How to load trucks and trailers

Secure every load to prevent it from shifting during transit. A load that shifts in transit is far more dangerous when it comes time to unload.

On many jobsites, any workers in the area will likely be told to help load trucks and trailers, whether they are properly trained or not. Even though loading and unloading trucks and trailers are daily activities in many businesses, they are a major cause of workplace injuries and fatalities. Perhaps even more dangerous are situations where loading and unloading is done irregularly, loads vary greatly, and workers have not had proper training – such as on construction jobsites. Keep your workers safe by training them how to load and unload trucks and trailers. And institute appropriate safety procedures.

How to load trucks and trailers manually

On most jobsites, loading and unloading a truck or trailer means lifting – ladders, building materials, lumber, drywall, steel, pipe, tools, etc. Each year, hundreds of thousands of workplace accidents result in back injuries, and workers frequently blame the weight and bulkiness of objects they are required to lift as causing their injuries. Bending followed by twisting and turning are the more commonly cited causes of back injuries.

Typical injuries that occur when manually loading and unloading materials are:

  • Strains and sprains from lifting loads improperly or carrying loads that are too large or too heavy
  • Fractures and bruises caused when workers are struck by materials
  • Injuries caused when hands, feet, etc. are caught in pinch points

Prevent needless injuries when loading and unloading manually by using proper lifting techniques and attaching handles to loads for a more secure hold. Be careful not to overreach or lift the load at an awkward angle; even light loads can cause injury if not lifted correctly. If possible, use lifting aids for heavier items or share the weight between two or more people.

Always wear appropriate personal protective equipment when loading and unloading:

  • Hand and forearm protection, such as gloves, for loads with sharp or rough edges
  • Eye protection
  • Steel-toed safety shoes or boots with metal, fiber or plastic metatarsal guards to protect the instep
  • Hard hats when working near tall loads

The type of material you are handling can increase your risk of injury. For example, be especially cautious when handling structural steel or pipe. This type of load can shift or become unbundled when straps break.

Stone slabs are also difficult to handle and because of their weight can do significant harm if they fall. If a slab is being loaded on a dolly, stay clear of the fall area. If a slab starts to topple, never try to restrain it. That’s a good way to get crushed.

Hazardous materials require special handling. Before handling, look for any damage to the packaging, bags or pallets that can allow the material to get on you or others. If you see damage to the packaging, don’t touch it.

Always consider weight distribution of the load when you’re loading a truck or trailer. Ideally, the load should be spread evenly along the load floor.

Secure every load to prevent it from shifting during transit. This even applies to loads in pickup truck beds. While there is some risk of injury while securing the load, a load that shifts in transit is far more dangerous when it comes time to unload.

Watch out for bystanders and be sure everyone is outside the “fall-shadow” of the load. Never stand or supervise from a position where a slipping load could fall on you.

How to load trucks and trailers mechanically

Using mechanical equipment to load and unload trucks and trailers or driving equipment onto trucks and trailers under their own power increases the chance of injury.

For concentrated loads, such as pallets of bricks or bags of cement, be very careful not to exceed the gross vehicle weight (the weight the truck can safely carry), or the gross combination weight if it is a truck and trailer. Concentrated loads should be positioned with the center of the load just forward of the rear wheels with more of the load ahead of the rear axle or trailer axles than behind. For sway-free towing, position about 10 percent of the total weight of the loaded trailer on the tow vehicle’s hitch.

Always load materials or equipment on the trailer after it’s attached to the truck. Make sure the truck’s parking brake is engaged and chock the wheels before you begin to load or unload. If support legs (outriggers) are provided on the trailer, always use them. Don’t forget, you need trailer tongue weight on the vehicle tow hitch to tow without sway, but you don’t want to overload the rear suspension of the towing truck.

Loading construction equipment can be particularly hazardous, especially if you’re loading a self-propelled machine, such as a skid-steer loader or mini-excavator. If the loading ramps are removable, be sure they are correctly engaged in the slots before moving the machine onto them. Unless done correctly, it can slip off the ramps and even overturn, potentially injuring the operator and bystanders.

If the equipment has a bucket or other attachment, lower it to the deck once the machine is loaded. And make sure the equipment brakes are set and load restraints are in place.

OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) regulations govern the safety and health of workers at the construction site, including safety training for loading and unloading trucks and trailers. For more information, visit OSHA.gov.

Everyone on a jobsite should have training on the hazards of working around heavy equipment. To protect yourself, and prevent accidents and potential loss of life, read and follow these safety tips.

—By Steve Sturgess

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