Economic experts say the Great Recession is waning. However, the going won't be easy in 2010 as the economy slowly recovers. That means material handling managers need to continue to find ways to work faster, smarter, safer and even leaner as the economy regains its strength.

One sure-fire way to make rapid progress is to manage the flow of raw materials and finished goods at the loading dock. This is especially true, since it's an area that has a profound impact on the efficiency and safety of an operation's distribution chain.

Following are some best practices to ensure the dock contributes to a positive outcome in the year ahead.

Safety First

Historically, the loading dock is a fast-paced, inherently dangerous environment. Given the importance that overall corporate stability plays in 2010, now is the time to assess the safety risks and take steps to address them.

Some of the most pressing issues include:

  • Catastrophic dock accidents

    If a semi-trailer separates from a dock, the results can be catastrophic. Install vehicle restraints that operate automatically and use a hook to wrap around the rear-impact guard of the trailer. This type of restraint protects against almost all forms of catastrophic accidents associated with trailer separation. Restraints also guard against trailer tampering and theft.

  • Chronic, long-term injuries

    Trailer beds can drop approximately eight inches during loading and unloading as lift trucks travel in and out of them. Use stabilizing trailer restraints to minimize the potential for chronic back and neck injuries. Some levelers are designed to create a smooth transition in and out of trailers to guard against the potential for long-term injuries to lift truck operators.

  • Lift truck-pedestrian collisions

    The second most common cause of lift truck-related fatalities is when a lift truck strikes a pedestrian, according to the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety. Safety-minded companies rely on advanced technology to address the problem at the dock. One such technology uses lights and an alarm to communicate the status of lift trucks inside the trailer. It can also enhance communication about the status of vehicle restraints to the lift truck operator, adding another level of protection against trailer-separation accidents. Another strategy is to use industrial safety barriers at the dock and well into shipping/receiving areas to help prevent serious pedestrian accidents.

  • Dock seal fires

    It's been shown that heat buildup of trailer marker lights can cause burning of foam dock seal components, presenting severe safety and productivity hazards as well as costly product, equipment, building and trailer damage. Triple-layer foil heat-dissipation technology incorporated into dock seal head pads, head curtains and side pads can prevent seals from burning as a result of the concentrated heat source.

Go Greener

While safety takes precedence, there's always the need to save energy wherever possible. The dock is an excellent place to focus corporate sustainability efforts because basic measures can save tens of thousands of dollars in annual energy costs with relatively fast payback.

A good start is to invest in shelters that provide full access to trailer loads yet effectively seal the hinge gaps on either side of the open trailers parked at the dock. Also, consider dock leveler pit seals to prevent energy from escaping through open gaps beneath and around the dock leveler. Sealing these small gaps can save as much as $2,000 per year, per dock position, depending on climate.

Another source of energy loss is gaps around sectional dock doors and open spaces that form along the seams of dock levelers and dock pit walls. Energy-efficient weather seals can solve the problem with relative ease and low cost. Another option is to install vertical-storing levelers, which provide a high degree of control over interior humidity and temperature.

And, there's more to saving energy than an airtight dock. High-volume, low-speed (HVLS) fans, for instance, can be used in dock areas to drive down heating and cooling costs. They circulate air more effectively than traditional fans and consume little energy in the process. In addition to energy savings, better air circulation helps keep dock employees comfortable and productive throughout the year.

Another energy-saving measure is to install technically advanced, high-speed, roll-up exterior dock doors. Some doors operate at 100 feet per second, leaving little chance for costly energy to escape.

Cost-Control Pays

Improved safety and energy savings at the dock can often be accomplished for hundreds or thousands of dollars, not hundreds of thousands. An eye toward cost-consciousness while making small improvements that add to the bottom line is always a good idea, but even more so heading into 2010.

Retrofitting a sectional dock door with a flexible bottom panel is a prime example of a relatively minor improvement that can pay significant dividends. The panel can absorb a lift truck impact, which minimizes door repair and maintenance costs. Additionally, other panels can be retrofitted into sectional doors to allow natural light into the dock area or facilitate air circulation.

And, if the goal is to keep heated or cooled air inside the dock where it belongs, it can be done economically, since many products like under-leveler seals, along with leveler and door seals, are typically priced within reach.

There are also ways to achieve safety and security without adding major line items to the budget. Cost is nominal for a light communication system that lets pedestrians know when a lift truck is operating inside a trailer, for example. Return is even greater considering the consequences of lift truck-pedestrian accidents.

Other safety devices used around the dock have evolved into affordable solutions in recent years. A case in point is industrial safety barriers. In many cases, decision makers no longer need to invest in expensive steel guardrails to protect pedestrians, machinery, equipment, workstations and products from material handling equipment. Instead, properly designed and installed flexible industrial barriers can often accomplish the same objective for less.

Cost-consciousness also means thinking ahead and investing in technology that pays dividends over time. Forward-thinking companies, for example, have turned to more advanced dock seals that better withstand the tremendous abuse delivered by backing trailers. Newly designed dock seals and other pieces of intelligently designed dock equipment are also easy to maintain, adding to cost savings over the life of the equipment.

Time to Market

Keeping goods flowing smoothly, of course, is what it's all about for material handling managers. They must address any and all bottlenecks within the distribution chain. That's also why the importance of dock equipment cannot be understated.

One of the most important steps is to ensure unobstructed access at the dock door when servicing trailers. This means the use of 8 ½-foot-wide levelers that provide ample room to move material in and out of trailers. It also means leveler platform lengths of 10 or 12 feet to ensure a gentle grade for lift trucks servicing trailers below the height of the dock floor. Soft-sided dock shelters provide full access to trailer loads while ensuring optimal environmental control.

Push-button, hydraulic dock levelers expedite trailer loading and unloading, especially when used with trailers with air-ride suspension. Unlike mechanical and air-powered levelers, hydraulic levelers follow the movement of the trailer bed above and below dock, making it easier for lift trucks to transition in and out of trailers. Additionally, they eliminate safety leg interference that often prohibits mechanical and air-powered levelers from reaching low trailer beds. They also reduce mechanical problems and ergonomic concerns.

Speed and efficiency is critical inside the shipping and receiving area. Consider high-speed doors, including those that open from the middle (rather than rolling up from the bottom) to gain immediate access through door openings. Doors that open in a split second make a difference when productivity is at stake.

Course to Success

Material handling managers will be challenged to cut costs and improve the flow of goods in the year ahead. Effectively managing the loading dock, which includes working with a reputable dock equipment supplier to select the right tools, is one way to win.

Walt Swietlik is customer relations manager at Rite-Hite Corp., a manufacturer of loading dock and industrial door equipment.