Safely operating commercial vehicles extends beyond standard behind-the-wheel training. While keeping your drivers safe on the road is an ever-present concern, ensuring their safety once the vehicle is off is just as important, although often overlooked.
When your work trucks pull to a stop in a loading zone or job site, the focus on safety doesn’t end — in fact, the interaction with the vehicles increases. Safety protocols for those ubiquitous delivery trucks — box trucks — should highlight every point of interaction with the vehicle, including the loading, unloading, and storage of cargo, driver protection, load retention, and ramp safety.
These tips will help you, your drivers, and your drivers’ helpers avoid safety pitfalls and their resulting injuries.
Ensure Floor Can Handle Load Weight
Let’s start with the floor of the truck body. Is it reinforced to accept the weight of your load and the equipment used to lift it? If you load with a lift truck, you need a floor that can handle that weight. When ordering your body, you have choices for the weight rating of the floor. Many reinforced floors can be identified by the “lift truck option.”
For used truck purchases, access the final vehicle manufacturer certificate on the B pillar or door jamb, which will identify the body manufacturer. With the truck’s VIN, a phone call to the body manufacturer should determine the weight rating of the floor. In addition to floor weight reinforcement, you must consider slip prevention.
The trucks in my fleet are installed with non-slip floor coating on the rear three ft. of the body and at the side door. Of the many brands to consider, you’ll need to find the best combination of non-slip effectiveness, durability, and cost.
Aim for Flat, Even Loads
Box trucks can be loaded in a variety of ways: by hand, with a floor jack or pallet jack, lift truck, or conveyor. Each presents different challenges when it comes to safety.
Do you know how heavy your loads are and the overall weight distribution of the loaded truck? There is a natural tendency to stack loads higher near the cab than the back, especially if the body is not completely full. This could transfer too much weight to the front axle, which generally has a gross axle weight rating of about half of the rear axle.
Aim for a flat, even load before securing it. Pallets can shift en route if they’re not properly centered and strapped or shrink-wrapped.
While shrink wrapping is a great way to secure pallet loads, the shrink wrapping is often cut to access part of a load for a delivery. Once broken down, shrink wrap loses its ability to restrain boxes from shifting. Therefore, consider how the remaining individual boxes are contained while in motion.
Boxes should be loaded with a last-in, first-out thought process so that individual or loosely restrained boxes high in the stack can be repositioned on the floor, closer to the back door as deliveries are made.
Individual pallets without loads can shift in a moving truck and cause a hazard. As pallets are unloaded, secure empty ones with straps to the E-track on the side walls.
Use Cargo Nets and E-track for Load Retention
Common devices to aid load retention and cargo storage include cargo nets and E-track rail systems.
Cargo nets are particularly helpful in preventing boxes from falling if the truck is parked on an uneven surface. The cargo net should be able to be relocated to any position throughout the length of the interior based on diminishing load volume.
Cargo nets aren’t expensive. You could even custom design one, as I did for one of the major fleets I ran. My cargo net was stowed on E-track and was adjustable with cam-type buckles.
Cargo nets start with capacities of 1,500 lbs. and increase based on the manufacturer, type of material, the tensile strength of each strap, and how many straps are used. Make sure you know how heavy your load is and then size the net accordingly.
E-track is mounted to the interior sides of the truck body and in some cases the front. There are an infinite number of options available.
Install Bulkheads to Protect Drivers and Passengers
You need to ensure that your van drivers and passengers have proper protection as well. Partitions, or bulkheads, divide the cab from the cargo area and keep tools and equipment from hitting the driver and passenger during a sudden stop.
Bulkheads have the added benefit of creating a wall that can be used to attach equipment. In addition to safety, bulkheads serve to deaden noise from the cargo area, and keep the desired air temperature where it’s needed, the cabin.
Bulkheads are available with a few choices: solid, perforated, wire mesh, or a combination. If you desire pass-through access to the cargo area, you can opt for a hinged partition or a door in the middle of the panel.
A wire partition, or “headache” wire, is an economical solution that provides maximum visibility while providing maximum protection for the driver and passengers.
Choose a Ramp Based on Application
Ramps are a great way to unload box trucks safely and ergonomically, if you have the right equipment. There are many choices based on application.
Ramps are solid or grated (“ventilated”) and made from various materials, including metals such as aluminum or magnesium. Some are reversible and have replaceable sections.
A ventilated ramp allows rain and snow to fall through it. Imagine a narrow, angled walkway with an accumulation of snow — a ventilated ramp will prevent the “ski ramp” no one wants.
Look for ramps with a knobby surface, which also prevents ice buildup and gives the driver’s boot a better grip.
When selecting a ramp, consider its weight and the ability of your workers to remove it from its carrier and install it. Ventilated ramps made of aluminum are some of the lightest.
For easier ramp deployment, consider a ramp lift assist, which will greatly reduce the ergonomic strain on your workers.
Additionally, look at the sides of the ramp — are they high enough to prevent a loaded dolly wheel from hopping over the side? A dolly that falls over the side will most likely take the operator with it.
Speaking of dolly operation, don’t overlook training on its proper use. Common errors include using a dolly that isn’t wide enough to accommodate the desired load and stacking a dolly too high, obscuring vision.
Human nature is such that if your dolly is built to handle seven boxes, your load handler will invariably stack more. I’ve seen unapproved stacking contests with one loader getting down the ramp successfully with 12 boxes — not a record of which to be proud.
Hold Safety Meetings Regularly
Many companies aren’t big enough to have a dedicated safety department. That task often falls on the owner and might receive little or no attention among other non-revenue generating issues.
That said, it’s not too difficult to keep safety top of mind if you have a plan.
You should require your fleet employees to attend at minimum one monthly safety meeting. Keep detailed records of the agenda, subjects covered, questions asked and answered, and have all attendees sign an attendance sheet. Retain these records.
Listen to the suggestions of your drivers and warehouse employees — after all, they’re the ones in the trenches with your equipment every day.
The modifications and additions offered in this article aren’t expensive when compared to a damaged load or a workers’ compensation case, not to mention the life-changing toll injuries can take on your employees. Remember, safety first — not cost first.
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