still very effective. Once you’re done, one copy can stay at the loading dock and the other can go to the office.”
The kit also includes a visual indicator (a red or green flag) to let employees know whether the dock is in tip-top shape or needs repairs.
Inspections should be done regularly—some companies do them daily, weekly, or even monthly—but when doing a pre-winter evaluation, Seis and others say it’s especially important to do a visual inspection on a bright sunny day, when gaps and openings around the doors and shelters will be obvious.
“If you look out and can see light when the truck is backed in, those are areas you want to focus on,” says Ryan Roehsner, senior national accounts sales manager for loading dock equipment manufacturer Systems LLC. “Where you see light is where you’ll see infiltration of precipitation. A visual inspection and proper sealing of equipment is where you want to start.”
Such conditions can also lead to energy loss, according to Rite-Hite’s Ellestad. He points to situations in which companies are using heaters along the loading docks to keep employees comfortable and equipment running efficiently as an example.
“When you’ve got your doors open and you’re unloading trailers, if you don’t have that weather seal, or environmental separation, you’ll have to run those heaters more or at a higher temperature to make sure your employees are comfortable and your forklifts operate properly,” Ellestad explains. “Maybe we don’t have to run the heaters as much if we have a nice buttoned-up loading dock.”
Another key element to consider, according to Roehsner, is snow and the low-visibility conditions it creates. He says companies should make sure that the drive approach to the loading dock is clear of snow and ice buildup, and that proper lighting is installed for maximum visibility in storms and in the late afternoon hours when darkness sets in.
“Anything you can do to enhance the lighting [or the] numbering on doors [will help],” Roehsner says, citing guidelights that can help trucks back in on center as an example. “And make sure the drive is clear, so you don’t have the potential for trucks to slip.”
Seis agrees, adding that, at the loading dock, “seeing is safety.” He points to low-energy LED lighting in rugged housings as perfect for standing up to the rigors of life on the dock.
An early look at the loading dock can identify problems, and then it’s time to make repairs and upgrades or order new equipment. Leadtime is crucial in planning for those efforts.
“Strategywise, starting early allows you to schedule any work” and account for leadtimes if you need to order products or equipment, according to Seis. “And when you do it that way, it’s easier and less disruptive than when something is broken—because now it’s an emergency.”
Common examples of maintenance and repair include adding, fixing, or upgrading those weather seals around the dock and the dock leveler, as well as fixing or replacing doors, truck restraints, lighting systems, and the like. And if you’re looking to optimize energy use, it may be time to install a high-volume, low-speed (HVLS) ceiling fan to help direct heat generated around the dock closer to where employees and equipment are working.
“[HVLS fans] help bring that warm air up top and push it down,” allowing heat to circulate back into the building, Ellestad explains.
In the end, your dock inspection, snow and lighting prep, and any maintenance required will depend largely on your individual loading dock—so make sure you have the right employees assigned to the job and are working with the best possible outside partners.“Every loading dock is a unique environment; it’s not just an opening cut into a wall,” Seis says, adding that key considerations include what products are being moved, how they are being moved, the size of the trailers coming in, and how often those trailers arrive. “Each business is different, so it’s important to work with a partner who understands all the questions that need to be asked in order to determine the right solutions.”