Product Reviews

Loading docks: 5 steps for safe operations

Play the podcast. Jackson’s interview begins at the 08:50 mark.

Workers at height. Stacked materials. Pedestrian, forklift and truck traffic. All in one place.

“Loading docks are very dangerous areas for employees,” said Reginald Jackson, safety and health specialist in the Office of General Industry and Agricultural Enforcement, which is part of OSHA’s Directorate of Enforcement Programs.

During a recent episode of Safety+Health’s “On the Safe Side” podcast, Jackson spoke about safety at loading docks. Here are five steps to remember.


Look at the work area

Hazard assessments, proper work practices and other general safety principles are needed to help keep workers safe when they’re moving and handling equipment.

Jackson says employers and employees should work together on a routine to identify – and correct – any unsafe conditions or equipment that are present around the loading dock. “Employers should know and understand the potential hazards associated with the task,” he said. “Because of the numerous injuries that can result from improper handling and moving of equipment, employers should also be aware of the incidents that have happened in the past. Employers should inform the employees of these types of incidents when they’re first hired and when these incidents occur within their facilities.”


Apply controls

Workers who move items in or out of trailers can encounter hazards related to ergonomics, lighting, ventilation, noise and materials.

OSHA requires employers to select and provide personal protective equipment based on the hazards present or likely to be present, and to communicate the selection of PPE to its intended users.

Gloves, loading straps (to withstand rough edges and sharp instruments), eye protection, steel-toed shoes or boots, and high-visibility vests are common PPE for workers near loading docks.

Still, Jackson said, PPE “should not replace engineering, administrative or procedural controls for safety; it should be used in conjunction with these controls.”


Prevent falls

Section 1910.28 of OSHA’s standard on walking-working surfaces (1910.22) requires the use of fall protection such as a guardrail system, a safety net or personal fall protection systems if a worker could fall 4 feet or more from an open or exposed dock door or opening.

Guardrail requirements are covered under OSHA 1910.29(b) and its subparts.

These include:

  • The top edge height of top rails, or equivalent guardrail system members, are 42 inches (107 cm), plus or minus 3 inches (8 cm), above the walking-working surface. The top edge height may exceed 45 inches (114 cm), provided the guardrail system meets all other criteria of paragraph (b) of this section.
  • Midrails are installed at a height midway between the top edge of the guardrail system and the walking-working surface.
  • Guardrail systems are capable of withstanding, without failure, a force of at least 200 pounds applied in a downward or outward direction within 2 inches (5 cm) of the top edge, at any point along the top rail.
  • Midrails, screens, mesh, intermediate vertical members, solid panels, and other equivalent intermediate members are capable of withstanding, without failure, a force of at least 150 pounds applied in any downward or outward direction at any point along the intermediate member.

“When dock doors are not in use or being unloaded, the employer should prevent employees from falling, stepping or driving off the edge,” Jackson added. “We have to ensure the employee is not exposed to that fall.”


Keep forklifts top of mind

Slow down, look around for other workers, and be mindful of dock edges and wet or icy conditions on surfaces – these are some best practices for forklift operators.

OSHA requirements and recommended practices for forklift operators in loading docks include:

  • Maintain a safe distance from the edge of the loading dock.
  • Watch out for tail swing (when the rear of the forklift moves to the opposite side of the direction it’s being steered).
  • Keep working surfaces clear and clean.
  • Paint the edges of the loading dock to improve visibility.

Jackson also warns about damaged or weak trailer floors. Trailers should be inspected before forklifts or other material handling devices are allowed to enter.

“Employers working on loading docks must not only be mindful of what they’re doing, but they also should be aware of the action that’s going on around them, especially when you have forklift drivers and other material handling equipment.”


Control traffic

With delivery trucks entering and leaving and powered industrial trucks loading and off-loading, high activity levels at loading docks is common. Needed: a traffic control plan to help workers stay safe.

Post speed limits throughout the facility. Keep employee parking lots separate from shipping and receiving areas, and help reduce the risk of collisions by prohibiting nonessential employees from high-risk areas where vehicles are maneuvering. Essential workers who are on foot should wear reflective clothing.

Jackson also recommends designating employee crossing areas and considering one-way traffic flows or lanes. Mirrors on delivery trucks and forklifts or other powered industrial trucks should be intact and unobstructed, and a spotter should assist when vehicles are backing up.

It’s also important that all workers are aware of the day’s operations schedule. “Communication is the key,” Jackson said. “If you have employees interacting with material handling, forklifts or other materials, everybody should know when these forklifts are moving, where they’re moving and how they’re moving. And the only way that we can do that is to train.”

Listen to an extended conversation with Reginald Jackson

In the March 2023 episode of the “On the Safe Side” podcast, Jackson discusses guardrails, aisles and passageways, dock plates, mirrors, conveyors, color-coding systems, the importance of housekeeping – and the surprises some employers experience when they buy new equipment only to discover it won’t fit through the door.



Read More Loading Dock Plates Product Reviews

Donovan Larsen

Donovan is a columnist and associate editor at the Dark News. He has written on everything from the politics to diversity issues in the workplace.

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