With high volumes of arrivals and shipments, a busy loading dock may seem chaotic to the casual observer, but it is actually well-orchestrated by the personnel. No matter how it appears, one thing is always constant: the need for safety.
Loading dock safety is a careful blend of many factors: Employee training, engineering controls, adherence to standard operating procedures, good housekeeping, logistics and double-checking variables. Balancing all of these elements minimizes hazards, injuries and product loss.
Warehouse and distribution crews need to have specific knowledge about the machinery they operate. They can’t just carry over the skills and experience of driving a car or pulling a little red wagon. In fact, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has a long list of training requirements for operators that includes:
- Operating instructions, warnings and precautions for the types of truck the operator will be authorized to operate
- The differences between the truck and the automobile
- Truck controls and instrumentation
- Engine or motor operation
- Steering and maneuvering
- Visibility (including restrictions due to loading)
- Fork and attachment adaptation, operation and use limitations
- Vehicle capacity
- Vehicle stability
- Any vehicle inspection and maintenance that the operator will be required to perform
- Refueling and/or charging and recharging of batteries
- Operating limitations
- Any other operating instructions, warnings, or precautions listed in the vehicle’s operator’s manual
- Surface conditions where the vehicle will be operated
- Composition of loads to be carried and load stability
- Load manipulation, stacking and unstacking
- Pedestrian traffic in areas where the vehicle will be operated
- Narrow aisles and other restricted places where the vehicle will be operated
- Hazardous (classified) locations where the vehicle will be operated
- Ramps and other sloped surfaces that could affect the vehicle’s stability
- Closed environments and other areas where insufficient ventilation or poor vehicle maintenance could cause a buildup of carbon monoxide or diesel exhaust
- Other unique or potentially hazardous environmental conditions in the workplace that could affect safe operation.
Employers must certify that every employee operating a powered industrial truck has been properly trained, observed and evaluated. Employers must conduct refresher trainings at least every three years, whenever there are new conditions in the work area, before an operator uses different equipment, and when an operator has been involved in an incident or near miss or has been observed using a vehicle unsafely.
In addition to the specific OSHA training requirements listed above, loading dock employees may also need training in:
- Ergonomics to prevent injuries from improper lifting and carrying
- Fall prevention from heights and unguarded edges
- Situational awareness to avoid hitting pedestrians, racking, supports and other vehicles
- The use of PPE such as footwear, gloves, eye, head and hearing protection
Engineering controls include safeguards that are put in place to prevent or reduce hazards. Because they do not rely on specialized training, engineering controls are a preferred method of minimizing hazards and the chance of injuries.
Engineering controls can be as simple and inexpensive as painting overhead piping or dock edges to make them more visible. Or they can be as elaborate as dock gate systems that automatically engage wheel chocks, trailer locks and dockboards when a trailer is attached, or raise a door barricade when the trailer is detached.
Here are other examples common on and around loading docks:
- Ventilation systems that remove excess carbon dioxide
- Lighting systems that illuminate trailers inside and out, as well as their surroundings
- Guardrails that keep pedestrians within walkways or protect elevated edges
- Indoor bollards that prevent damage to racking systems
- Outdoor bollards that protect building exteriors
Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) include all of the specific instructions that have been established to perform work tasks safely. Examples include:
- Inspecting loads received to make sure they are stable and undamaged
- Destroying damaged pallets
- Inspecting loads before movement to ensure proper shrink-wrapping or banding
- Securing dockplates or bridges
- Engaging locking devices before entering trailers
- Guarding dock edges when trailers are absent
- Lowering forks when trucks are idle
Because each loading dock is different, SOPs must be specific to the facility. They should also be covered in training and reviewed periodically
Like SOPs, good housekeeping practices help to ensure smooth operations. Due to the large volumes of materials coming and going, housekeeping may need to occur more frequently than in other areas.
At a minimum, all areas should be swept and, if appropriate, mopped daily. Designate bins or containers to collect cardboard, shrink wrap and other packing materials so floors and aisles stay clear.
Teach employees to recognize incidental spills and promptly clean them up. Keep spill response tools and supplies available at the loading dock and in other high-traffic areas.
Have a plan to quickly clean up rain or snowmelt that enters the dock area as well as a plan to keep outdoor areas clear and safe for truck drivers and employees who need to exit to verify chocking of wheels.
Establish storage for all tools and equipment to keep it undamaged and from creating tripping hazards. Keep up with housekeeping tasks throughout the day to minimize clutter and reduce the chance for slip, trip and fall injuries.
No facility has unlimited storage space. Too often, loading docks become staging areas because storage areas are full or operations isn’t ready to receive materials. Sometimes, there are delays before freight can go to remote storage areas.
Whatever the reason, materials remaining on loading docks can present additional hazards to operators because they reduce visibility in the area. They can also force safety issues such as awkward maneuvering. There is also increased risk of damage to the materials. Communication between purchasing and warehouse supervisors can help ensure preparation that allows large shipments to go directly from dock to designated storage or production area.
Despite controls and procedures, loading dock incidents continue to be among the leading causes of workplace injuries. When it comes to loading dock safety, redundancy is a good thing. Look for ways to double-check safeguards, especially when loading and unloading trailers.
Whether loading dock crews deal with one load or hundreds per day, they need to be properly trained not only in the use of material handling equipment but also in the SOPs and other controls that help keep everyone safe.