Lighten the load
10 October 2022
Loading bay safety requires a total approach. Wim Zwikker looks at how to run a safe and efficient operation in the changing warehouse and logistics environment.
INDUSTRIAL SAFETY regulations are constantly evolving as new technology and equipment is developed across the world. Global regulations are also emerging or being updated with an increasing emphasis on the physical and mental health of employees and their wellbeing.
Of course, the warehouse and logistics environment is changing. Manual processes have become fully automated. Doors and levellers that were once operated by levers and pullies are now opened or raised at the push of a button. Things that were once thought of in terms of future technologies are already in the here and now. Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technology, for example, is undoubtedly a positive step forward for businesses. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is another area that is transforming how humans and machines interact in a shared environment.
But despite such innovations, accidents are still a fact of everyday life, and the scale of the challenge should not be under-estimated. In a major study by the European Union (EU) into workplace accidents in 2018, 3,332 employees were involved in accidents in which they lost their lives, an increase (by 60 deaths) on the 2017 figure. In that same year, there were 3.1 million non-fatal accidents that resulted in at least four calendar days of absence from work, 8,137 more than 2017.
While the largest number of accidents are recorded in the construction sector (at 20.5 %), the transportation and storage sector still takes an alarming second place (16.7 %), and actual deaths in the loading area are probably more if accidents in manufacturing (15.2 %) are taken into account.
Local statistics by country also show the scale of the challenge. In a four-year period from 2015 – 2018 inclusive, France recorded the highest number of workplace-related deaths (2,390) followed by Italy (2,031) and Germany (1,754). Spain and the UK were not far behind with 1,280 and 1,041 respectively. Even accounting for different sizes of workforce, all would agree that even one fatality was one fatality too many. The costs attributed to accidents also make for sobering reading. Not only are there the costs from any public liability claims that may result, as well as the cost of recruiting and training replacement staff, but there are also the more intangible, indirect costs, such as the loss of good will and damage to your brand.
What all senior executives working in the world of logistics are trying to balance is the need for increased efficiencies in and around the loading bay with the uncompromising need for safety. One can never be at the expense of the other. This is in turn driving safety equipment providers not only to look at individual products to address particular concerns, such as vehicle creep or premature drive-aways, but rather to see safety as an holistic issue that needs to be considered at a solutions level.
The key risks and dangers
The loading dock is one of the most dangerous areas of any warehouse, manufacturing facility or processing plant. These fast-paced environments see a significant amount of movement inside with people and equipment, such as forklifts, and outside with trucks and trailers arriving and departing. In an average facility workers can cross the edge of a dock more than 100,000 times per year leaving them susceptible to risk and injury. However, research data shows that an estimated two-thirds of all loading bay accidents can be prevented by regular training, clear communications, and harnessing a range of equipment and technology which already exists. Here are the key danger issues:
Probably the most common danger is vehicle creep (also known as ‘dock walk’), closely followed by accidents caused by a vehicle leaving its bay too early, potentially with an employee or forklift still in the trailer. Traditional wheel chocks, which used to be put in place manually, are limited in their use and unreliable, especially in poor weather conditions and they are by no means strong enough to prevent a vehicle from pulling away unexpectedly. This has led to a series of solutions that not only ‘guide’ the vehicle into the bay once it arrives, but also effectively ‘locks’ it there until it is safe to be released, with clear and simple ‘green/red’ lighting system indicates to the driver – and the loading bay workers – that it is safe to continue.
Forklifts represent one of the most obvious risks. In Germany, 15% of transport-related accidents in an internal environment involve forklifts (source – DGUV) while in the UK, 25% of workplace-related injuries are as a result of a forklift accident (Forklift Truck Association figures). In The Netherlands, there were 19 deaths directly attributed to forklift accidents in 2019 alone.
Every year, several hundred thousand forklift related injuries are reported, but the figures also show that as much as 70% of all reported accidents could have been avoided with proper safety precautions. With high volumes of traffic in the loading area it is paramount that every precaution is taken to provide a safe working environment.
Open loading bays and forklifts do not go well together: 7% of forklift accidents occur when a lift truck is driven off a loading dock. But there are simple and effective measures that can be put in place to increase safety. Using Dock Levellers that are equipped with an integrated, automatic safety barrier, for example, can safely stop a forklift from coming to grief. Equipment can be programmed to operate only in a safe sequence. They are designed to survive in the toughest applications and environments, featuring heavyweight steel profiles for increased stability and safety. Their interlocking capability also means they can be easily combined with industrial doors, vehicle restraints and safety barriers.
When it comes to safety barriers, using tapes or chains as protection for open loading bays and doors is not acceptable. In fact, they can be a major hazard, and a more comprehensive and rigorous solution is required. These include barriers that are made of PVC-coated fibreglass mesh, bound with highly visible bright yellow, heavy-duty, polyester restraint straps that are strong enough to absorb a kinetic energy of up 18300 Joules. That’s equivalent to a 6-ton forklift truck with 3-tons of load hitting the barrier with a speed of 7 km/h. While a physical barrier may not be the most sophisticated tool within a facilities manager’s armoury, it is still a useful last-line of defence when all other means of warning or communications have failed or been ignored.
Many if not all the accidents reported in the loading bay are preventable, some by following simple processes and others through specific safety equipment; so too are risks generated through poor maintenance. Seldom used or old and rusty landing gear may collapse under extreme weight if not properly maintained. There is also a risk of trailers tipping or overturning. While there is no excuse for poor maintenance, additional trailer supports with a high load capacity can add an extra layer of loading bay safety.
People and pedestrians
People, of course, represent one of the greatest dangers. Reversing vehicles are a particular hazard, and a risk that can be mitigated by an audible warning that a vehicle is approaching the loading bay to enable an individual to stand clear. People are also at risk when onboard the trailer itself, and again sensors can be used to detect motion and prevent an accident from occurring. Fail safes can also be fitted to prevent a vehicle restraint from being disengaged while there is still somebody inside the vehicle.
Risks can also be associated with poor communication. The increasingly international nature of business means drivers arriving on site who may only have a limited grasp of the local language. Site-specific training or even simple guides in multiple languages with supporting imagery and text that can be quickly understood not only contribute to a safer working environment, but also one that is more operationally efficient – delivering a ‘win win’ for all concerned.
And this is the point: safety and efficiency do not have to be competing factors. They are in fact wholly complementary. Wheel locking systems and vehicle restraints, dock levellers and safety barriers, communications systems and camera/detection technologies all have an important role to play.
But a safe and efficient operation is one best-achieved through an integrated approach: ‘solutions’ rather than ‘products’. Rite-Hite develops products to improve loading bay safety, like the Global Wheel-Lok which secures any type of trailer to the loading bay and preventing well-known incidents such as vehicle creep or accidents caused by a vehicle leaving its bay too early. However, before advising on product solutions, a thorough examination of the whole warehouse is conducted in order to provide the best approach for increased loading bay safety.
This article is an excerpt for Rite-Hite’s “Guide to Loading Bay Safety”, which can be downloaded on their website.
Wim Zwikker is managing director of Rite-Hite UK. For more information, visit www.rite-hite.com/en/eu