Loading docks are found in businesses ranging from commercial and industrial buildings to offices, hospitals, and warehouses. No matter what the operation, loading docks are often one of the busiest places to be. And when you add heavy machinery like forklifts to the mix, things can quickly become hazardous.
In this article, we'll go over the risks involved in operating forklifts near loading docks and give you tips for managing them.
Hazards Lurking Around the Loading Dock
There are over 1 million forklifts in operation across the United States. While they are essential for many businesses, they can pose a severe risk to workers if the right precautions aren't taken. In fact, OSHA estimates that 110,000 forklift accidents occur each year, injuring 94,750 workers and totaling about $135 million in immediate costs. Every three days, someone is killed in a forklift-related incident. And if that isn't sobering enough, it's estimated that 70 percent of forklift accidents and injures could have been prevented if the right safeguards had been in place (see Forklift Safety 101: Tips for Preventing Forklift Fatalities for related advice).
All sorts of things can go wrong when you've got forklifts operating near loading docks. Every business needs to conduct a risk assessment to find out exactly what they are.
While the hazards may differ depending on the work environment, here are some that are common to most loading dock areas.
Vacant Loading Docks
According to OSHA, seven percent of accidents are due to lift trucks being driven off a loading dock. Vacant docks – that is, docks that are open but have no trailer at them – present a major safety risk. The four-foot drop can be particularly hazardous in instances where the forklift is carrying a load that partially blocks the driver’s vision.
Open Ramp Edges
It sounds obvious: lift trucks can fall off of open-edged ramps and should stay squarely in the middle. But it’s not uncommon for forklifts to make hundreds of trips up and down a ramp over the course of a shift. Over time, drivers may start to stray to one side or the other, making the open ramp edge extremely dangerous.
Wet or Icy Surfaces
Even though they’re moving at slower speeds than conventional vehicles, forklifts can still skid on wet, icy, or oily dock surfaces or dock levelers.
A slippery dock area can also cause moveable dockboards to shift out of place, which can be dangerous when heavy lift trucks are driving over them.
Congestion and Traffic
According to NIOSH, nearly 20 percent of forklift accidents involve a pedestrian being struck by the forklift. That adds up to about 19,000 people injured in a forklift collision every year. Compounding this problem is the fact that the field of view while carrying a large load if often quite narrow.
While forklift drivers are trained on pedestrian safety, it’s often the pedestrians themselves who aren’t trained to anticipate and avoid forklift dangers. There are several common situations:
- Pedestrian didn’t see the lift truck
- Pedestrian didn’t hear the lift truck
- Pedestrian came too close to the lift truck
Mitigating Forklift Risks at the Loading Dock
In light of the safety concerns posed by forklifts in and around loading docks, here are some best practices organizations should follow to protect their workers, their products, and their equipment.
1. Use Safety Barriers on Vacant Docks
Safety barriers should be used whenever a loading dock is open but not in use. If a trailer isn’t at the dock, a strong, sturdy barrier should be to prevent forklifts from running off an open dock.
While it’s important to check specifications with the manufacturer, dock barriers are usually able to bring a 10,000-pound forklift traveling at up to 4 mph to a stop.
It’s also a good idea to paint the edge of the dock bright yellow. This won’t prevent anyone or anything from falling over (that’s the barrier's job), but it will improve visibility for forklift drivers.
You’ll want to consider the following when researching safety barriers:
- The maximum gross loads and speeds of material handling equipment that may impact the barrier
- The space required to allow the barrier to sustain maximum deflection after impact
- Whether repair or replacement is required if an impact creates permanent deformation to the barrier
- Whether barriers will be permanently installed or must be removed on a regular basis
2. Employ Traffic Management Systems
One of the most effective methods of controlling forklift-pedestrian interaction is to designate pedestrian walkways using signage and painted lines. Where possible, physical barriers should be installed to ensure that lift trucks cannot enter the pedestrian path.
Forklifts are required to have horns, but they can also be fitted with lights or warning alarms to help pedestrians spot them. Some companies are testing radio frequency devices to help forklift drivers detect pedestrians on the loading dock. Warehouse workers would wear safety vests with radio frequency (RF) tags and each forklift would be equipped with an RD receiver. The receiver would alert drivers to the presence of any workers within the receiver’s detection radius. Researchers found that this was a low cost solution and recommend it be used alongside other safety measures.
3. Inspect Dock and Ramp Surfaces to Guard Against Slips
Rain and snow on loading docks can cause slippery conditions for lift truck drivers. Dock inspections should be conducted on a daily basis, but floor conditions should be checked more regularly throughout the shift – particularly when inclement weather sets in, but also in case a spill goes unnoticed.
Consider creating a dock shelter to keep rain and snow out, and ensure all four sides (yes, the bottom too!) are sealed when trailers are at the dock.
4. Opt for Dock Ramps with Curbs
Ramps can be fairly narrow, without a lot of room for error. Choosing ramps with high, durable curbs – 8 inches is an adequate height – helps prevent lift trucks from accidentally veering off the edge and keeps them traveling in a straight line.
5. Keep Forks in the Right Position
This can assist with the driver’s visibility and reduce the risk of losing a load (which can cause safety concerns in and of itself). ANSI standards recommend that unloaded vehicles travel with the forks in a down-grade position on ramps with grades of five percent or more. This may mean that drivers need to back up a ramp when ascending to dock level.
Vehicles carrying a load should always position the load up-grade and keep the load as low as possible during travel. Note that this might require drivers to back down a ramp, which can feel counter-intuitive.
A few simple loading dock design choices can make a big difference to the safety of both forklift operators and the pedestrians working near them. Training is also critical. The more people are trained and know safe loading dock procedures, the safer this busy area of your workplace will be.