Forgotten Risks on the Docks

Market Insights

Injuries on loading docks can account for up to 25% of all reported injuries within supply chain facilities. Theft of goods or trailers costs organizations millions of dollars each year. While not directly related to each other, many of those losses can be attributed to a lack of basic loading dock safety or security control measures.

To take it a step further, whenever someone asks me how well a supply chain facility is doing, I always direct their attention to the loading dock. Upon observation, if that loading dock is safe, efficient and secure, the operation tends to be productive and profitable. Why? Loading docks act as the pulse of an organization, primarily responsible for efficiently getting materials in, and finished goods out to support the demands of the internal operations and the external customer.

Loading docks can become complicated areas for even the best risk control professional, with numerous risks to combat such as forklifts, workers, ergonomic risk factors, pests, heavy freight, awkward materials, weather, and so on. Among these hazards, powered industrial truck (PIT) equipment tends to get a lot of the attention. Rightfully so, seeing as it is continually one of OSHA’s top violations year in and year out (it was the sixth most violated standard in 2014) ,as well as a prime source of major injuries if they are operated unsafely. In fact, OSHA estimates that there are around 35,000 injuries reported each year that are caused by PIT operation, or just over 1% of all workplace injuries reported in the United States.

Besides PIT operation, there are other risks that perhaps don’t get as much attention yet can contribute to dock safety and security issues. Indeed, none of these areas of focus are as jaw-dropping as those flashy distractions that hook you in on the evening news. Each one contributes to some significant risks, however, and by controlling these often forgotten risks organizations can control major incidents as well.

Seasonal Change

Most organizations experience a “peak” season, and some may experience two or three or more periods during a year which are busier than the normal day-to-day operations. For some organizations, these may be the end of a quarter or annual cycle. Others may see an increase around holidays or seasons, like back-to-school. With this increase in business demands comes a dramatic increase in “traffic.” Additional PIT equipment may be used, temporary workers added to the mix, longer hours, extra days, more containers to unload, many more trailers to load. More bales of cardboard produced, more bags of foam to fill, more poly on the floor, more dust to sweep, more gloves to buy, more, more, more is the theme during these seasonal changes. These peak cycles contain numerous hidden hazards that, when left unmitigated, will lead to additional injuries or PIT accidents.

The best way to mitigate these risks is to be as prepared as possible for the tidal wave of activity headed your way. Similar to preparing for a natural disaster, preparing for peak season is crucial to many organizations’ sustainability. While some organizations prepare on the fly, seemingly able to adapt to changes in volume with little to no need to prepare, most organizations benefit when every leader—and worker—is on the same page, made possible only through strong communication before a peak cycle hits.

What does a well-prepared operation look like during a peak cycle? Inventory controllers maintain constant communication with both receiving and production on inbound activity. Production works with quality and shipping to formulate tight schedules. Safety and HR amp up training and staffing before the starting gun fires. These are some examples of what happens when an organization is well prepared for a peak cycle.

Trailer Differences

Best practices already suggest that before unloading or loading a trailer, that a competent person inspect that trailer for any structural defects or issues—such as a hole in the trailer floor or weak landing gear supports—which may make the operation unsafe. The best-of-the-best take a few minutes to examine the characteristics of the trailer as well. Inside trailer height, width, interior lighting, load composition, load layout, fit with the dock plate and dock seal, and vehicle restraints being engaged are all examples of additional items to look for during your inspection process.

If your operators routinely operate PIT equipment in a standard 53’ road trailer, entering into a 40’ ocean container may cause issues if your PIT operators do not adjust how they use the equipment inside the trailer due to one foot of height and width “missing.”

Think also about trying to understand the load layout before you begin unloading. If, for example, one of your unload teams is on a trailer with 25 refrigerators, 10 microwaves and 50 washers and dryers to unload, it would be of benefit for them to know where the microwaves are in that mix so they do not unintentionally damage them through PIT use or from them falling. Load diagrams may not always be provided, nor accurate; however, try to get a visual on the location of any danger zones prior to unloading.

Trailer Securement

And what about those trailers that are not able to be secured by the vehicle restraint system? Whether it is due to a trailer having a lift gate on it—which seems to pop up more and more when trailers are scarce—or some other reason, securing trailers is vital to both worker safety and protecting your cargo from theft.

From a safety perspective, some organizations will use trailer stabilizers or jack stands to ensure that the trailer cannot nosedive once entered with a PIT. Others may chock wheels so that drivers cannot disengage the dock while loading or unloading. Other organizations affix a glad hand lock to the service air line to ensure that a spotter or road driver cannot take off while the trailer is being worked. Any viable solution that helps protect the worker while inside the trailer should be explored and perhaps reviewed annually to see if best practices have changed or new equipment has been developed within the past 12 months.

Switching focus to the security of the product inside the trailer, there are a number of considerations here as well. I’m fortunate to work in a facility where all 100+ docks are enclosed. For those not as lucky, make sure that your dock and the trailer form a strong “seal,” not just to keep weather out, but also any thieves. Consider adding locks to landing gear as well, so that criminals cannot lower the trailer to gain access to the trailer doors. Ideally, your facility will use some form of physical restraint to secure trailers, but if that is not feasible contact a reputable material handling equipment vendor or your insurance risk control consultant for suggestions.

Dock Security

Workplace homicides trend as one of the top three causes of death to the American worker annually, according to OSHA. While that is a disturbing trend that will take much effort to curb, organizations can help protect their workforce by keeping their docks secure. In my opinion, the last line of defense against safety incidents or theft within your dock environment is how well dock access is controlled and how effectively a facility monitors the people who visit the facility on a daily basis. Some considerations to help mitigate theft, vandalism and uncontrolled access to your facility include:

  • Video surveillance, both outside and inside your main, visitor and dock entrances.
  • Construct secure, monitored load assignment and waiting areas for drivers.
  • Utilize facility or dock visitor sign in sheets, complete with picture ID verification.
  • Keep all overhead doors closed when not in use.
  • Ensure that doors which are not driver entrances remain closed and locked from the outside.
  • Add alarms, surveillance cameras or guards at high-risk or high-value entry points.

Whether your focus is on injury prevention or security matters or both, increasing focus on these often forgotten risks can help your organization reduce exposure to losses. Many organizations conduct hazard assessments on a regular basis. To best protect your greatest assets—your people and your product—consider adding these oftentimes forgotten risks into that evaluation process. Remember: Constantly striving to make small changes can lead to big savings down the road.


Aaron Lilach is a safety professional at JCPenney with expertise in the logistics and transportation sectors. He consults and is responsible for a 2+ million square foot supply chain facility outside of Milwaukee, Wis. He can be contacted through LinkedIn at