Loading docks are the gateways to shipping and receiving. Nearly every business that handles physical goods relies on them. But loading docks are also complex workspaces where people, equipment, and vehicles come together in dangerous ways. In fact, between 2015 and 2020, around 33,000 employees missed work because of injuries and illnesses incurred on loading docks, dock plates, and ramps, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The median time away from work was fourteen days. In the same period, forty-nine workers died from loading dock incidents. These grim figures should remind us that for every worker badly injured or killed at a loading-dock, pain and suffering fall upon their family, coworkers, and friends. For these reasons, businesses should do all they can to make loading docks safe for workers.
A Freight Clerk’s Death
Being struck by a vehicle is a top hazard at loading docks. Around 440 employees miss work each year due to such incidents, including being struck by trucks, trailers, forklifts, and other motorized equipment. In the worst of these cases, workers suffer severe permanent disability or die. The Washington State Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (WA FACE) program at the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries has investigated many struck‑by deaths. In one instance, a forty-six-year‑old freight clerk died when a semitrailer struck and crushed him against a loading dock wall. He worked for the employer, a national supermarket chain, for ten years.
The semitruck with the trailer arrived at the store just after midnight on Christmas Eve. After the trailer backed up to the loading-dock, a clerk went outside from the receiving area to talk with the driver. When the clerk returned, he opened the back of the trailer, checked the freight, and determined the truck was at the wrong dock. Shortly after, a second clerk arrived to assist him. The clerks met briefly, and the first clerk went back outside to talk with the driver.
Now alone, the second clerk closed the trailer. A few seconds later, he reopened it, looked in, then walked to the left side and leaned his head and shoulders through a gap between the loading dock wall and rear of the trailer. He then went back in, closed the trailer, and again leaned out the gap as he had done before. At the same time, the truck was preparing to pull forward from where it was parked on a slight downgrade toward the loading bay. When its parking brake released, the trailer lurched back, and crushed the clerk against the wall. After the truck pulled away, the first clerk returned to the dock, saw his injured coworker on the pavement below, and called 911. The clerk died at the scene.
Following the incident, investigators found that employees routinely leaned out between loading dock walls and trailers to communicate with drivers. The employer also did not have loading‑dock safety policies, procedure requirements, or employee training.
Safety Through Better Designs And Practices
Such unsafe work practices can become routine in businesses not identifying and preventing dangerous conditions. The conditions that led to the freight clerk’s death could have been eliminated if the loading dock had been designed with an anti-crush safety zone between the dock edge and trailer-parking lane. An anti‑crush safety zone combines features to protect a worker from being struck and crushed if a trailer moves toward the dock, including:
- A wraparound dock seal that prevents workers from placing their bodies between the dock and trailer.
- Automatic locking swivel-dock barriers to stop workers from stepping or falling out of the dock bay doors.
- A thick rubber dock bumper with an extended steel base that creates a safe space of seventeen to twenty inches between the dock and trailer.
- A high-strength telescopic lip or retractable drawbridge-style dock leveler that allows workers and forklifts to cross the anti-crush zone.
The next step to prevent dangerous work practices at your loading dock is to assess and change how work is done. This can include introducing safer ways for workers to communicate with drivers that eliminate positioning their bodies between dock structures and trailers. One way of achieving this is to install traffic signal-style stop-and-go lights at your dock, where the truck driver activates a red light to inform workers when it is safe to open bay doors, and workers activate a green light to inform the driver when the truck can pull away.
Another safety measure is to designate an indoor waiting area for drivers that provides a place for them to check in, drop off their keys, and talk with workers away from vehicles and equipment. Also, warning signs can help workers and drivers stay aware of pinch points and other hazards at the loading dock, such as slips, trips, and falls.
Your ability to keep loading dock workers safe will depend on your accident prevention program (APP). At a minimum, your program should include written safety policies, procedure requirements, monthly meetings, and training. Always give new workers an orientation on your APP and its requirements for loading docks. Ensure workers are trained to recognize loading dock hazards before starting their jobs. Lead the way by monitoring changes in hazardous conditions, encouraging workers to help create solutions, and updating the program.
As work conditions are dynamic and different at each loading dock, no one will be able to identify and prevent hazards at your loading dock better than you. If you want to explore the best safety solutions for your loading dock to protect your workers—for example, a demonstration of the newest technologies or sample programs—you may contact a professional safety and health consultant. Making workplace safety your highest priority helps to ensure nobody will have to live with the devastation and hardship caused by injury or death.
Paul Karolczyk is a WA FACE research investigator. Sign up at public.govdelivery.com/accounts/WADLI/subscriber/new to receive WA FACE fatality and injury investigation reports, hazard alerts, data summaries, and shorter-form narratives, and slide shows. Paul can be reached at email@example.com.