Loading docks and warehouses often are a whirlwind of activity with raw material arriving and finished goods being loaded for shipment. In the hustle to keep things moving, safety sometimes can be overlooked, leading to accidents that potentially jeopardize worker health, waste materials or products, or cause environmental harm. Investing time to review dock and warehouse processes can help ensure greater safety and possibly result in less material loss.
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Know the hazards
It’s still common for receiving crews not to know much about the materials they handle each day. A truck arrives, the shipping papers are signed and everything is unloaded. Developing a system to ensure the inbound products can be managed properly and safely takes a coordinated effort among requisitioners, buyers and receiving crews, but it’s worth the effort.
To begin, generate a list of hazardous materials already on-site. Compare the line items with entries in your material safety data sheet (MSDS) library. Review them to determine if they’re adequate, and request updates if necessary. Because dock and warehouse workers typically don’t handle chemicals in the same way that production workers do, hazard communication training might not need to be as detailed, but because there is potential for exposure, it should not be overlooked.
Educate anyone with authority to make purchases to request the MSDS for any new hazardous materials that will be brought on-site before they arrive. Establish a system to document or communicate them to areas that might potentially come in contact with the hazard. Electronic files are a convenient way to do this, but having hard copies also will suffice. By requesting MSDS earlier, everyone can become educated about new hazards in advance of their arrival.
In some facilities, it might be prudent for a safety officer or safety team to review and approve new materials before issuing a purchase order. In others, the receiving dock crew might be a first line of defense if it’s taught not to accept new items for which there is no MSDS. Establishing a protocol — whatever it might be — helps ensure that nothing unexpected arrives.
Increase driver safety skills
Keeping forklift operator certification documents up to date is an OSHA mandate, but unless there’s an accident, driver safety often is overlooked. Instead of investigating only accidents and near-misses, involve receiving crews in developing creative solutions to common problems they face daily. Take a look at forklifts, racking and bollards. Are they in good shape or is everything scratched and dented? If you notice a lot of damage, work with crews to determine the cause. Are products being stored in aisles? Do aisles need to be wider to avoid having to cut corners so tightly? Are loading and unloading deadlines so unrealistic that the crews have no option but to operate at unsafe speeds?
Consider these questions and develop a lift-truck certification program that addresses any areas of concern.
Organize storage space
Most facilities don’t have the luxury of unlimited storage space. When space is at a premium and there isn’t space where an item normally goes, it gets tucked in the first available spot and can become misplaced. Developing a system that makes it easy to locate stored items can increase safety because it means less time is spent searching for goods. When the crew is preoccupied searching, their full attention can be diverted from maneuvering through the area safely.
Systems can be as simple as a spreadsheet listing the contents of each bin location or as complex as a computerized warehousing system that assigns bins and completes other tasks automatically.
Consider methods that force the stock to be rotated properly to ensure that expiration dates are not exceeded, and methods that ensure meeting special handling requirements such as avoiding adjacent storage of incompatible materials.
Be prepared for spills
Even with the most seasoned receiving crews, dock and warehouse spills are inevitable. Materials might arrive damaged and require immediate attention. Other times, containers get grazed, punctured or otherwise damaged. Sometimes damage occurs in warehouse racking because of temperature swings or atmospheric pressure changes. Any of these scenarios is reason enough to plan ahead for spill response.
First, determine your spill potential. Look at the volumes in the containers that commonly arrive or are stored on-site. Common sizes are 55-gal. drums, 5-gal. buckets or even something as large as a 350- or 500-gal. bulk tote. Knowing this helps to determine the amount or types of materials and tools that might be needed to handle a spill.
For smaller spills, socks, mats and other absorbents are a convenient way to control and clean up a spill quickly. Keep vacuums and pumps on hand for larger spills. In either case, planning ahead to have these materials available will help speed response and reduce the chance of slip and fall accidents or employee exposure to spilled materials.
When stocking spill-response materials and tools, consider where they’ll be located. If they’re locked away in the safety manager’s closet at the other end of the building, they’re probably not going to be much of an immediate benefit when a spill happens. Locate these supplies at or near the areas where they’ll be needed. For example, if the facility has multiple dock doors, a moderately sized response kit might fit neatly on the wall between two of them. Other common places for storing spill-response kits are under a stairway and near a forklift battery-charging station.
Having a well-stocked spill kit and dedicated response tools is important, but it will be for naught if no one can find the kits, or if they’re not trained to use the contents properly. Make time for workers to become familiar with the tools and personal protective equipment (PPE). Then, schedule drills that will help them keep their skills current.
Because spills aren’t as common on loading docks as they might be in production or fluid-transfer areas, review the MSDS to determine if specific PPE might be necessary during a spill response. For some chemicals, it might make more sense for dock workers to evacuate so that those with more extensive and specialized training can handle the spill. Planning ahead will help everyone know what course of action to take.
Plans for pedestrians
Loading docks and warehouses are busy places. When workers from other plant areas walk through warehouse racking and loading dock areas, they’ll need to be alert and aware of their surroundings. They need to understand that dock crews aren’t necessarily looking for pedestrians. Because this fact of life isn’t common knowledge, it’s helpful to have a method to formally instruct other workers about ways they can stay safe while traveling into or through these areas. One way to reduce the potential for pedestrian accidents is to designate zones, such as aisles along the perimeter of the building or other walkways, where forklift traffic either is forbidden or where drivers are trained to go very slowly. They should be especially aware that others might be in the area.
If pedestrians must enter racking or other areas that aren’t traditionally pedestrian-friendly, you should develop a safety plan, such as using a buddy system, blocking the aisle or requiring brightly colored vests to be worn to increase visibility. Increasing safety at loading docks and in warehouses might require gradual changes, but as everyone becomes more involved in producing a better outcome, plans will become second nature, accidents will decrease in number and the work environment will be safer and more productive.
Karen D. Hamel is a technical specialist for New Pig Corp. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and (800) 468-4647 x 2196.