A loading dock door that has been left open is a common sight in many warehouses. Open dock doors, however, leave employees at risk of falls, whether on foot or while riding a lift truck. While the dangers are real, few employers take active measures to protect workers from this hazard.
In this article, we'll look at ways to prevent accidents around open loading docks.
The Simplest (But Rarely Sufficient) Solution
Let’s first clarify what we mean when we say an “open loading dock.” This term refers to a dock with an open door, but no trailer attached. The open edge leads to a 4-foot drop, which is a serious hazard for anyone working in the area.
The most obvious solution to this problem is to keep loading dock doors closed when not in use. But this doesn't always happen, and there are several reasons for that:
- Most warehouses and factories aren’t climate-controlled, and leaving the doors open is an easy way to supply ventilation and fresh air during the warmer months
- On a busy loading dock, it makes it easier to see trucks arriving
- Opening and closing dock doors takes time, so leaving them open allows workers to use the docks more quickly
OSHA Loading Dock Rules
There are thousands of warehouses around the country – many with multiple loading docks – so it’s no surprise that OSHA has addressed this topic. Their regulations state that every wall opening from which there is a drop of more than four feet must be guarded by a fall protection barrier. This, of course, applies to loading dock edges as well.
As with most rules, there are some exceptions. If employers can demonstrate that the use of fall protection is not feasible, the work may be done without it. However, the following conditions must be met:
- The work operation for which fall protection is infeasible is in process
- Access to the platform is limited to authorized employees
- The authorized employees are trained in accordance with § 1910.30
Employers should be aware that these are only the federal safety regulations. Each state may have its own (potentially stricter) rules that businesses must comply with.
How to Prevent Dock Accidents
Simply meeting OSHA requirements is rarely good enough. These regulations represent the bare minimum required to protect workers. But being proactive and taking steps to prevent incidents and create a safe working environment requires going above and beyond this.
Here are some simple things you can do to protect warehouse workers from this completely unnecessary hazard.
Signage is a great way to alert employees to a potential hazard. Since loading docks can be hectic, using simple, easy-to-understand signs is of the utmost importance. For example, a red “STOP” sign is the universal indicator not to proceed. Simple explanatory signs may include “Do not enter if dock is open” or “DANGER: open dock.”
Consider the placement of the signs to ensure that workers will see them well before they get to the hazard area (find out How to Master the Science of Sign Visibility).
They're a simple measure, but floor markings can be an effective way of drawing attention to a potential hazard. Paint the dock edge in a reflective yellow color, which will help provide employees with a better view of the dock.
You may also wish to mark an area around the loading dock that must remain clear (of people and product) unless loading or unloading is in progress – a “safe zone.” Slips, trips, and falls are one of the leading causes of injury in the workplace, and it doesn’t take much for a worker to trip on a broken pallet or slip on a small puddle, lose balance, and fall off the edge of an open dock.
Overhead lighting should be sufficient so that employees can clearly see the edge of the dock, as well as any floor markings or signage that may be present.
Businesses may also opt to use safety lighting systems. A standard wall box with green and red lights can be an excellent option to let workers know whether they may approach the dock edge or enter the safety zone. (The light should, of course, be red unless there is a docked trailer that’s safe for workers to enter.)
Safety barriers are perhaps the most important tools that employers can use to prevent accidents around an open dock. Barriers provide a visual cue to alert workers that a dock is open but a trailer isn’t present. They should be prominent and brightly colored – yellow is often preferred as it’s the international safety color indicating “warning.”
In a busy loading dock environment, some may worry about the hassle of removing safety barriers every time the loading dock is needed. Remedy this by opting for barriers that can be installed and removed quickly. Most docks have metal trim around the doors, and strong magnets often work well.
There are a wide variety of visual barriers available, including guardrails, bollards, and dock barricades. Assess the needs of your business to select the option that works best for you. Barriers help prevent both people and lift trucks from going over the edge, so if lift trucks are used around your dock, be sure to look for a barrier that can withstand the weight of a loaded forklift moving at 4 mph (see 4 Major Forklift Hazards Near Loading Docks for related reading).
Of course, none of these measures will be very effective without adequate employee training.
Anyone with access to the loading dock should receive safety training that covers:
- Maintaining a safe, clutter-free dock environment (find out Why Housekeeping Is an Important Part of Loading Dock Safety)
- Safe behavior around open docks (such as not jumping on or off the dock)
- When it’s safe to approach a loading dock edge
- How to report dock hazards
For various reasons, open loading docks are sometimes unavoidable. But that doesn’t mean they have to be a serious danger to workers. Taking time to assess the situation and identifying solutions that work for your business and your operations can mitigate the risks without affecting productivity and workflow.