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Embracing the Aging Workforce With 21st Century Loading Docks

From automatic vehicle restraints to push-button hydraulic levelers with smooth transition features, technology is easing manual labor at the loading dock.

America’s workforce is aging. In fact, according to AARP, nearly half of new jobs in the U.S. last year were filled by workers 55 years or older. Largely due to ongoing labor shortages, this disproportionately small demographic picked up more than 1.4 million of the 2.9 million new jobs in 2018. Many of which are in the growth sector of warehousing and distribution centers.

Unfortunately, while robotics, AS/RS systems, AGVs and warehouse management systems have taken industrial facilities into the 21st century, many loading dock operations still use manual labor and 20th century technologies and practices. For aging workers, these practices can be back-breaking, literally. But luckily, that is changing.

From automatic vehicle restraints to push-button hydraulic levelers with smooth transition features, technology is easing manual labor at the loading dock providing relief to the backbreaking work of the past. In addition to the ergonomic benefits for workers, interlocked, integrated loading dock control systems are another example of how loading dock modernization is making the loading dock safer and more efficient for all employees.

Automatic Vehicle Restraints

At one time, almost less than 40 years ago, all levelers and overhead doors were operated manually. For example, workers would need to go outside, regardless of weather and environment, and physically set wheel chocks on a trailer’s rear tires once positioned at the dock.

These types of manual operations are not only time intensive, but potentially dangerous to the host of potential accidents caused by human error. OSHA reports that tractor-trailers are the second leading cause of back-over deaths in the country, so the fewer the people outside on the dangerous drive approach with large trucks and semi-trailer maneuvering, the better.

Many restraints have been developed to automatically engage with a trailer real impact guard (RIG) to secure transport vehicles with the push of a button. This level of automation helps docks operate safer and more efficiently, in addition to helping keep boots off the ground outside on the drive approach. Automatic vehicle restraints also help to prevent trailer separation accidents, such as a driver prematurely pulling away from a dock when a forklift is still inside which can lead to a forklift falling 4 feet or more while carrying heavy loads.

Automatic restraints can work by locking onto the trailer’s wheels or–more commonly–its rear impact guard (RIG). Some models can even help secure intermodal overseas container chassis, which are increasingly common across the supply chain.

Push-button Levelers

Once the trailer is secured to the loading dock, forklift operators and workers must bridge the gap from facility floor to the back of the trailer with a dock leveler. Mechanical levelers that require a worker to pull a chain might be sufficient for operations that do not have a high volume of trailers to service and a young workforce. However, for aging workers and high-volume operations, it’s important to seriously consider hydraulic levelers.

Using a push-hold button on a control box, hydraulic levelers provide workers the luxury of only needing to lift a finger to raise and lower a heavy hydraulic leveler. Considering the average loading dock leveler services on average eight trucks per day, that’s saving a lot of bending over and pulling; not to mention backaches and trips to the chiropractor.

Additionally, in a study conducted by The Ohio State University, it was revealed that selecting a dock leveler designed with special attention to creating a smooth transition significantly helps to reduces the effects of Whole Body Vibration (WBV). This smooth transition can extend from the building floor to the leveler, from the leveler deck to leveler lip and from the leveler lip to trailer bed. WBV can be a key contributor to chronic back, neck and ever leg injuries from long term or aging forklift operators.

Loading Dock Control Systems

Traditionally, the various pieces of loading dock equipment–including vehicle restraints, levelers and overhead doors–were operated independently of each other. The most advanced dock controls now seamlessly integrate these systems.

It starts with the vehicle restraint. Once it is engaged with a RIG or rear wheels to secure the trailer, the vehicle restraint enables dockworkers to use other equipment in a safe sequence of operations. For instance, these systems can be programmed with a green light interlock, which disables the use of the hydraulic leveler or overhead door until the vehicle restraint is safely engaged; 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 release the trailer. This type of control panel helps to eliminate the potential for human errors when it comes to operating equipment at the loading dock door.

These advanced control systems use a modern user interface with membrane switch buttons. NEMA 4X rated, these control systems are built to withstand the harsh conditions of a loading dock to meet requirements for electrical noise, and harsh environmental conditions. In addition, they have flexible circuitry and can be modified to update components or add features as needs change or budgets allow.

Automating Safety

Working on a loading dock doesn’t have to be a major pain. Facility managers looking to improve their equipment with more automated solutions will be doing a great service to not only their aging employees, but all employees. More advanced equipment can also simultaneously improve efficiency and safety.

Automatic vehicle restraints, hydraulic levelers with smooth transition features and interlocked loading dock control systems are just three ways facilities can provide ergonomic safety solutions for workers. If your facility is still using wheel chocks, mechanical levelers or levelers designed without smooth transition technology, it is time for an upgrade.

Chad Dillavou is product manager at Rite-Hite.

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