In 2017, there were 270,000 injuries reported in the transportation and warehousing industry. The same industry also saw 819 deaths, a number only surpassed by the construction industry. The number of preventable fatal work injuries in transportation and warehousing grew 5.3% from 2016 to 2017 (1).
What do these statistics have to do with loading docks? More than 25% of all industrial accidents happen at the loading dock, and for every accident, there are about 600 near misses (2). If your job has anything to do with loading docks, these figures are meant to help you understand how important loading dock safety really is.
One of the most dangerous types of accidents that occur at the loading dock is forklift fall-through. This type of accident happens as a trailer is being loaded or unloaded. Sometimes, the momentum of the forklift transfers to the trailer, causing it to move forward until it separates from the dock leveler. Other times, the truck driver thinks loading or unloading is complete and pulls away from the dock prematurely. When the forklift leaves the trailer, it falls into the gap. The forklift driver often falls out or tries to escape, and the forklift falls on him or her. The average forklift weighs as much as three cars.
“Forklift fall-through doesn’t happen every day, but when it does, it’s one of the worst types of accidents that happen in a warehouse or distribution center,” says Jeff Schulze, Vice President at loading dock equipment manufacturer Systems, LLC. “Fortunately, when used correctly, vehicle restraints help minimize the chances of a forklift fall-through accident.”
When a trailer backs up to a loading dock, the most common types of vehicle restraints capture or block the trailer’s Rear Impact Guard (RIG), sometimes called an ICC bar, securing the trailer to the loading dock until the restraint is disengaged.
Wheel Chocks Are Not the Answer
The Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) states that companies with warehouses and distribution centers are responsible for the safety of their employees, which obviously includes dock personnel, and requires that all vehicles are, at minimum, restrained by wheel chocks prior to and during loading and unloading.
If someone believes wheel chocks are an acceptable substitute for vehicle restraints, he or she must ensure that every trailer is properly chocked, which is rare. In one facility, every dock position might have an immaculate set of wheel chocks that are always stored in their cradle, but they’re only immaculate because they aren’t used very often. Dock personnel at another facility might believe truck drivers should chock their own trailers, but all they’re legally required to do is set their brakes. At another facility, perhaps wheel chocks are not even available. They were there at some point in time, but on a frigid winter day they weren’t returned to their cradle and the snowplow picked them up and ripped them off the wall. At yet another facility, some of the chocks have simply broken down from years of use and were never replaced. In each case, the company is not only risking OSHA fines, but also the safety of its dock personnel.
Wheel chocks also must be applied firmly against the closest set of wheels to the dock, or they may not prevent trailer creep. This requires more than just casually tossing the chock near the trailer wheels. A gravelly drive or wet or icy conditions also reduce the effectiveness of wheel chocks. To top it all off, in most cases, trucks can simply pull trailers right over wheel chocks, so they’re generally not very good at preventing early pull-away.
Communication is Key
Securing a trailer to the loading dock is only part of the reason vehicle restraints are preferred over wheel chocks. Communication between dock personnel and truck drivers is essential for maintaining safety in the loading dock, and wheel chocks do nothing in this area. Vehicle restraints often include light communication systems that know when the trailer is restrained and use interior and exterior lights to communicate this to the truck driver and dock personnel so loading or unloading can safely begin.
Safety is an Investment
Anyone who thinks vehicle restraints are too expensive should consider that loading dock accidents cost companies an estimated $675 million every year,(3) and the average cost of a worker injury accident is about $189,000 (4). A better way to spend $189,000 is to install automatic vehicle restraints and greatly reduce the chances of a forklift fall-through accident in the first place.
There is also a possibility that installing restraints at your loading docks may lower your insurance rates. “When you install restraints, you’re acting to not only reduce the chances of employee injury accidents, but also damage to equipment, vehicles, and cargo from accidents,” says Schulze. “It’s definitely worth a call to your insurance provider.”
A Chance Not Worth Taking
It’s been said that forklift fall-through accidents are a one-in-a-million incident. That might not be far from the truth. If a facility has 20 dock positions and each sees 10 trailers per day, and each of those trailers sees 40 forklift entries and exits during loading or unloading, it only takes 25 weeks for this facility to have a million opportunities for a forklift fall-through. Suddenly one-in-a-million feels much too close for comfort.
Don’t Wait Until It’s Too Late
The time to put on your seat belt is not after you’ve been in a car accident. It’s a bit late to install smoke detectors after your home has burned to the ground. If you drive a forklift to load or unload trailers and wheel chocks are all you’ve got, ask your supervisor about vehicle restraints. If you’re a warehouse manager or safety officer, don’t wait until someone gets hurt to put vehicle restraints in the budget. When you install vehicle restraints in your loading docks, rest easy knowing you’ve done the best thing you can do to help minimize the risk of forklift fall-through accidents.
Jeremy Artz is the Product Manager for loading dock equipment manufacturer Systems, LLC. He has 20 years of marketing and product management experience in various industries from manufacturing to financial. Jeremy specializes in connecting people and products by focusing on how those products can benefit businesses and improve lives.
1 National Safety Council Injury Facts https://injuryfacts.nsc.org/work/work-overview/work-safety-introduction/
2 Industrial Safety & Hygiene News https://www.ishn.com/articles/107356-slow-down-watch-out-know-the-facts-about-loading-dock-hazards
3 Material Handling & Logistics https://www.mhlnews.com/warehousing/safety-and-security-loading-dock-know-your-risks-and-take-control
4 National Safety Council: $39,000 medical cost https://injuryfacts.nsc.org/work/costs/work-injury-costs + estimated $150,000 property damage ($75,000 forklift + $75,000 building repair cost)