By: Andy Olson, Contributor
Warehouses and distribution centers have always been dangerous workplaces – and they may be getting more dangerous. As ecommerce has grown, so have consumer expectations for overnight delivery, forcing fulfillment operations to work faster than ever to keep up. Even without those pressures, material handling is traditionally among the most hazardous of industrial operations. Forklifts are involved in nearly 25% of all industrial accidents, primarily in loading dock areas. Dock door openings are a big part of this safety problem, especially in facilities that don’t use proper loading dock barriers, where forklifts are at risk of accidentally rolling or driving off the edge. It’s a 4ft-fall which can be costly and sometimes fatal.
Barriers are also a critical part of safety in other parts of industrial facilities, including elevated workspaces like mezzanines or pick modules. This article will examine the use of safety barriers at loading docks and elevated workspaces, as well as how to make sure they comply with OSHA’s Walking-Working Surfaces regulations. It will also look at the benefits of interlocking safety barriers with other pieces of dock equipment so they can only work in a safe sequence of operation.
Barriers at the loading dock
While there may be a valid reason for loading dock doors to be open without a trailer present, such situations create a very real danger, particularly involving forklifts. Accidents created by forklifts inadvertently driving off dock edges are almost always serious, and they occur surprisingly often. It is estimated that they account for 7% of all reported forklift accidents. Even if the dock doors are closed, they may not prevent these mishaps, as most are not designed to stop a forklift.
Loading dock safety barriers provide a simple and cost-effective way to address this problem. The first criteria in selecting a dock barrier is to find one capable of withstanding a forklift impact. To comply with OSHA’s Walking-Working Surfaces rule, these barriers cannot be lower than or deflect beyond 39in off the ground. The Dok-Guardian® XL Safety Barrier by Rite-Hite® is one such product. Constructed of bright red PVC-coated fiberglass mesh curtain and four yellow, heavy-duty polyester restraint straps, at 58in tall, it meets the OSHA height requirement and can stop up to 30,000lbs. of force.
The retractable barrier can stretch across openings of up to 12ft. 5in. It is anchored on either side by 62-in-tall steel Warden™ guards designed to protect the door tracks. In dock areas where space is tight, a common member design can be employed, which allows side-by-side barriers to share their Warden guards. For facilities using smaller material handling equipment, a lighter model (capable of stopping 5,500lbs. of force) is available. Products such as these create a visual barrier that reminds employees of the potential fall hazard, as well as physical barrier that – if necessary – can stop wayward equipment before it goes over the edge.
Elevated Workstation Safety
As facilities look to expand operations and maximize the efficiency of their building’s footprint, many choose to grow upward rather than outward, creating elevated or mezzanine-type storage and workspaces. However, the potential danger presented by mezzanine-level falls cannot be understated. Foolproof barriers must be installed at the forklift openings of these platforms to prevent falls by employees, equipment or pallets of product.
One such barrier is the Rite-Hite GateKeeper® Mezzanine Safety Gate, which can be installed at the edge of a pick module or any elevated workspace. It uses a dual reciprocating barrier to ensure that if a forklift is loading one side of the platform, the other gate is automatically secured, keeping workers out until the process is complete. The gates work in unison without relying on chains or cables, so if one side is open, the other is always closed. The product also has a safety latch feature that prevents the barrier from being operated from inside the work zone. There are also available options in the market with dual reciprocating gate functionality designed for use in tighter quarters, such as within existing rack systems or pick modules. Simple, yet effective, dual reciprocating barriers not only protect employees on the platform from serious accidents, but also employees on the ground from falling products or materials.
Evaluating barrier needs with BLAST
Since every facility has its own unique hazards and challenges, good managers work to tailor safety solutions to their unique workspaces and applications. As such, a growing number are abandoning generic “old school” calculations in favor of more sophisticated approaches. While 10,000lbs. at 4mph was the industry standard for many years, changes in material handling equipment and safety barrier options have led to more detailed discussions when choosing the appropriate solution for a facility.
One new barrier evaluation process is called “BLAST.” Short for barrier load and speed test, BLAST calculations can help managers identify the most appropriate barrier for a specific workspace by weighing factors such as total kinetic energy absorption, maximum gross loads and the average speed of material handling equipment used in that location. Thanks to BLAST, barrier selection no longer needs to be a “one size fits all” proposition.
Program-in safety with smart dock controls
“Programmed-in safety” is a trend across all types of industrial operations, but it is particularly relevant in fast-moving, high-danger areas like the loading dock. The concept centers around interlocking equipment together into a single control system, which is then programmed so the pieces of the system can operate only in the correct, intended sequence – greatly reducing the chance for human error.
For example, Rite-Hite’s Dok-Commander® Combined Control System can coordinate a variety of equipment, including a dock leveler, vehicle restraint, dock door, dock barrier and dock light. The control system comes with an interlock feature to ensure that its equipment can only be engaged in the proper order of operation.
Among its other safety features is an optional monitor with exterior camera that shows employees inside whether the vehicle restraint is properly engaged or not, keeping “boots off the ground” on the dangerous drive approach outside. When outfitted with dual cameras, the control box can provide interchangeable views between the trailer’s rear-impact guard (RIG) and the vehicle restraint; the rear wheelbase of the trailer; and, in the case of spotted trailers, the nose of the trailer (to verify trailer stand presence). Smart controls like the Dok-Commander also capture valuable data about the equipment and operations they direct and are compatible with Industrial Internet of Things technology.
The bottom line on barriers
As distribution centers and warehouses increase their pace to keep up with consumer demand, the employee safety precautions they take should increase accordingly. Application-specific loading dock barriers, in-plant safety barriers and mezzanine/racking protection equipment can provide simple, cost-effective solutions that can protect employees from life-altering accidents. These solutions, along with smart control systems, can help minimize risk in the workspace, enhancing organization productivity and ensuring employees make it home safely at the end of their shift. WMHS
Andy Olson is the Marketing Director, Rite-Hite Engineered Solutions (www.ritehite.com).