by Chad Dillavou
Chad Dillavou is product manager for Rite-Hite Products

As any logistics expert knows, the loading dock is a vital component of a business. However, loading docks can be one of the most dangerous places at any warehouse, manufacturing facility or processing plant. In fact, approximately 25 per cent of all industrial accidents happen in the shipping and receiving area.

The pace has rapidly increased at most warehouses thanks to a variety of reasons, most notably the “Amazon effect”. This effect has made many consumers accustomed to almost immediate results from purchase to delivery. The probability of an accident in the DC increases as speed increases, and unfortunately, no single piece of loading dock equipment can guarantee safety.

Fortunately, thanks to new communication technology, these critical work areas do not have to be as dangerous as they once were. Some new dock safety products incorporate activity-detecting sensors, LED lights, audible/visual alarms and interlocking controls. These breakthrough products allow state-of-the-art facilities to implement comprehensive, systemic safety protocols into their dock operations. In some cases, they can also be added as retrofit projects, assuming the facility originally installed upgradeable equipment.

Sensors, lights, safety

In this illustration a blue light illuminates the dock floor outside of the trailer to alert pedestrians that a forklift is active inside.

The newest of these products are sensor-based systems designed to protect workers both inside and outside the dock. One system projects a blue light onto the leveler whenever activity is detected inside a trailer, alerting workers nearby that a forklift, pallet jack or pedestrian could be coming out at any moment.

Pedestrians have additional warning time to react, as this projection system works as a complement to the blue safety lights on forklifts. It can be added to almost any dock as a standalone item, or can be integrated with advanced control boxes in the future to keep the vehicle restraint engaged until activity in the trailer stops, ensuring the truck does not pull away with a forklift operator still inside.

The drive approach outside of the loading dock is equally dangerous, although collisions here typically involve a semi-tractor trailer rather than a forklift. The U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) is currently considering a new rule that addresses backing vehicles and equipment, which are common causes of “struck-by” injuries. “Struck-by” and “caught-between” injuries are two of the four leading causes of workplace fatalities.

Audible and visual alarms are now available to alert yard workers that a tractor trailer has begun moving in the immediate area.

Given ambient noise and the distance between a loading dock and the engine of a semi-tractor trailer (which can be in excess of 70 feet or more), inattentive dock yard workers may not hear a trailer backing toward them until it is too late. In the United States, OSHA cites 40 fatalities involving backing tractor-trailers in a six-year span. Tractor trailer rigs are the second leading cause of back-over accidents. Countries such as France and New Zealand, have already put measures in place to prevent these potentially fatal accidents.

Vehicle restraints can now incorporate an external sensor, which triggers an audible and visual alarm to alert workers outside the dock when a trailer begins moving in the area. These types of multisensory warnings immediately gain the attention of workers who might be in harm’s way and provide them time to remove themselves from danger. With certain vehicle restraints, this sensor system can be added as an upgrade or purchased as standalone equipment.

The LED trend continues

Red/green dock lights, indicating to forklifts that a trailer is locked and safe to enter (or, to the truck driver, unlocked and safe to pull away) have been standard for some time. However, while these lights are generally visible outside, they are not always visible inside, as stacked pallets can obscure a lifttruck driver’s view of them on the control panel.

To solve this common issue, enhancements have been developed, such as highly visible LED lights placed in the upper corners of dock doors – allowing forklift operators to see the red/green signal even if the control box lights are not visible. Additionally, red/green lights were also placed on the leveler, letting forklift operators inside the trailer know that it is still safely secured the loading dock.

The integration of these LED lights into dock control systems (tying their colour display to vehicle restraint engagement) sets the stage for further technological advances involving the integration of a wider array of equipment.

A safe sequence of operation

Dock controls now can connect the operations of vehicle restraints, dock levelers, overhead doors, safety barriers and LED signal lights. Significantly, the most sophisticated controls can be programmed to operate only in a safe sequence of operation, with individual elements of the system interlocked.

For instance, some dock control systems can be programmed with a green light interlock, which disables the use of the push button dock leveler or overhead door until the vehicle restraint is safely engaged. They can also be programmed with an overhead door interlock, which requires overhead doors to be opened prior to leveler operation; or a stored leveler interlock, which ensures that the leveler is stored safely before the restraint can be unlocked to release the trailer. If a worker presses the control box button for an individual system element in the wrong sequence, it will not work – ensuring no safety procedures can be skipped.

While the advent of hydraulic, push-button equipment made life easier (and safer) for dock workers, it did not eliminate mistakes. If a leveler is lowered too early, for example, a backing trailer can damage it. If a restraint is unlocked before the forklift exits and the leveler is stored, a serious risk of injury and product damage is at hand. Eliminating these possibilities is a clear benefit to the facility, its customers and most importantly its valued employees.

The last few years brought about great technological advancements in loading dock safety. As technology makes new advances every day in 2019 and beyond, it is important to consider equipment that is not just good for today’s loading dock, but offers upgradeable features to enhance safety long-term and reduces future costs.