Top 6 Loading Dock Trends of 2024

Loading docks are busy places. In the U.S. alone, there were 11.46 billion tons of freight shipped by trucks in 2023, almost all of which came through loading docks.

The constant interaction of humans with machinery like semi-trucks, forklifts, pallet jacks, and AGVs make loading docks one of the most dangerous areas of any facility. These potential risks have only increased as consumer expectations of quick deliveries have ballooned due to the growth of e-commerce—a phenomenon commonly known as “the Amazon effect.”

Given this increased pace of operations, it’s no wonder that almost 25% of all industrial accidents take place in the shipping and receiving zone. In fact, there are approximately 100,000 reported forklift accidents every year.

So what are loading dock personnel and safety managers doing to help decrease risks without hurting productivity? Let’s look at 6 of the top dock safety innovations as we head into 2024.

1. Drive-Thru and Supply Chain Integrity

Improving supply chain integrity, especially in facilities that choose a drive-thru design, can simultaneously help maintain product quality, reduce cargo theft, and protect employees and equipment. A common breakdown in the supply chain occurs when the security seal is broken on trailer doors outside the building at the loading dock. In fact, “supply chain risk events” (aka, cargo theft) increased more than 15% last year, with an estimated $223 million stolen across the U.S. and Canada in 2022*. Even when trailers are backed into a loading dock, there are threats from outside that can compromise the indoor environment and cargo.

Loading docks that implement a drive-thru design can help reduce outdoor contamination and improve security. Drive-thru docks differ from traditional loading docks in that they are designed for trailer doors to be opened inside the facility. This minimizes the opportunity for outside elements to come through while also helping prevent trailer back over injuries (or even fatalities) by keeping employees inside and off the dangerous drive approach. A drive-thru loading dock requires a recessed pit and a system of loading dock equipment that works together, including a vertical storing leveler and an automatic vehicle restraint interlocked into a smart, connected control system, as well as a dock seal and shelter compatible with vertical levelers.

There’s a reason why a drive-thru design has been the gold standard in food logistics for more than a decade. Other industries are starting to see the benefits in improving supply chain integrity and security by implementing this feature at their loading docks.

2. Ergonomic Solutions

Forklift operators all experience whole body vibration, commonly called “dock shock,” moving across loading dock levelers during loading and unloading. These jolts up the spine and through the neck/head area result in more than one in five forklift drivers suffering from acute or chronic back and/or neck injuries. A single back injury to a worker can cost a company $10,000 in direct and in-direct costs per injury.

To help address ergonomic concerns like chronic back aches and dock shock, many top companies and shipping organizations are signing the Musculoskeletal Disorder (MSD) Pledge. Coordinated by the National Safety Council and Amazon, the MSD Pledge provides access to shared expertise from like-minded companies, as well as the latest research-based insights and collaboration with industry leaders to help support organizational safety goals.

At the loading dock, ergonomically designed levelers—which create smoother transitions between the warehouse floor, leveler, and trailer—can reduce dock shock by up to 50%. Additionally, levelers that utilize a self-flex deck can help keep the leveler in better contact with the floor and trailer. This also helps smooth out bumps, thus improving worker health and minimizing product/equipment damage.

Dock shock can also be reduced through complementary loading dock equipment. For example, the STR-4200 stabilizing vehicle restraint is designed to address horizontal and vertical movement when supporting wider and heavier loads, improving relative smoothness from leveler to trailer bed by 120%. Incorporating additional solutions that help prevent trailer separation accidents, like the TS-5000 Trailer Stand, can help effectively support and balance loads on dropped trailers.

3. Automate Labor Intensive Tasks

Aside from bumpy, non-ergonomic operations, manually lifting a loading dock leveler or bending over to throw open a dock door can be taxing on anyone’s back and body. These repetitive motions can lead to chronic pain that stays with workers long after they’ve punched out for the day. In fact, back injuries account for 1 in 5 workplace injuries. And 80% of those injuries are caused by manual material handling that requires twisting, carrying, or extending out to reach something.

This is more often seen inside the facility, but in the last 10 to 15 years has been addressed at the loading dock with the application of push-button controls for dock levelers operation. The constant contact buttons on the Dok-Commander® help ensure that workers operating vehicle restraints, hydraulic dock levelers, dock barriers, and dock doors stay at the control box, where they are ergonomically protected and out of harm’s way.

For loading dock operations that use mechanical levelers, hydraulic conversion kits are a cost-effective upgrade that can help provide the same results as hydraulic levelers.

4. Safe Sequence of Operations

With advanced loading dock controls like the Dok-Commander, safety can be “built in” by programming the equipment (vehicle restraint, barrier, loading dock leveler and overhead door) to work only in an interlocked safe sequence of operations. That sequence starts when the truck backs in and the Dok-Lok® becomes engaged with a rear-impact guard (RIG) or a wheel-based restraint is engaged with rear wheels. Once the vehicle is secured, the dock barrier can be stored out of the way, the overhead door can be opened, and the leveler positioned into the trailer bed. After loading/unloading, the restraint is not allowed to disengage the trailer until the leveler is taken out of the trailer and stored safely as well as dock door closed and safety barrier engaged across dock opening.

Correspondingly, the smart connected products collect information throughout the loading/unloading process and aggregate the data. This in turn helps customers make better informed decisions based on analytics, such as attempts to operate equipment in an improper (unsafe) sequence. The data can also help identify near-misses and prompt training opportunities for workers.

5. 24/7 Safety: Inside and Out

Unfortunately, accidents involving forklifts happen at the loading dock all too regularly. Approximately 7% of all forklift accidents involve the forklift driving off the edge of the loading dock. Outside the loading dock, the 2nd leading cause of back-over fatalities involve semi-tractor trailers. The good news is that these types of accidents can be mitigated.

Advancements in sensor technology have helped drive loading dock safety improvements, such as systems with LED light communications and audio/visual alarms to warn of potential dangers.

On the inside of the loading dock, Pedestrian-Vu™ shines a blue light onto the leveler whenever activity is detected inside a trailer, alerting workers nearby that a forklift, pallet jack or pedestrian could be coming out at any moment. With forklifts backing out of trailers with blue lights only allowing 1.7 seconds of warning time on average, Pedestrian-Vu provides 10x reaction time since the light is emitted from a fixed location above the danger area during activity as well as 10 seconds after. It can be integrated with advanced control boxes to keep the vehicle restraint locked until activity in the trailer stops, helping ensure the truck doesn’t pull away with a forklift operator still inside.

On the outside of the loading dock, Approach-Vu™ uses an external motion sensor that triggers an audible and visual alarm either embedded in a wall mounted vehicle restraint or as a standalone light box installed under the dock opening. These types of multisensory warnings immediately gain the attention of workers who might be in harm’s way of backing semi-tractor trailers.

Sensors can also be incorporated into the pit area beneath vertical storing levelers and operated from the Dok-Commander control system. Designed for use with vertical storing levelers, the Safe-T-Pit® sensor helps keep workers safe when they are performing routine maintenance or cleaning by disabling operation when motion is detected in the leveler pit.

6. Protecting the Edge

The “slips, trips, and falls” category is always at the top of annual workplace injury lists. In warehouses, it is the most common type of injury, at 27 incidents per 100,000 workers. Slip/trip/fall injuries are not only the second leading cause of workers’ compensation claims, but they are also 35% more costly than other claims on average.

Falls from loading dock openings are one of the most serious types of fall injuries, particularly as it relates to forklift accidents. Considering that most docks are 4 feet above ground level, the damage to equipment, product and workers can understandably be catastrophic. Unfortunately, so-called “open door policies”—which are becoming more common as average outdoor temperatures continue to rise—make this type of accident even more likely. And, even when loading dock doors are down, forklifts can crash through them.

One way to help protect workers from falling off an open loading dock edge is with a retractable barrier. In many instances, these barriers are made from reinforced fabrics. The most advanced barriers, such as the Dok-Guardian®, are tall enough to meet OSHA’s Walking-Working Surfaces regulations.

For an added layer of protection, 5- to 7-inch barriers like the Safe-T-Lip® can be incorporated onto levelers when in the stored position. While small, it can stop a forklift weighing 10,000 pounds traveling at 4 miles per hour without damage to the leveler.

Which of These Solutions Has Your Loading Dock Implemented?

These solutions can be incorporated into any loading dock operation incrementally, as budget allows, to immediately help enhance loading dock safety and improve cargo security. Moving toward a safer and more efficient loading dock with just one of these solutions is a step in the right direction. Facilities that can incorporate all of these loading dock solutions are well on their way to creating an environment that signals to its employees that safety is essential.

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