Sensors, Vision

Sensor communication, lighting improves loading dock safety

Sensor-based communication and LED integration are two of the ways companies are making loading docks safer for workers.
December 5, 2018
Inside the dock area, motion-sensing technology triggers a bright blue light that projects onto the dock leveler when it detects material handling equipment or a pedestrian inside the trailer. Courtesy: Rite-Hite Products

Loading docks produce an estimated 25% of all industrial accidents. And as the pace of activity increases at most warehouses, so too does the potential for disaster in already dangerous environments. And while advancements in technology are being made, no one piece of loading dock equipment can ensure total safety.

Thanks to safety products that incorporate sensors, LED lights, audible/visual alarms, and interlocking controls, these critical work areas don’t have to be as dangerous as they’ve been in the past. These breakthrough products allow state-of-the-art facilities to implement comprehensive, systemic safety protocols into their dock operations. In some cases, they can also be added as a retrofit, provided facilities install upgradeable equipment as the foundation of their dock management system.

Sensor-based communication systems

The newest of these products are sensor-based systems designed to protect workers both inside and outside the dock. One such system projects 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.

By providing pedestrians with additional warning time, this projection system works as an enhancement to the blue safety lights on forklifts. It can be added to almost any dock as a standalone solution, or can be integrated with advanced control boxes to keep the vehicle restraint locked until activity in the trailer stops, ensuring the truck doesn’t pull away with a forklift operator still inside. (Considering that OSHA estimates a forklift-related death every three days in the U.S., this is a significant step in the right direction.)

The drive approach outside of the loading dock is equally dangerous, although collisions here typically involve a semi-tractor trailer rather than a forklift. OSHA is currently considering a new rule that addresses backing vehicles and equipment, which are common causes of “struck-by” injuries. “Struck-by” and “caught-between” injuries are not only real risks that loading dock workers face daily, they’re also two of the four leading causes of workplace fatalities.

Given ambient noise and the distance between a loading dock and the engine of a semi-tractor trailer (which can be 70 ft. or more), dockyard workers may not hear a trailer backing toward them until it is too late. In fact, according to OSHA, there have been 40 fatal accidents involving backing tractor trailers in the past six years and backing tractor trailer rigs are the second leading cause of backover accidents in the country.

Inside the dock area, motion-sensing technology triggers a bright blue light that projects onto the dock leveler when it detects material handling equipment or a pedestrian inside the trailer. Courtesy: Rite-Hite Products

Inside the dock area, motion-sensing technology triggers a bright blue light that projects onto the dock leveler when it detects material handling equipment or a pedestrian inside the trailer. Courtesy: Rite-Hite Products

New safety technology has been developed to address this challenge. Specifically, high-tech vehicle restraints now incorporate an external motion sensor, which triggers an audible and visual alarm to alert workers outside the dock when a trailer begins to move. These types of multi-sensory warnings immediately gain the attention of workers who might be in harm’s way and provide them adequate time to remove themselves from danger. With certain vehicle restraints, this motion-sensor system can be added as an upgrade.

More loading docks using LED technology

Red/green dock lights, indicating to forklifts that a trailer is locked and safe to enter (or, to the truck driver, unlocked and safe to pull away) have been standard for some time. However, while these lights generally are visible outside; they are not always visible inside, as stacked pallets can obscure a lift driver’s view of them on the control panel. To solve that issue, an enhancement was developed, with highly visible LED lights placed in the upper corners of dock doors–allowing forklift operators to see the red/green signal even if the control box lights aren’t visible. Additionally, red/green lights also were placed on the leveler, letting forklift operators inside the trailer know that it is still safely secured to the loading dock.

The integration of these LED lights into dock control systems (tying their color display to vehicle restraint engagement) sets the stage for further technological advances involving the integration of a wider array of equipment.

Operations with a safe sequence

Dock controls now can connect the operations of vehicle restraints, dock levelers, overhead doors, safety barriers, and LED signal lights. Significantly, the most sophisticated controls can be programmed to operate only in a safe sequence of operation, with individual elements of the system interlocked.

For instance, some dock control systems can be programmed with a green light interlock, which disables the use of the push button dock leveler or overhead door until the vehicle restraint is safely engaged. They also can be programmed with an overhead door interlock, which requires overhead doors to be opened prior to leveler operation; or a stored leveler interlock, which ensures that the leveler is stored safely before the restraint can be unlocked to release the trailer. If a worker presses the control box button for an individual system element in the wrong sequence, it won’t work–ensuring that no safety procedures will be skipped.

While the advent of hydraulic, push-button equipment made life easier (and safer) for dock workers, it hasn’t eliminated the possibility of them making mistakes. If a leveler is lowered too early, for example, a backing trailer can damage it. If a restraint is unlocked before the forklift exits and the leveler is stored, a serious risk of injury and product damage is at hand. Eliminating these possibilities is a clear benefit to a facility, its employees, and its customers.

Understanding loading dock safety trends

The loading dock can be a busy place with many distractions. Facility managers should look beyond one piece of equipment to address these challenges. Finding the right system of dock equipment that incorporates motion-sensors and LED lights, audible alarms, and a safe sequence of operation minimizes risks in a traditionally dangerous place and puts any company on the path to a safer future.

The last two years have brought about great technological advancements in loading dock safety. As technology makes new advances in 2019, it’s important to consider equipment that isn’t just good for today’s loading dock, but offers upgradeable features to enhance safety long-term and reduces future costs.

Chad Dillavou is the product manager for Rite-Hite Products