Guest Editorial

Inspection is key for dock leveler safety

By Walt Swietlik

Although increased production is great for business, it can be tough on loading docks.

waltswietlikAugust 2012 - Has your company been in its current location for more than 20 years? Was the facility built specifically for your needs, or are you a second or third-generation tenant in a multi-use space? It’s likely your business has changed during those two decades, adding new customers and increasing throughput. Perhaps you’ve added some higher-capacity production equipment to keep up with growing customer demands.

Although increased production is great for business, it can be tough on loading docks. When was the last time you went down and took a serious look at the equipment you use to ship and receive materials and products?

For many of our clients, it has been longer than they would like to admit. When nobody complains about conditions, the assumption is everything is fine. But many companies discover they have a problem only after it is too late. They find out after a dock attendant is injured pulling a chain on an old dock leveler or a fork truck gets damaged driving over a worn dock leveler. Worst of all, a dock attendant drives over an unsafe dock, the truck pulls away prematurely and the forklift and dock attendant end up in the drive approach.

These and many other serious accidents can be prevented with simple semiannual loading dock inspections. The metals industry is a difficult environment for loading dock equipment because of heavy loads, challenging conditions and deferred general maintenance—factors that create a dangerous working environment for many dock attendants.

Understanding leveler capacity

Increased business volume leads to increased demand for production equipment throughout the plant, including the dock equipment. Heavier weights and increased frequency across dock levelers eventually will cause equipment to deteriorate. However, most manufacturers continue to use the same levelers, regardless of traffic increases, never taking the time to make a routine maintenance inspection. Then, one day, a catastrophic accident occurs at the loading dock, and no one can understand why or how it happened.

In many cases, the answer lies in the dock leveler capacity. Every dock leveler made in North America has a rated dynamic capacity. These capacities are based on a specific gross weight (fork truck, operator and load) going over a dock leveler at speeds typically not to exceed 5 miles per hour and an angle of incline/decline into a trailer not to exceed 7 percent. Many capacity ratings also will include information about how many trailers per shift the leveler can expect and shifts per day it will be used.

For many years, dock leveler manufacturers used numeric values to rate the dynamic capacity of their dock levelers. For example, a dock leveler in a building has a 30,000-pound dynamic capacity but it might only be designed for a 17,000-pound gross load weight. Dock levelers get old and capacity plates wear down or fall off. The operators that initially were trained on the operation and weight limitations of the dock levelers may move onto other positions and be replaced by new operators without proper training. All of a sudden, it begins to make sense why dock levelers get overloaded and eventually fail.

Assess equipment to prevent accidents

Accidents can be prevented by contacting local loading-dock professionals and asking them to perform a complete assessment of existing equipment. At a minimum, they should check the structure, the dock leveler lip and sub frame, the leveler’s operational features and all of the safety features. Make sure they verify the capacity of the dock levelers for the loads they typically are handling. They also should check the surrounding dock equipment, confirm the dock bumpers are the correct size for today’s trailers and the dock enclosures are in proper repair. They’ll determine if you are using vehicle restraints, and if not, help you put together a program to get them installed. Finally, they will also check the condition of the dock door.

Many dock equipment professionals will perform these audits at no charge. Upon completion, take time to review the findings. The results may be surprising.

The metal fabricating industry is a difficult environment for loading-dock equipment. By taking the time to consult with a specialist, you can develop solutions specifically suited for your operation. Your dock attendants will be glad you did.  MM

Walt Swietlik is the director, customer relations and sales support for Rite-Hite, Milwaukee. He has 30 years of experience in the material handling industry, with 27 of those dedicated to the area of loading dock and door safety and improved productivity. Walt is currently responsible for Rite-Hite’s customer fly-in education program. He is an expert on issues related to shipping and receiving and ensuring safe and efficient material flow across loading docks and throughout customer supply chains.

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