Training and tech help keep loading docks safe

How can a company decrease dock worker injuries quickly?

Answered by Joe Manone, vice president of marketing, Rite-Hite Corp., Milwaukee.

Several factors contribute to loading dock safety. The first is training. Employees need to be adequately trained on proper equipment operation – such as lift trucks, dock levelers, vehicle restraints and overhead doors – to help prevent injuries and accidents.

Accident prevention also depends heavily on safe loading/unloading procedures. For instance, a vacant dock, which often is several feet above ground level, creates a hazard for lift trucks (stand-up walkies or forklifts), so appropriate safety equipment should be in place to prevent lift trucks from falling off the dock.

Additionally, trucks should be properly secured to the dock before loading or unloading begins. Several types of trailer accidents can lead to injuries at the loading dock, such as unexpected trailer separation, which occurs when a truck driver mistakenly drives away while a lift truck is entering, leaving or still inside the trailer. Detached (or spotted) trailers at the dock also can be vulnerable to tip-over accidents. Trailer creep can occur when repeated impact causes the trailer to inch away from the dock, leading to a major safety hazard for lift truck operators.

Vehicle restraints can secure the trailer to the loading dock for safe loading/unloading by either engaging the trailer's rear-impact guard or rear wheel.

Clear, reliable communication between the dock and truck is as important as physical restraint. Lights, signs and alarms must clearly inform dock attendants when they can safely enter the truck and must inform truck drivers when it is safe to depart. Additionally, dock personnel should inspect the trailer for any structural defects before beginning loading or unloading.

Another step is proper maintenance, which begins by planning ahead. The shipping and receiving area can be a dangerous place because of the volume of activity and the number of potential hazards. A safety audit is a good way to examine these hazards and determine if adjustments need to be made. The condition of mechanical components such as dock levelers, lift trucks and vehicle restraints should be examined.

A regular maintenance program for cleaning, lubricating and adjusting moveable parts can help keep equipment reliable, extend product life and enhance productivity. It also is important to make sure the loading dock is secure and that unauthorized persons cannot enter the area.

Loading in the long term

Although companies continue to focus on catastrophic accidents, two emerging issues pose serious safety and health risks for lift truck operators – "dock shock" and "trailer drop."

Numerous studies link vibration to chronic spinal-related injuries and lift truck operator fatigue. One type of occupational vibration, whole body vibration, is transmitted through the body's supporting surfaces such as the legs when standing and the neck, lower back, and buttocks when sitting. At the loading dock, WBV exposure has been associated with forklifts. Studies have shown that back disorders are more prevalent and severe in forklift operators exposed to WBV than in nonexposed operators. However, forklifts are not the only cause of vibration at the loading dock – loading dock equipment also contributes to WBV and injuries.

As a lift truck crosses between the loading dock floor and trailer bed, drivers are exposed to jarring from the bumps and gaps that exist on traditional dock levelers. This situation is described as "dock shock." Dock shock compounds the WBV effects to which drivers are exposed, which rattles their backs, necks and spines. It also causes product and equipment damage.

Another long-term safety issue is "trailer drop," which describes vertical trailer bed movement that occurs with the weight of lift trucks traveling in and out of trailers, and is due to trailer suspension systems. Trailer drop causes lift truck operators to experience significant jolts, which can lead to chronic back and neck injuries. It also can damage products and equipment, such as dock seals and dock bumpers.

Many immediate and long-term hazards exist on a loading dock. It is essential that workplaces train personnel, understand chronic issues at the dock, enforce safety procedures and maintain an awareness of new technologies that can help keep workers safe. Some dock levelers and vehicle restraints are now specifically designed to minimize dock shock and trailer drop by creating a smooth transition between the warehouse floor and the trailer.

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