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Safety: Protecting workers at the loading dock

From black-and-yellow safety striping to integrated dock safety systems—and everything in between—here’s how to shore up a warehouse loading dock to ensure a high level of worker and driver safety. By Bridget McCrea

The warehouse or DC loading dock can be a pretty dangerous place. For proof, you only need to look at OSHA’s most recent dock-related accident report, which includes accounts of workers fracturing their legs after being struck by dock plates, getting crushed between a truck and a dock, sustaining fractures after falling off the dock, driving forklifts right off loading docks, and worse. Most of the time, OSHA says the culprits in such situations are forklifts running off docks, products falling on employees, or equipment striking someone—all of which are avoidable with good safety policies (for example, no “dock jumping” or backing up a forklift right to the dock’s edge), equipment and modern technology.

“The dock is the one area of a warehouse—excluding machinery—where people can get seriously injured,” says Dan Jones, vice president of sales and marketing for Pioneer Dock Equipment. “It’s one of those places in the building where simple neglect can cause serious injury.”

The individual who takes a 50-inch fall after walking through an open door, for example, can sustain significant damage to his or her body. Drive a forklift off the same drop, says Jones, and the results could be much worse. “I have a friend who was in that situation and had his chest crushed by the forklift,” recounts Jones. “He survived, but it really banged up his body and is now on long-term disability as a result of that accident.”

And as if the physical structures and equipment that can inflict injury at the dock weren’t enough, companies across all industries are operating with a newer and faster mindset when it comes to distribution. Add e-commerce and omni-channel to that mix, and you wind up with the proverbial accident waiting to happen.

“Dock safety is always an issue, but now everyone is operating at warp speed, trying to produce faster inventory turns,” says Walt Swietlik, director of customer relations and sales support at Rite-Hite. “It’s dangerous and people can get careless. Unfortunately, even the occasional mistake can be catastrophic or life-threatening.”

Operating at warp speed
With the “need for speed” making an impact on warehouses around the globe, Jones says some workers will do anything to meet their quotas and inventory turn requirements.

“There are some industries where certain workers are paid by the number of items that go out the door,” Jones explains. “I’ve been in warehouses where people have taken the governors off their forklifts in order to drive faster. The problem is that getting stuff out the door quickly can also contribute to severe injuries when the right safety protocols aren’t in place.”

So how can a warehouse or DC manager avoid these issues and ensure the safest possible experience at the loading dock? Jones says using restraining devices on trucks and other vehicles is a fundamental step that shouldn’t be overlooked.

“Everyone should be chocking their wheels, but sometimes drivers don’t do this or the chocks are worn out,” says Jones. Using manual, electric or hydraulic truck restraints, workers have a better chance of capturing the trailer should it break free or roll away. Add an indicator light system to the equation (green for good, yellow for caution, and red for warning), says Jones, and the truck driver, lift truck operator and dock workers will be able to determine whether it’s safe to enter or operate the vehicle.

On the dock itself, overhead doors, dock levelers, dock seals and canopies can help keep accidents and injuries to a minimum. A fixed dock leveler, for example, gives lift truck drivers an easier and safer route in and out of the trailer, while a shelter or seal helps keep out the elements and also helps keep the forklift from sliding or losing traction.

“In our plant, we use shelters because we don’t heat or cool the building,” says Jones, “but we want to be able to protect our forklift drivers. So, a truck backs in and the structure will shelter the driver as he drives on and off the vehicle.”

Guardians of the dock
Falling off a dock—even if the actual fall distance is minimal—can inflict significant damage on the human body. Cory Thomas, senior guarding product specialist at Wildeck, says putting up guardrails in an open or pit area is a good way to keep such accidents to a minimum.

“A lot of injuries occur when people aren’t paying attention and a forklift falls off the edge of the pit,” says Thomas. “By putting up a protective barrier or guardrail, you can help cut down on the accidents, worker’s compensation claims and equipment downtime.”

On the dock, guardrails also provide visual cues to workers who may not otherwise recognize the potential hazard—much like highway guardrails protect drivers and make them aware of road edges, change in terrain or upcoming obstacles. Folding/portable gates can be used to set up temporary or permanent areas where hazards lurk, says Thomas, and “prevent people from falling off or entering dangerous areas.”

Rite-Hite’s Swietlik says the “drive approach” is another area that warehouse managers should be thinking about when developing safety protocols. “There seems to be an increase in the number of truck drivers that are not seeing the pedestrians,” he explains, “who are out on the drive approach chalking the wheels, opening the trailer doors for the truck, or just going outside to acknowledge the trailer and fill out the paperwork with the driver.”

In these situations, Swietlik says safety clothing such as reflective vests combined with integrated loading dock systems can help avoid serious problems. With such systems, he says the dock leveler, dock door and dock lock are all controlled from the inside of the warehouse or DC, thus negating the need for the pedestrian to go outside and into the “drive approach” space.

“We’re seeing a lot of interest from companies that want to minimize the number of people who are outside of the building,” says Swietlik, “specifically in and around the loading dock.”

Keeping it in the lines
Not all dock safety protocol and procedures have to involve expensive equipment and integrated systems. In fact, one of the easiest ways to help ensure worker safety at the loading dock involves a few rolls of black and yellow safety striping or, a can of paint, a paintbrush and some masking tape.

“Use the striping to indicate where the vehicles can go, where the dock equipment is, routing guidelines and so forth,” says Jim Galante, director of business development at Southworth Products Co. “This is one of the simplest ways to provide visual warning signs for workers, and it’s a constant reminder of the hazards that exist in certain areas of the dock and warehouse.”

As an added measure, Galante suggests re-painting or reapplying the visual cues every one to two years to ensure good visibility. And speaking of visibility, Galante says warehouse and DC managers should also inspect their current dock illumination techniques to help truck drivers easily discern where the yard ends and the dock edge begins.

Finally, he says any dock not protected by an enclosure should be treated with a non-skid coating to minimize slips and falls. “Treated concrete is extremely smooth and can get pretty slick when it’s wet,” says Galante. “With docks that are exposed to water (those found in food processing plants, for example), applying non-skid epoxy or other flooring cover can help ward off potential problems.”

Measuring the benefits
Keeping accidents to a minimum on the loading dock isn’t always easy or cheap, but the extra effort can pay off significantly. Consider, for example, the Fortune 250 firm that was dealing with a high incident rate in its loading dock area. About 10 years ago, Swietlik and his team worked with the company, helping to overhaul all areas of its loading dock safety protocol.

The effort, time and money paid off for the company. “Over the last 10 years, the company’s incident rate has dropped to almost zero,” he says, acknowledging the difficulty in “putting a productivity” number on safety. Much like an insurance policy or a fire extinguisher, the real payoff comes when something goes wrong. “One thing is for sure,” Swietlik says, “the company’s employees feel safer. That, in turn, has helped the workplace’s attitude and engagement levels.”

Regardless of warehouse size, structure or function, Jones says having a proactive safety culture can go a long way in warding off expensive litigation, lawsuits and worker’s compensation claims. “The lawsuits that would result from one dock-related death in a 1-million-square-foot warehouse,” says Jones, “would more than pay for everything that needed to be done to make that warehouse safer to work in.” 

Companies mentioned in this article
• Pioneer Dock Equipment
• Rite-Hite
• Southworth
• Wildeck

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About the author
Bridget McCrea, Editor
Bridget McCrea is a Contributing Editor for Logistics Management based in Clearwater, Fla. She has covered the transportation and supply chain space since 1996, and has covered all aspects of the industry for Logistics Management and Supply Chain Management Review. She can be reached at [email protected]

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