What Elements Make a Commercial Loading Dock Dangerous?

Michael GrossmanFebruary 21, 2017 5 minutes

It hardly needs noting that one of the most dangerous areas on any commercial property is the loading dock. The combination of large machines, heavy cargo, and all-too-fragile human beings often proves calamitous. Leaving aside these obvious dangers, we wondered whether or not there are factors that lead to some loading docks being more dangerous than others.

What got us thinking about this topic is a fatal incident last Tuesday at the Turkey Hill Dairy in Conestoga, Pennsylvania.

Turkey Hill and Brad Barnes: February 14, 2017

Manor Township police reported that around 7 p.m. on Tuesday, February 14, 51-year-old Oklahoma trucker Brad Barnes was hit by a truck in the Turkey Hill Dairy parking lot.

Authorities say the truck that hit Barnes was driven by a Turkey Hill employee; information was unclear as to whether it was a company truck or the employee's own vehicle. Barnes was reportedly "dragged a distance" by the truck after the initial contact; he was taken by emergency personnel to Lancaster General Hospital, where he died of multiple traumatic injuries.

Turkey Hill issued a short press statement about the incident:

"On behalf of the entire Turkey Hill family, our thoughts and prayers are with the victim of this accident. We regret and apologize that this accident occurred. Turkey Hill takes every precaution when it comes to driver safety and will be investigating to make sure that this kind of accident is avoided in the future."

No further details have been released so far.

Spotting Possible Issues at Turkey Hill

Certainly, some loading docks are poorly designed right from the beginning. They don't allow proper space for man and machine to safely interact, have bad sight lines, and other factors that greatly increase the chance of a dangerous incident. However, the vast majority of companies are aware of these problems and do their best to minimize them in the design process.

Of course, even the best designed loading docks are unnecessarily dangerous if proper safety procedures aren't followed. It doesn't matter how much space there is or how great the sight lines are, if people are behaving recklessly, then calamity is sure to follow.

In other instances, company growth forces expansion and what was once a safe, spacious loading dock, becomes cramped as other facilities gobble up the space around it. A company that may have had the best of intentions when it started is forced by necessity to either spend money to acquire more land or take a dangerous gamble with their employees' and contractors' safety.

Without knowing more of the history of Turkey Hill's Conestoga facility, it is impossible to say if any of these factors contributed to the deadly February 14th incident. However, sometimes a fair bit of information can be gleaned simply by looking at satellite imagery of the property.

Below is a snapshot of Turkey Hill's shipping & receiving area. While I do not doubt the company's statement that driver safety is a priority, it is an unavoidable fact that tragedy struck, and their unnamed employee was at least partly responsible. There are some other unanswered questions that would provide a clearer snapshot of the circumstances--was the Turkey Hill employee still "on the clock?" Was the truck that hit Barnes a company vehicle like the many pictured below? Where specifically did the accident occur, and what environmental factors might have played a role?

Turkey Hill shipping & receiving
Turkey Hill Shipping & Receiving area--Conestoga, PA

Examining the photo, I see some ares where large tractor-trailers could encounter some hazards:

  • It seems like the facility could use more open space between the loading bays and the first row of parking spaces (highlighted in red), given that traffic has to cross through there and trucks have to execute some fairly complicated maneuvers to make it into the bay.
  • Allowing passenger vehicles to park in the unused trailer spots one row onward (highlighted in blue) increases the likelihood that an employee will cross through shipping, a dangerous and heavily-trafficked part of the lot. Clashes between pedestrians and semi-trailers (or any vehicle bigger than a tricycle) often have tragic results.
  • Most of the building's layout with respect to the lanes of traffic is pretty well designed; however, the area highlighted in yellow could conceivably present a blind corner, wherein a truck on the move may not have adequate time to brake if a person came around the bend. This same line-of-sight complication could present as a truck leaves the line of trailers backed up to the loading bays; should a person emerge from between those trailers, there is little maneuvering and stopping room for surprised drivers.
  • The lane that winds around the outside of the shipping & receiving department (highlighted in green) seems fairly narrow for two-way traffic. While the lot it leads to seems primarily occupied by smaller vehicles, we can see several semi-trailer cabs and a couple of trailers in the same area, suggesting that sometimes the shipping trucks have to navigate that thin strip of asphalt. This could present complications to anyone who might be headed the other way.

Those are just a few of the more obvious areas that could use some attention to help prevent future mishaps; all these concerns could translate just as easily to any industrial setting.

Safety Cannot Be Sacrificed to Prosperity.

There are two main reasons to take a close look at the loading area after an accident. The first is that anytime someone loses their life on a property, the very least that is owed to the surviving family members is a full, open accounting of what happened. Justice is rooted in truth and accountability. This means that before we can know what to do, we have to understand what happened.

Only when armed with a picture of the events and circumstances that led to a tragedy can we determined a proper path forward. Of all the places on a commercial property, even the best run loading dock is little more than ordered chaos. They're loud, with people and machinery engaged in a dangerous but vitally important dance. This chaos means that determining exactly what happened is always challenging, but not impossible. In our experience, the best way to get to the bottom of what happened is with an independent investigation, with a focus towards uncovering the truth. Such an investigation should include accident reconstruction as well as the input of other skilled professionals, who would scientifically pin down the chain of events that led to the tragedy.

The other obvious reason to scrutinize these kinds of accidents is to obtain justice. There are two parts to any just resolution; first, any oversights that led to the initial accident must be properly punished to the fullest extent of the law. Secondly, remedial steps have to be taken to ensure that others aren't killed or maimed by similar dangerous conditions.

Ultimately, in an industrial or commercial setting, it's vital to eliminate as many x-factors as possible to keep everyone safe. Marking equipment and high-traffic areas with appropriate cautionary signage, design and planning a factory to minimize potential dangers, and routinely refreshing worker awareness of safety procedures are all helpful preventative measures in an industrial environment. If a company should view safety as secondary to efficiency or profitability, it may become habit to overlook these things in order to expedite manufacturing or shipping. When these sacrifices are made, adverse events become exponentially more likely.