Loading Docks: Thoroughly Modern, Safer

Barbara T. Nessinger, Chief Editor

Despite the almost ubiquitous presence of cutting-edge robotics, AS/RS systems, AGVs and Warehouse Management Systems that enable warehouses to handle the industry’s rapidly changing landscape, many loading dock operations still use manual labor and are “so last century” with regard to technologies and practices. However, that is starting to change for the better.

Elements like built-in hazard-recognition systems; integrated and interlocked dock control systems; and internal and external warning systems are all examples of loading dock modernizations that are helping to bring this all-important area of the warehouse into the modern age.

Safety First—from the Docks on Up

Loading docks can be dangerous. It is estimated that about 25% of all reported warehouse injuries occur on loading docks, and for each incident hundreds of near-misses occur. Causes of dock injury include truck separation from the dock and falls from the dock—particularly when a forklift backs off the platform and falls on the operator. Obviously, these incidents can result in serious injuries and fatalities, making effective safety measures around loading docks a critical factor.

Published by the British Standards Institution (BSI), PAS 13:2017 is a code of practice for safety barriers used in traffic management within workplace environments. This document also covers test methods for safety barrier impact.

Paul Barlow, CEO at A-Safe, Inc., commented: “Industrial workplace hazards are life-threatening, but there are no standards or regulations regarding guardrail in the U.S. outlining how this type of product is tested, verified or installed. For instance, the norm in the U.S. appears to be that a guardrail has to withstand 10,000lbs at 4mph, but this is not an industry standard—it’s been inherited from an unknown source. This makes it very difficult for industry to make informed decisions; we want to change that, so buying decision-makers have a true comparative measure of performance between differing competitors.”

To that end, A-Safe offers a full line of pedestrian, traffic and building guarding solutions. The company’s iFlex Dock Gate XL is designed to defend dock loading bays, containing stray vehicles at dock entrances and protecting door infrastructure from impact damage. The gate creates a physical stop when loading doors are open, but not in use, with enhanced strength barrier for high-impact resistance in heavy vehicle environments. Double bollard posts offer high levels of collision resistance, even when the gate is open, protecting door infrastructure and shutter rails.

Barlow continued, “There’s more to this marketplace than many realize; what does it mean in real terms if a forklift truck represents a certain tonnage at a specific speed? We’re driving thought leadership about the impact of speed and weight; angle of impact; and the resulting kinetic energy that has to be dissipated by our products in an event. Ultimately, it comes down to this: Is your guardrail fit for purpose intended? Nobody wants to install a guardrail system that ultimately fails when it’s most needed.”

Controlling the Control Systems

In the past, the myriad of equipment in loading dock operation, such as levelers, restraints, overhead doors, etc., operated independently. Manual processes, like wheel chocks, took a lot of time and also have inherent potential dangers—i.e., a person sets the equipment incorrectly or in an unsafe manner.

Today, many loading dock control systems are automated. This automation is key to alleviating the possibility of human error. This automation often begins with the vehicle restraint, which can automatically secure the vehicle as it backs up to the dock. Because no one is needed to secure the trailer or vehicle manually, there is far less possibility of error or injury due to an unsecured vehicle.

Another control system consists of automatic restraints. These often work by locking onto the trailer’s wheels or its rear impact guard. Some automatic restraints can even be integrated into building management and security systems.

Once the restraint is engaged, it typically triggers a dock safety communications system. These systems are common at almost all warehouses or factories/plants. They consist of red and green lights that tell employees what the vehicle restraint’s status is at any given time. Inside the building, a green light tells the forklift operator, for example, that the trailer is secured and is safe to enter. Outside, the light goes red, letting the truck driver know it’s not safe to pull away from the dock. The lights reverse when the restraint unlocks, allowing the truck to leave.

Hazard Recognition

However, this simple red-green light system might not always be effective. Forklift drivers often have obstructed views, especially in crowded areas or when going in and out of the trailer. They might not see the control box or not see the right one, if there are multiple lights flashing.

To counter these dangers, more sophisticated communication systems exist in order to indicate the presence of recognized hazards—which can help to control them. A warehouse or factory can no longer simply rely on one product but, rather, an integration of audible and visual warnings systems.

To address such needs, some companies have developed state-of-the-art hazard recognition and control systems. Said Chad Dillavou, Rite-Hite Products Company Product Manager, “The united goal of all Rite-Hite hazard recognition and control products is increasing communication, as it sets the foundation for a confident, safe and productive workforce inside and outside at the loading dock.”

The company also has two systems that share the common goal of extending pedestrian reaction time to potential hazards by communicating danger with visual and audible warnings. Approach-Vu helps pedestrians outside on the drive approach; Pedestrian-Vu protects people and material handling equipment inside at the loading dock.

Dillavou elaborated: “Outside the loading dock, Approach-Vu is a visual and audible warning system for pedestrians that is activated by the presence of a backing vehicle in the drive approach. Although many people would think a large vehicle backing up would be obvious, the tractor is over 70ft away—with engine noise obscured by various outside ambient noise. Therefore, it can go unnoticed even by an attentive worker.”

Some countries, such as New Zealand and France, have gone as far as to make recommendations for reverse alarms, cameras and extended bumpers for a refuge zone, respectively.

Inside, at the loading dock, Pedestrian-Vu detects motion inside a trailer and emits a blue light on the leveler to communicate potential hazards for collisions during loading and unloading. Continued Dillavou, “Whether complementing or introducing blue lights in the warehouse, this visual warning extends pedestrian and material handing equipment’s reaction time to forklifts exiting a trailer.”

Additionally, he said, “If it is interlocked with Rite-Hite controls, it can alert workers if they’ve entered an unsecure trailer … by flashing the blue light; sounding an audible alarm; and changing the exterior traffic light to red. The red outside light communicates to truck drivers that they should not pull away. Interlocking this equipment prevents the human error of a worker from disengaging a trailer, while activity is detected inside the trailer.”

Into the Future

It can’t be overstated or said too often: Loading docks are dangerous places. Human error often plays a direct role in loading dock accidents/injuries. According to Dillavou, “The biggest difference for our industry is that the hazards and potential accidents resulting from error could be life-threatening because of the size and weight of equipment in operation.”

Because of this, many companies, now focus on helping to eliminate the potential for human error through incorporating “Safe Sequence of Operation” in its products. Such an interlocked system is able to prevent one system from operating until another has already been initiated.

Recognizing the dangers and accidents that regularly occur at the loading dock, OSHA states that “[with] proper safety precautions, an estimated 70% of reported accidents and associated costs could have been avoided.” This statistic is telling, in that there is vast room for improvement on loading docks. The good news is that there is an equally vast array of companies, systems and products on the market to help make docks safer. To not take advantage of such assistance is simply illogical.

As Dillavou opined: “A loading dock without a vehicle restraint is like driving without a seatbelt.” Proper safety precautions equals accident avoidance. It’s that simple. WMHS