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Engineering Safety into Truck Loading Areas

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Published on: August 14, 2023

Although workers in transportation and material handling are likely to face more risks and hazards over the road than while they are parked, the work routines common to truck loading areas can have many safety risks and fall hazards. In fact, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that more than 60 lives are lost annually while loading and unloading flatbed trailers alone.  

The loading and unloading of trailers is subject to general industry work-at-height safety regulations.

Truck and Trailer Fall Protection

Working near or even stepping into active trucking areas requires caution and careful coordination. If truck loading and unloading work cannot be conducted from start to finish from the ground using lift equipment or safe access platforms, then the work has the potential to fall under work-at-height anytime someone is required to mount the trailer. When this is the case, it becomes necessary to have special protocols and safety equipment in place to avoid workplace mishaps, injuries, and fatalities.  

Unless there are no feasible means of providing it while working on trailers, OSHA requires that fall protection be provided at elevations of four feet in general industry and six feet in construction workplaces to mitigate the risk of fall hazards.  

The top of a trailer can have unpredictable and hazardous conditions for walking and working.

A fall hazard is anything at your worksite that could cause you to lose your balance or lose bodily support and result in a fall. In addition to the risk factor of working at heights between 5 and 14 feet above the pavement, trailers move, shift, and flex by design. Even an empty flatbed trailer will present fall hazards. When loaded, the working and walking surfaces on flatbeds can be unstable, unlevel, and unpredictable. It can be a challenge to find and keep one’s footing when loads need to be handled, accessed, navigated, or scaled. Whereas the conditions of the working and walking surface of a tanker trailer are less dynamic and more static than a flatbed, and the work on top of tanker trucks is more routine and predictable, the height is significantly more hazardous.  

The impact of a fall of just six feet to a lower surface can be devastating.

When access to the top of a trailer is required, only certain tasks, on certain types of trailers would be safe to conduct without some form of fall protection. For example, the top of an average tanker trailer is 13 feet tall which would most certainly require some form of personal fall protection or passive protection to prevent or arrest a fall. Whereas, the trailer decks of double drop, low-bed, float trailers, and lowboys are typically 24 inches above the pavement.  

When proper freight handling procedures are followed and situational awareness is practiced, managing risks, and avoiding hazards at heights of less than 4 feet becomes exceedingly easier than 13 feet. However, the height of a more typical flatbed deck is 5 feet and can give a false sense of security. If a worker must scale the cargo of a fully loaded trailer (to assist with loading, strapping, or tarping, for example) they can find themselves at heights of 8 feet or higher.  

A fall from just 6 feet may result in serious head and brain injuries including brain hemorrhage and skull fractures, serious spinal, or spinal cord injury, in some cases resulting in paralysis.  

With clear strategies for making loading areas safe, there is no excuse for leaving workers exposed to fall hazards.

Whether the work at hand requires boarding a flatbed to secure a load or navigating the top of a tanker trailer to access the manway fill/washout or relieve pressure, work on top of any semi-trailer can be dangerous without the proper safety training and equipment. The following are some ways to provide a safe environment for workers required to conduct this kind of work. 

A comprehensive hazard assessment and careful evaluation of the loading and unloading routines are necessary to determine the proper mix of fall protection equipment and training required to enable safe and productive work on the top of trailers. Special attention to both static and dynamic obstacles that affect fall clearance should be considered.

Common Trailer Loading and Unloading Fall Protection Solutions

Access Platforms & Work Stands

Truck and Trailer Fall Protection

Available in a variety of loading and docking configurations as portable or permanent safe access systems. The most ideal will be designed and engineered to fit specific needs. These provide passive fall protection and require no special equipment or training.

Overhead Rigid Rail Systems

Truck and Trailer Fall Protection

A track/beam and trolley position the tie-off point above the user. These fall arrest systems are engineered systems that require harnesses, self-retracting lifelines, training, and rescue plans. Rigid Rail systems do not prevent falls but prevent impact with lower levels.

Overhead Lifeline or Cable Systems

Truck and Trailer Fall Protection

These systems are similar in function to Rigid Rail in that tie-off point is above the user. The best lifeline systems will utilize 7X7 cable and shock absorbers. These fall arrest systems require user equipment, training, and rescue plans.

Mobile Tieoff Solutions

Truck and Trailer Fall Protection

These are typically fall arrest systems but can provide active work restraint. The base of these solutions are equipped with weights, wheels, or supports that allow the system to be easily transported and positioning where it is needed.

Never underestimate the value of a strong safety culture.

Developing and implementing a comprehensive safety program requires systems and procedures to be understood and followed. The safest operations ensure everyone knows how to react when things don’t go as planned. They hold safety meetings, user training, and incident drills with their drivers, forklift operators, warehouse staff, and management regularly. Some operations even have methods to report near misses to remain aware of potential issues. Regardless of the safety strategy that is implemented a strong safety culture is typically built using these 8 steps:

Step 1: Evaluate Risk
Step 2: Set Goals
Step 3: Include Everyone
Step 4: Determine Responsibilities
Step 5: Implement Safety Systems & Training
Step 6: Communicate & Report
Step 7: Exchange Feedback
Step 8: Continue Improving

Connect with certified fall protection professionals who are addressing risks and hazards like yours today. Learn more about safer more effective trailer loading and unloading: https://fall-arrest.com/fall-protection-industries/trucks-trailers/

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