The Loading Dock. The most overlooked expense and safety liability

If docks were human, they’d likely have a terrible opinion of themselves: they’re perpetually overlooked, usually overworked, only get attention when they quit working, and prone to damage through no fault of their own. And working outside 24/7, 365 days a year does nothing for morale either.

It’s time to stop thinking about docks as simply another part of the building.

“It’s true – people think that because a dock plate is built right into the floor, it should last as long as the building,” says Walt Swietlik, Milwaukee-based Rite-Hite’s director of customer relations and sales support. “But your dock does need that TLC and regular maintenance.”

Swietlik says that it’s not necessarily full dock or dock component failure that indicates a problem.

“If all of a sudden, you’re getting a lot of calls about damaged products, that could be an indicator that your dock isn’t as efficient as it used to be,” he says. “Or if the trucking companies are starting to add detention or damage charges on a regular basis, that can be a dock issue.”

An increase in safety incidents can also indicate obsolete, malfunctioning or inefficient dock equipment. “If you’re starting to see safety issues or a pattern of injuries among dock workers – back, neck, shoulder – that dock that was built 30, 40, 50 years ago might not be working as well as it once was.”

Facility age is a key issue, says Sandy Pomichter, marketing and dealer services at Perma Tech Inc. in Buffalo, N.Y.

“Here in the northeast, we have a lot of older facilities in use, and what our customers are finding is that the older dock designs and equipment don’t necessarily work well any longer,” she says. “For example, the dock heights may be very low, or very high.”

The type of trucks coming in and out of the facilities may also be quite different than when the building was first built. The dock may have been built to handle straight trucks, when now semis are more typical. Docks built decades ago may not line up with the bumpers of a UPS or Fed Ex truck, for example.

The good news is that a change in dock solutions can go a long way in making your facility more efficient, more productive and safer, all elements that should be top of mind in your operation.

Consider a site survey

Pomichter says that Perma Tech recommends that clients start out with a site survey. “We often end up designing a custom dock solution based on the site survey,” she explains.

Among the things Perma Tech considers in its site survey are:

  • Quantity of units
  • Door size (width and height)
  • Bumper depth
  • Dock height
  • Drive approach (degree of incline or decline)
  • Types of trucks/trailers serviced

This information helps assess whether an existing dock system is adequate or needs improvement. It can also highlight areas where components might need replacement or adjustment.

Case in point: Dock seals or compression pads.

“They’re in place to help with the weight of the truck but they also compress down and create a seal between the truck and the dock,” she says. “If you have trucks rolling up to the door and don’t have them in place, eventually your building will crack. And even with truck restraints, some trucks, like Air Rides, will still roll a little bit. That can cause a gap.”

A proper deck seal also helps maintain temperature, stops bugs and insects from entering the building and can stop inclement weather issues such as rain or snow from becoming a factor during loading. 

Schedule routine maintenance

As with virtually anything in life, preventative maintenance can stop a small, easily fixable problem from becoming a costly headache. Dock systems are no different.

“Preventative maintenance can extend the life of your dock systems,” says Swietlik. “It does need TLC. We recommend taking care of routine maintenance at least twice a year, quarterly if possible.”

While all dock components do have an expected life span, maintenance can significantly extend it.

“For example, there’s no reason a dock leveler can’t last 15 to 20 years if it’s properly maintained,” says Swietlik. “Ignoring it? You’ll maybe get 10 to 15 years of use.”

Moreover, once components start breaking and repairs are needed, it’s easy to hit a tipping point. “You start to throw good money after bad – we hear this all the time. And at that point, things are usually so far gone that they can’t be repaired, they have to be replaced.

Dock demand evolution

It’s also important to keep up with current industry demands when thinking about your docking facilities. Rite Hite is responding to the data demand that has finally reached the dock.

“No doubt there’s been a big evolution in this area during the past three to five years,” he says. “There’s an interest in collecting data at the dock, in being able to communicate what’s going on. We’ve done quite a bit with our product line and working with our clients in this regard.”

For example, Internet of Things (IoT) technology can likely tell you why Door Seven handles far more trucks than Door Six does on a daily basis. Maybe it’s malfunctioning dock equipment, perhaps it’s a more accessible dock. Maybe Door Six has Charlie – a great guy and has been with the company 20 years – and likes to gab with the drivers while Door Seven has Jacob, right out of high school with a ton of hustle.

“The info that can be collected is really deep and wide,” he says. “It’s really an educational experience for customers to find out they can collect this data by updating their dock equipment and then learning how they can use it. This type of information literally didn’t exist years ago.”

Industry requirements also may call a dock upgrade, especially if you handle food, pharmaceuticals or other cold-storage inventory. The Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety Modernization Act and the Sanitary Transportation of Human and Animal Food (ST Rule) put new responsibilities on facilities, rather than the transporters of food, to add “mitigation strategies,” such as seals on access points. If these strategies are found to be broken or compromised, the FDA has ruled that the facilities are responsible for corrective action.

“The FDA has relatively new regulations regarding these areas – they’re very concerned about the safety of the products,” says Pomichter, who notes that vaccine transport is of particular concern right now as the existing COVID-19 vaccines being used in the United States require refrigeration. “Essentially, they want everything locked in during loading and unloading to shelter the inventory: no light, no wind, no air. Well, with that tight seal, there’s no daylight in the truck, so that means you’ll need to add some kind of lighting that can be used.”

The good news is that regardless of how old a dock may be, there’s rarely the costly need to start back at square one. “It’s really more a matter of assessing what you have and then going from there and creating a custom solution that better meet your needs,” says Pomichter.

Laurie Arendt is an award-winning business writer based in Wisconsin. Her writing regularly appears in national trade publications in a variety of industries. To contact Laurie email editorial@MHNetwork.com.

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