How to tackle the most common hazards in and around the loading dock for a safer, more efficient food manufacturing operation
Things move fast in food manufacturing, especially when it comes to the transfer of materials at the loading dock and throughout the plant or warehouse. But moving fast doesn’t diminish the importance of safety. The time is now to think about the most common areas and activities that pose serious safety hazards and how to minimize the risks.
Nearly 100 workers are killed each year in the United States as a result of forklift-related incidents. At the dock, the situation calls for clear communication to the right person, at the right time, and at exactly the right location.
Communication at the dock often has to do with forklift operators knowing where pedestrians are and pedestrians knowing where forklifts are at all times. A forklift driver’s ability to watch for pedestrians is hampered when the forklift is inside a trailer where it is essentially operating in a tunnel. At the same time, pedestrians and other forklift operators on the dock have a hard time seeing a forklift operating inside a trailer. The problem is worse when a trailer is approached from the side and a forklift is operating deep inside the trailer.
A host of other circumstances related to communication also influence the safety of forklift operators and pedestrians at the dock. For example, pedestrians and visitors can enter the dock area without the forklift operator’s knowledge, or pedestrians and visitors might step outside of zones designated for pedestrian travel.
Many safety-minded companies look to next-generation technology to address the problem. One such technology uses lights and an alarm to communicate the status of forklifts inside the trailer. With the system, forklift drivers and pedestrians know when a forklift is working inside the trailer so they can exercise proper caution against that forklift backing out. The use of lights can also be used to enhance communication of the status of vehicle restraints to the forklift operator, adding another level of protection against potentially catastrophic trailer-separation accidents.
Accidents caused by trailer separation
Some use wheel chocks to keep a trailer from moving at the dock during trailer loading and unloading. However, many safety experts and most dock equipment manufacturers agree that chocks offer only minimal protection against trailer movement. The safer option is to use vehicle restraints.
Vehicle restraints that latch on to the Rear Impact Guard (RIG) of a trailer are developed specifically to keep trailers from separating from the dock. With the proper vehicle restraint, companies greatly reduce the potential for catastrophic accidents such as when a trailer pulls away from the dock unexpectedly when a forklift is inside the trailer.
However, not all restraints are alike. An RIG-based restraint with a full rotating hook provides an extremely high level of protection because the hook has the upward reach necessary to wrap up and over the widest range of RIG-shapes and sizes and hold them firmly in place.
Injuries that add up
The potential for catastrophic accidents like trailer separation represent one major safety issue at the dock. The other concerns are chronic injuries related to trailer drop and dock shock.
Trailer drop describes vertical semi-trailer bed movement, or “drop,” that occurs with the weight of forklifts traveling in and out of trailers. The issue is of particular concern on trailers with air-ride suspension systems. Trailer beds can move vertically, or drop, up to approximately eight inches during the loading and unloading process. Trailer drop causes forklift operators to experience significant jolts, which can lead to chronic back and neck injuries. Restraints that stabilize the trailer to prevent both vertical and horizontal movement address the long-term wellness issues of forklift operators, including the risk of chronic spinal injuries.
Dock shock refers to the jarring that operators of lift trucks (forklifts or stand-up walkies) often experience as they cross between the warehouse floor and the trailer bed. The problem is created by bumps and gaps that exist on traditional dock levelers. It is a significant source of occupational vibration, which is known to cause chronic health problems. The risk can be minimized with dock levelers that create a smooth path for lift trucks traveling in and out of trailers.
The threat of vacant docks, raised areas
Vacant docks and raised areas, such as work platforms, are another safety threat because they are places where people and forklifts can fall. Another reality is that forklifts can accidentally crash through closed dock doors.
Loading dock barriers and gates guard against the potential for pedestrians or materials handling equipment to fall off the edge of a dock. Many of the same types of systems also prevent people and materials handling equipment from falling off elevated areas inside the facility, such as raised platforms and mezzanines.
Newer barriers and gates address the need for ease of use and adaptability. An important distinction is that some barriers and gates are only meant to provide a substantial visual and physical barrier, guarding against incidental materials handling equipment impacts. Heavy-duty barriers and gates, on the other hand, provide a visual barrier and can stop a 10,000-lb. forklift traveling up to 4 mph. The term “heavy-duty” also doesn’t necessitate the need for conventional steel guardrails. Technically advanced barriers and gates often provide sufficient stopping power — in addition to the flexibility most operations require for addressing their needs throughout the facility.
Potentially devastating dock fires
Although it’s something many don’t think about often enough, loading docks are at risk of catching on fire — often meeting with devastating results. It has been shown that heat build-up that leads to burning can occur when hot-running semi-trailer lights are compressed against any make or model of compression-style foam dock seals. It can result in extensive damage to dock seals, buildings, trailers, and trailer contents.
Companies can easily and cost-effectively address the issue by installing dock seals with heat-dissipating, layered foil technology incorporated into dock seal, head pads and head curtains. Unlike fire-retardant materials, which only act to extinguish a fire once it has started, heat-dissipating materials prevent the dangerous build-up of heat, keeping the temperature at the surface of the seals at a low, safe level, and preventing scorching or burning from occurring. Such seals are proven to prevent fires from the heat of trailer marker lights and side pads. Heat-dissipating technology means the seals are fire-resistant and will prevent them from catching on fire.
Keeping high-speed doors safe and clean
The drive for improved productivity and the continuing need for energy efficiency have led to the use of high-speed industrial doors beyond the dock and throughout most food manufacturing environments. Yet the importance of using doors designed around safety cannot be understated.
Safety devices used on doors range from basic warning labels to reversing-edge mechanisms to photo-eye sensors to flexible bottom edges to area-detection systems. Other common devices include warning signals and vision panels.
Given the wide range of options, it’s important to think through which of them are most appropriate for the application. Equally important is determining how high-speed doors measure up to cleanliness standards. The right door should contribute to successful Sanitary Standard Operating Procedures (SSOPs). Anything less is unacceptable given the importance of food safety and the prevalence of high-speed doors in the food industry.
Simplify when possible
Addressing safety challenges at the dock and places within the facility where materials are moving quickly can be complex given the range of issues and diverse strategies and solutions to address them. Qualified dock equipment and door manufacturer’s representatives can help simplify things — and ensure the safest possible loading dock and materials handling operation.