How close to loading docks should forklifts be allowed to operate?
With over a million forklifts in operation across the country, it’s no surprise that accidents happen. OSHA estimates that about 110,000 incidents involving forklifts happen every year, totaling roughly $135 million in immediate costs.
Loading docks are perhaps one of the most common places to find lift trucks and they can also be one of the most dangerous. About seven percent of forklift accidents involve a forklift being driven off a vacant loading dock. While it may not sound like much, that percentage represents approximately 7,700 accidents of this nature each year.
These incidents are preventable. Forklift safety starts with following good practices, such as staying a safe distance from the edge while operating a forklift near a loading dock (read more in Top 5 Tips for Warehouse and Racking Safety).
What OSHA Says
OSHA remains somewhat mum on the topic of how close forklifts should be allowed to get to open loading docks. Standard 1910.178(m)(6) simply says, “A safe distance shall be maintained from the edge of ramps or platforms while on any elevated dock or platform.” Rather than specifying a certain distance, OSHA expects and requires operators to use sound judgment to avoid a likely fatal accident (learn more in Forklift Safety 101: Tips for Preventing Forklift Fatalities).
How to Handle the Hazard
In the absence of specific OSHA guidelines, there are some steps that employers should take to mitigate the risks of forklifts operating around open loading docks.
- Highlight dock edges. It’s a good idea to paint loading dock edges in a bright color (often yellow) to help forklift operators identify them more easily.
- Use safety gates. Safety gates not only indicate a safe distance from the edge of ramps and docks, but also provide a physical barrier. Most barriers are designed to withstand the force of a 13,000 lb. forklift traveling at 4 mph, so they can prevent any straying lift trucks from getting too close to the edge.
- Follow safe operating procedures. The only certain way to prevent forklifts from falling off an open loading dock is to either keep the doors closed when docks are not in use, or restrict forklift access to areas where there are open docks.
To answer the question directly, there really is no set distance that forklift operators should stay back from open loading docks.
Ideally, any loading dock that isn’t in use should be kept closed to prevent accidents. Failing that, however, lift truck operators should use their best judgment and businesses must implement safe practices that ensure forklifts are unable to get too close to the edge of a vacant dock.
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