Take control of loading dock safety

Better training and awareness and advanced technology help reduce the risks of forklift-pedestrian collisions

By Joe Manone, Rite-Hite Corporation October 26, 2010

The process of forklifts loading and unloading semi trailers poses a safety risk for pedestrians. Whether it’s a dock attendant, plant manager, service technician, bystander, or forklift operator, anyone in and around the interior loading dock area is in danger due to limited communication and visibility.

The problem is persistent. The question is what to do about it? Despite the efforts of employers and industry suppliers, forklift-pedestrian accidents are common. Each year in the United States, nearly 100 workers are killed and 20,000 seriously injured in forklift-related incidents. Clearly, there is no silver bullet. But one thing is certain: better communication between forklift operators and pedestrians in the loading dock area can help reduce collisions.

Numerous communication technologies protect against forklift-pedestrian accidents throughout various areas of a facility. Given the critical nature of the issue, it’s imperative for decision-makers to understand the technologies available and how they help increase safety when forklift operators and pedestrians are at risk.

Forklift-pedestrian collisions: dangerous and costly

There is little question about the tremendous progress made over the years in forklift safety. Much work has also been done to address forklift-pedestrian accidents. Forklift safety technology and pedestrian safety devices are as advanced as they are ubiquitous. On the employer’s side, safety policies have been refined; processes and procedures have been continuously improved; and the call is out for increased forklift operator training.

The fact remains that a forklift weighing two tons or more and traveling at about 4 mph when people are working nearby is inherently dangerous. The hectic pace of a materials handling environment only exacerbates the risk. The facts:

·         Nearly 100 workers are killed and another 20,000 are seriously injured in forklift-related incidents each year in the United States – about one every three days.

·         There are an estimated 680,400 forklift accidents each year. Approximately 90,000 employees suffer some type of injury.

·         One percent of factory accidents involve forklift trucks, but those accidents produce 10% of physical injuries.

According to a report issued by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the most common causes of forklift-related fatalities include:

·         Forklift overturns (22%)

·         Worker on foot struck by forklift (20%)

·         Victim crushed by forklift (16%)

·         Fall from forklift (9%)

In one report, a major automobile manufacturer investigated 916 forklift incidents at 54 facilities from 1989 to 1992. Its findings: 24% of the incidents occurred when forklifts struck pedestrians; 16% were forklift collisions with other vehicles and fixed objects.

Aside from safety, forklift accidents are estimated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars when workers’ compensation, lost time on the job, and lawsuits are factored in. In the automotive company’s study, the total average lost time per incident was 61 days – nearly 9 times that of any other accident in the company.

David Hoover president of Forklift Training Systems, observed, “The cases I have worked in which there is a fatality almost always cost $1 million-plus to the customer”.

Emphasis on safe forklift operation

Forklift-pedestrian collisions typically involve a combination of factors, such as the operator’s experience and the pedestrian’s level of awareness that a moving forklift is in the area. The evidence also suggests that many employers need to step up their efforts to ensure the safety of forklift operators and pedestrians.

“The biggest issue for powered industrial trucks (forklifts) is lack of training,” said Richard Fairfax, OSHA’s director of enforcement programs.

In 2006, forklifts ranked sixth among all OSHA violation categories. That year, OSHA issued 3,080 forklift violations. Among the most common:

·         Inadequate operator training (562)

·         Lack of vehicle certification (375)

·         Missing triennial evaluation of operator performance (256)

·         Untimely frequency of inspections (223)

Beginning in 2004, OSHA and the Industrial Truck Association (ITA) formed an alliance to focus on safe operation of powered industrial trucks, including forklifts. Through the alliance, OSHA and ITA promote safe operation by providing information, guidance, and access to training resources.

Forklift regulations and guidelines

OSHA governs powered industrial truck safety under 29 CFR 1910.178. Under the standard, employers must certify that each forklift operator has been trained and evaluated and must ensure that forklift operators are competent to operate the vehicles safely.

Employers establish the rules of the road for forklift traffic in their facilities, in keeping with the OSHA standard.

Safe operation of a forklift also includes common sense, such as the use of seat belts and protective gear as specified by management. When driving, forklift operators are expected to yield to pedestrians and keep out of their lanes. Per the OSHA standard:

·         The driver shall be required to slow down and sound the horn at cross aisles and other locations where vision is obstructed. If the load being carried obstructs forward view, the driver shall be required to travel with the load trailing.

OSHA and safety experts suggest a number of ways forklift operators to manage pedestrian traffic. Operators are reminded to:

·         Keep a clear view; do not move the truck without having a clear view of travel.

·         When possible, make eye contact with pedestrians or other forklift operators.

·         Signal to pedestrians to stand clear.

Pedestrians are also reminded to use caution. For example, they are often instructed to be alert for the vehicles, to get out of the way when they hear a horn, and to understand that blind spots may limit drivers’ visibility.

It is also incumbent upon pedestrians to realize that forklifts cannot stop suddenly. Instead, forklifts are designed to stop slowly to minimize load damage and maintain stability.

Forklift-pedestrian safety at the dock

One of the most difficult places to operate a forklift is the shipping/receiving/staging area of a loading dock. The challenges range from maneuvering in tight confines to negotiating slippery surfaces. The loading and unloading of semi-trailers also requires skill and close concentration.

Challenges associated with the dock and the complexities of servicing trailers make it difficult for forklift operators to maintain awareness of pedestrians and bystanders at all times. That means the risk of forklift-pedestrian accidents is high. Other factors that increase the risk include:

·         Impaired forklift operator and pedestrian vision

·         Production and safety goals

·         Operating realities of the loading dock

Vision issues

A forklift driver’s ability to watch for pedestrians is severely hampered when the forklift moves farther into the trailer, where it is essentially operating inside a tunnel. This creates a dangerous blind spot until the forklift has fully backed out of the trailer.

The inability to see a forklift inside a trailer is a major concern for pedestrians and other forklift operators. The problem is worse when a trailer is approached from the side and a forklift is operating at the front end of the trailer.

Production goals

For forklift operators, unloading and loading trailers is a balancing act. Production goals dictate working as quickly as possible, yet the message from the safety manager is to use caution and slow down. It is the operator’s responsibility to make the right decisions – that is why operator training is mandatory.

The safety of forklift operators and pedestrians also hinges on the company’s safety philosophy. Regardless of the philosophy, or lack thereof, the safest course of action is for pedestrians to watch for forklifts at all times. Forklift operators who enter the dock staging area when another forklift is serving a trailer are also expected to remain on high alert.

Operating realities

Numerous operating realities influence the safety of forklift operators and pedestrians at a loading dock. They include:

·         Unexpected dock entry: Pedestrians and visitors can often enter the loading dock area without forklift operators’ knowledge, such as from a side door.

·         Stepping out of bounds: Pedestrians and visitors often step out of zones designated for pedestrian travel. Examples include:

o                  Truck drivers who are required to enter a facility to engage and disengage the vehicle restraint.

o                  Technicians who service docks.

o                  Employees who manually assemble pallet loads.

o                  Employees traveling from dock opening to dock opening.

·         Open staging areas: The staging area in front of the dock door is there to allow unrestricted movement of forklifts. Painted yellow lines on the floor offer little protection for keeping pedestrians and other forklifts out.

·         Conditioning to forklift alarms: Operators and pedestrian can become accustomed to, and even may ignore, audible and flashing/rotating/strobe lights on forklifts.

·         Difficulty hearing: Hearing protection can impede pedestrians’ ability to hear audible devices or sense where the sound is coming from.

·         Forklift operator preference: Forklift operators typically rely on the steering wheel horn to warn pedestrians, even though some pedestrians might not be able to hear it.

·         Stopping requirements: A forklift moving at 10 mph may take 40 feet to stop. One study shows that a panic stop takes 1.3 feet for each mile per hour.

·         Floor conditions: Slippery or wet floors make it more difficult to stop.

Forklift-pedestrian safety technologies

A wide variety of traditional technologies, from rudimentary to advanced, can guard against forklift-pedestrian accidents. 

The most basic safety devices include forklift-mounted rear-view mirrors, convex mirrors in key locations, and traffic-control signs. Many also consider automatic backup alarms to be essential on forklifts. Some companies also offer radar-controlled signs to signal forklift speeds.  

More sophisticated technologies include:

·         Proximity laser scanners to create forklift-safe zones.

·         Motion sensors to alert pedestrians or other vehicle traffic of forklifts approaching intersections.

·         Infrared technology designed to warn pedestrians or other vehicles that a forklift is in the immediate vicinity.  To do so, an infrared signal is transmitted from a forklift-mounted beacon to sensors located in key areas. When the sensors detect a signal from the forklift, warning lights and/or audible alarms and/or physical barriers are activated.

·         Systems that track the real-time movement of forklifts. The system can also be used to illuminate crosswalk signals, audibly warn pedestrians or notify drivers of approach hazards.

The traditional vehicle restraint signaling system is a familiar fixture at plants and warehouses. The system uses green and red lights to signal the status of the vehicle restraint to the forklift operator and the driver of the semi trailer. A green light inside the dock tells the forklift operator it is safe to enter a trailer because the restraint is locked and the trailer is secured. When the inside light is green, the outside light is red so that the truck driver knows not to pull away from the dock. The lights are reversed when the restraint is unlocked and the trailer departs from the dock. 

There is little doubt that vehicle restraint signaling systems contribute to a safe loading dock environment. Advances in forklift-pedestrian technology have also led to a safer work environment. Yet many recognized the need for improved communication to address the risks of forklift-pedestrian collisions during trailer loading and unloading.

For example, in early 2009, Rite-Hite introduced Rite-Vu uses highly visible lights to clearly tell forklift drivers and pedestrians when a forklift is working inside a trailer so that they can exercise proper caution against that forklift backing out. The system also uses lights and an alarm to greatly enhance communication about the status of trailers secured to the dock with Dok-Lok vehicle restraints, adding another level of protection against potentially catastrophic trailer-separation accidents.

OSHA and forklift manufacturers have made efforts in improving the safety of forklift operation and pedestrians in and around industrial facilities and warehouses. However, the use of next-generation technology will go much farther toward protecting forklift operators and pedestrians, reducing accidents, and improving productivity at the loading dock.

Joe Manone is vice president of Rite-Hite Corporation.