Regular maintenance is going to lead to loading dock equipment and in-plant equipment that performs better and helps keep energy costs low. (Rite-Hite photo)

Just What the Doctor Ordered

Planned maintenance can boost safety, increase efficiency, and lower long-term costs.

Annual physical examinations are not something that anyone looks forward to. First you need to shoehorn the visit into your schedule, then there's the agonizing long waiting room experience, all of which leads up to an hour’s worth of poking, prodding, and a lecture on diet and exercise. Not fun at all.

Nonetheless, most adults would prefer the inconvenience of an annual physical—allowing them to address potential problems before they fully take hold—than risk discovering a disease after it has become financially disastrous or too far advanced to treat.

Unfortunately, many facility managers essentially run their plant using the latter approach. In fact, approximately 55 percent of them use a reactive approach. But living by the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mantra can lead to major problems down the line. Although operations might run smoothly for days, weeks, or even months, ignoring routine maintenance can lead to breakdowns comparable to a total loss (and facility managers will quickly learn there isn’t health insurance to soften the blow).

Dock Equipment Eventually Breaks Down
Forklifts and tractor trailers wear down loading dock equipment every day. Dock levelers, vehicle restraints, and dock doors take punishment every time a new shipment must be loaded or unloaded. Eventually, even good equipment will succumb to heavy use, as evidenced by the fact that 70 to 85 percent of all equipment failures are due to improper maintenance.

A forklift, which weighs about 9,000 pounds without carrying a load, might make as many as 50 crossings to load or unload one trailer. Extrapolate this across an entire day and multiply by 250 workdays in the year (or more), and it can be more than 100,000 crossings in one year.

Barriers applied at the edge of loading docks that protect pedestrians from accidentally stepping off and prevent forklift and other vehicle operators from inadvertently rolling over the edge also can be damaged over time (or if improperly implemented). If a barrier has been struck several times, its effectiveness can be diminished. Eventually, this will lead to a disastrous break that can lead to injury or death of a worker.

The evidence piles up quickly to see why levelers, restraints, and other equipment can (and will) break down.

In-Plant Equipment Doesn't Last Forever, Either
Inside the plant, essential equipment also undergoes its share of daily usage and heavy wear and tear. Industrial doors—from high-speed doors to automated barrier doors—are used dozens, if not hundreds, of times a day. These doors are tasked with important responsibilities, such as saving energy, protecting workers from harm, and separating various processes and spaces to maximize productivity and overall product quality.

Doors are particularly important when it comes to running an efficient operation because we rely on them for so many different uses. Their function is generally taken for granted, but as anyone who has spent some time in a facility knows, any downtime where their doors aren't functioning properly affects productivity, energy consumption, and, ultimately, revenue.

Specialized doors, such as automated barrier doors, can protect employees from potentially dangerous operations while simultaneously taking regular punishment from daily operations. A machine operator might open an automated door for a welding or grinding cell more than 100 times in a day. Not to mention, the inside portion of the door regularly gets struck with potentially damaging debris. Some doors will be able to last a long time before wear and tear shows, but it will happen.

Other safety devices that might be used as an alternative to automated barrier doors, such as photo eyes or laser scanner, also can suffer breakdowns or malfunctions over the course of their lives.

Whether it's logistical equipment such as a dock leveler or safety equipment such as a barrier, even the best-made products can't be expected to work flawlessly forever without regular maintenance.

The Impact of Breakdowns
When equipment fails, it can be costly. Unexpected breakdowns result in undesirable problems, such as inefficient downtime for replacements and the costs associated with repairing or replacing equipment. Most importantly, however, is that worker safety is seriously compromised.

A vehicle restraint that no longer secures a trailer to a facility can lead to a variety of accidents. These include trailer tip-over from landing gear collapse; early departure, in which the semi-trailer prematurely pulls away from the dock while the forklift driver is still loading or unloading; and trailer creep, in which the vibration of forklift traffic causes the trailer to progressively move away from the dock wall. In each instance, a forklift operator is at risk of falling. These types of falls can lead to serious injury or death. Beyond that, they demonstrate a poor operation to potential business partners and consumers.

In-plant doors that get to the point of failure can spell immediate danger for workers. In the case of an automated barrier door that fails to protect a machine operator, the resulting injury can range from minor to severe. A damaged laser scanner might allow for an employee to enter an unsafe work zone that can lead to a serious injury. When industrial doors are damaged or don't work properly, facilities are left with potential problems, including safety. Bottlenecks can occur if doors are down, which can lead to condensed work areas that are prone to accidents.

From a pure business perspective, major breakdowns can lead to operations seizing at the loading dock or in a normally active area within a facility. These unexpected shutdowns can cause logistical nightmares for facility managers that use dozens of dock positions. Broken or damaged doors can lead to pathways for conditioned air to escape or for air particulate from welding operations to damage product in a finishing or packaging area. This energy loss and product quality degradation is bad for business in the short term and in the long term if a reputation is damaged badly enough.

Using internal maintenance staff to work on these types of failures might work in some instances. However, this solution often means someone who isn't certified to work on a leveler is now going to be putting himself in a potentially dangerous situation to fix a product he doesn't know all the details about. If the dock equipment suffers a total breakdown, it can cost even more to replace in a rushed, emergency situation. Even companies with contingency funds can't absorb unplanned spending long-term.

Regular Maintenance Minimizes Emergencies
Luckily, there is a way to avoid many of those emergency costs and unplanned downtime. Planned, or preventative, maintenance programs offer a relatively inexpensive way to reduce an organization's dependence on internal maintenance staff providing quick fixes to problems they aren’t qualified to solve. It also reduces the company's exposure to costs associated with emergency repairs or worker’s compensation claims.

The key is to identify wear and tear on equipment before it suffers a catastrophic breakdown. Certified professionals whose full-time job it is to diagnose and repair dock equipment as part of a planned maintenance program (PMP) can provide services that internal maintenance workers just don’t have the expertise for. Maintenance costs can actually be cut by 12-18 percent through a preventative maintenance plan. If equipment isn't working properly, trained technicians on a PMP visit not only will be able to fix the problem in less time than internal staff, but also they'll be able to get to the root cause and offer solutions to prevent a similar failure in the future.

Prevention is critical in limiting potentially dangerous situations, such as a broken vehicle restraint or damaged door. Small fixes and basic maintenance to these valuable pieces of equipment can keep them running effectively and minimize the chances of a major failure.

If an emergency does take place, a certified technician can tend to the situation quickly and more affordably than a technician who is seeing the facility for the first time.

Just like a primary care physician learns all about his or her patients, a technician as part of a maintenance plan quickly learns all the nooks and crannies in a facility after several visits. Most PMPs begin with a free facility survey so the provider and the facility manager can accurately determine the state of the facility and decide what type of program is needed. Depending on the needs of the facility, PMP inspections can be scheduled monthly, quarterly, semi-annually, or yearly. A quarterly inspection is typical with most PMPs. Over time, the familiarity of the facility improves scheduling and increases the efficiency of maintenance inspections.

Regular maintenance maximizes the efficiency of the equipment. In some cases, it can even cut energy bills by 5 to 20 percent. Similar to what exercise and a healthy diet will do for a person, a well-oiled leveler is going to work better and more efficiently—raising and lowering more efficiently (and more quietly). Energy can be saved when doors don't get stuck in an open position and when dock seals and shelters are properly maintained to reduce gaps in the loading dock. Regular maintenance is going to lead to loading dock equipment and in-plant equipment that performs better and helps keep energy costs low.

In addition to providing maintenance, professional PMP technicians can identify and diagnose equipment problems that might not demonstrate any immediate symptoms. The ability to spot small problems early can allow for equipment or operation adjustments that can potentially extend the life of the equipment. It also allows facility managers to begin budgeting for eventual equipment replacement. Additional planning means approximately 90 percent of work orders should come from planned maintenance, instead of expensive unplanned work orders.

While inspections and routine maintenance will temporarily limit use of a dock, it's always better to know when docks are going to be down or which doors will be non-operational for a few hours instead of suffering equipment failures with indefinite downtime. Additionally, a PMP allows internal maintenance staff to work on jobs they were originally hired to do. If a single dock door needs just one hour of maintenance a quarter, a mid-sized operation with two dozen dock doors is looking at nearly 100 hours of downtime at its shipping operations for annual maintenance. This doesn’t include any breakdowns that might occur.

Major Benefits of a PMP
Implementing a planned maintenance program benefits facilities in three ways: 1) It creates a safer work environment; 2) increases operational efficiencies; and 3) can even reduce energy use. Indirectly, these benefits save money for the facility, which helps their customers save money, too.

You go to a doctor for a regular checkup without any obvious symptoms to make sure your body is working properly and you can live a long and happy life. Smart facility managers treat the equipment under their watch the same way with regularly scheduled maintenance.

This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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