Making Loading Dock Safety Automatic

Aaron Conway, President, Mezzanine Safeti-Gates, Inc.

Loading docks are often the busiest places in a facility. The operation at a loading dock traditionally consists of a tractor trailer backing up to an elevated section of the building, so material can be loaded/unloaded from the trailer, often multiple times a day. Working conditions can also be extreme if the docks are located outdoors, with material being moved in all kinds of weather—cold, heat, rain and even snow.

Even though dock height is commonly 4-5ft, that height is enough to pose a fall risk at unprotected ledges. Factors such as weather and repetitive movement of materials can fatigue employees working in loading dock operations, placing them a greater risk for falls from the elevated areas in the loading dock area.

OSHA regulation 1910.23 for Guarding Floor and Wall Openings and Holes states all working surfaces of 48in (4ft) or higher need fall protection. These standards apply to all working surfaces in a facility, even in the loading dock. ANSI standard MH 28.3-2009 section 6.4.3 requires fall protection at 36in (3ft) or higher at all times.

When it comes to choosing loading dock fall protection solutions, the best operate automatically, taking the responsibility for safety out of employees’ hands. For example, guardrails and chains can be deemed suitable for loading dock fall protection, but they are often left open after the truck drives away, because they depend on employees to remember to physically move them into place.

Making employees accountable for their own safety is irresponsible. There are safety gates that operate automatically at the dock which provide necessary fall protection and eliminate additional physical and mental strains of moving safety equipment in and out of place.

When you are evaluating fall protection solutions, seek out automatic capabilities and keep the following three points in mind:

  1. Ergonomic Equipment is a Must
    Make sure your safety equipment doesn’t create new hazards while guarding against others, especially in the loading dock area where there are often many moving components. In this regard, the famous quote “First, do no harm” applies to material handling safety.

Workers in loading dock operations are often are required to lift heavy items, move heavy loads, re-arrange items and more. These movements are often repeated throughout the day.

Repetitive motions can increase an employee’s risk for injury; they can also contribute to fatigue, another factor for injury. Replacing manual fall protection systems, like chains or railings, just adds to the fatigue.

All safety equipment in the loading dock should be installed to reduce the effort and strain on these employees and to make the process as ergonomic as possible. Equipment with automatic opening and closing mechanisms are the most ergonomic option you can select. In addition to automatic features, seek out equipment with hydraulic assist mechanisms that allow for easy, ergonomic operation.

  1. All Safety Devices are Not Equal

While a dual-gate system is typically used to secure the ledges of elevated work platforms in most industrial facilities, the design interferes with the workflow of moving material through the loading dock, so it is not an option. Chains that are latched into place are also not an option, as they do not meet standards and can be easily tripped over, which can cause falls and injury. Neither of these solutions are automatic, either.

One solution is to install a single-gate system that rolls, slides or pivots closed. This is an improvement over having nothing or a single chain in place, but it is only of any value when the gate is closed. Because this type of system depends on someone to remember then make an effort to close the gate, the gate is often left open. When the trailer is in place, the elevated area remains safe, but once the trailer drives away there is an exposed ledge at the end of the elevated loading dock; the truck can drive away. The area is not secure if the gate is not closed immediately—if an employee backs up too much, they can fall right off the ledge. It’s not very hard to forget something when you are tired, even if it’s a procedure you do multiple times a day—like shutting a safety gate.

The best solution for fall protection on loading docks is a single-gate system that the employee is able to raise and lock; one that opens only when the tractor trailer is in place and automatically closes once the truck drives away from the area. This allows the operator to control when they want to open the gate, but makes sure the ledges remains secure when there is no truck in position.

  1. Look Around—Elevated Work Surfaces on Ground Levels Too

The actual loading docks aren’t the only elevated work platform in dock operations. Dock-lifts that are often used at the ground level also provide risks for falls when employees ride them with material, and when elevated often reach heights of 4ft or more.

Safety gates for these lifts should feature automatically closing gates, which ensures fall protection for any worker on the lift. As the lift elevates, the gates should automatically close and lock into place. The gates should stay closed and locked until the lift goes back to ground level, providing fall protection while the lift is raised and the material is moved from the lift, truck and dock. There are designs that offer similar features without the automatic closing ability, but it’s important to seek out those solutions when you are able to take that responsibility out of your employees’ hands.

Secure the ledges of your loading docks, and make sure you take the responsibility of a safe environment out of the hands of your employees when possible. Be proactive: Have an automatic gate system installed before it is needed.  If your employees are distracted, you will have the peace of mind knowing the safety will still be in place. WMHS

About the Author

Aaron Conway is President of Mezzanine Safeti-Gates, Inc., a manufacturer of safety gates that provide fall protection in industrial facilities.