Unloading Trouble at the Loading Dock

Most or all of a shipper’s inventory eventually passes through the loading dock, so it’s essential that the area be configured correctly. Two common loading area problems are inadequately sized dock openings and rough terrain around the dock area. Where either of these conditions exist, load damage and costly delays are likely to occur. Understanding the scope of the problem is the first step to eliminating it.


A number of factors can result in awkward and insufficient access to trailers. First, trailer manufacturers have increased their products’ size to enable more capacity per trailer. Many of these larger trailers, however, are too big for existing loading dock openings.

In addition, lower trailer beds create more space inside a trailer, but can cause a misalignment with the dock. As a result, pit walls and dock equipment—door tracks, bumpers, and foam dock seals—encroach on the dock opening.

The tight fit often blocks access as forklifts struggle to reach end loads, causing product to knock against obstructions and be crushed. In some cases, damage to the load occurs when the forklift backs out of the trailer and meets the immovable pit wall. Workers may then have to move the cargo by hand, which creates delays.

Plenty of obstacles lie between the warehouse floor and the trailer bed. Forklifts feel every bump and gap along the way, and steep slopes and extreme angles into the trailer can be difficult to navigate. The elements can also create complications. Rain or snow inside a dock creates slippery conditions and can result in wet, unsaleable product.

Once the forklift arrives at the trailer, there’s still opportunity for load disturbance. An air-ride-suspension trailer can bounce as high as six inches when a forklift enters and exits. All this movement creates the potential for products to find their way off a pallet and into the return-to-sender bin.

These mismatches and bumpy terrains equate to damaged goods arriving at the receiving dock. Damaged products are typically returned to sender, creating waste and expense. Total unsaleable warehouse-delivered consumer packaged goods (CPG) across all distribution channels cost the CPG industry $15 billion last year, according to a 2008 report issued by the Unsaleables Leadership Team and its sponsors, which include the Food Marketing Institute and Grocery Manufacturers of America.


Fortunately, the process of eliminating problems at the loading dock is straightforward. To get started, ask your plant engineer or warehouse manager whether operations flow smoothly, or whether the dock opening is a source of pain.

If it is a pain point, assess your dock design and equipment. Make sure the loading area meets the following criteria:

  • Dock levelers are the correct width and length.
  • Levelers and restraints are designed to smooth the transition between the warehouse and the truck.
  • Hydraulic dock levelers are used instead of manually operated units.
  • Full-access environmental enclosures or rain-diverting header seals are installed.
  • Doors are properly sized.

If you still have a dock problem, consult a loading dock design expert to demonstrate how an upfront investment can quickly make up for losses that result from reverse logistics and delays.

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