Last reviewed 6 March 2014

Robin Dickeson takes a look at vehicle load safety from a risk management point of view.


All commercial vehicle operators aim to deliver their loads profitably and safely, without damage to cargo or danger to people. Unfortunately, some operators do not give enough attention to load safety; the consequences of “getting it wrong” can include delay, huge costs, tragedy or prison.

Expectations under the law

The law does not expect people to eliminate all risk — that would be impractical — but it does require a commitment to safety and protection as far as is “reasonably practicable”.

The law demands that firms assess workplace risks and have workable plans to control them. Apart from the obvious risks of injury and death, there are serious legal liability issues for drivers, other employees and employers.

Realistically, for commercial vehicle operators, load safety is almost always a workplace issue and it is probably best seen in that context. Risk assessment is a common-sense and valuable approach to such safety issues; it is also a legal requirement.

Importantly, all involved in loading and operating vehicles need to “think safety” at all times and, if possible, demonstrate that approach.

More than just the cargo

The “load” in this case is effectively anything carried on a vehicle, from raw materials through to finished goods, tools and equipment, or waste. Whatever it is, if it is carried on a vehicle, it must be safely and securely fixed. In fact, this applies to any vehicle — car, van, truck, bus or trailer.

The driver has the greatest responsibility. He or she is ultimately responsible for his or her vehicle and its safety, including if a load shifts or falls in transit.

A driver effectively accepts this responsibility for the load and its safety, even though someone else loaded the vehicle. This is tough: it is a brave driver who tells a despatcher that he believes an urgent load is unsafe and refuses to take the vehicle out on the road. It is difficult for a driver to inspect a load in a sealed ISO container, but he or she is still responsible at law.

The problem is not confined to goods in transit; there are particular problems and risks with vans, typically those used by tradesmen and engineers as mobile workshops or toolboxes. The tools inside them are often heavy and awkwardly shaped and not always easy to secure safely.

The better retrofit van racking systems are designed to contain their contents and absorb collision energy. Some are crash tested. However, too many van racking systems fail to meet such standards. In a road traffic accident they may expose a driver and passenger to real danger from flying tools and materials or even the entire shelving system.

Ladders and pipes carried on the tops of vans are a common sight; pipes are particularly difficult to secure and are a great threat. Indeed, if a van stops suddenly, even in a relatively minor head on collision, it may launch its roof-top load in a lethal shower.

Even a loose laptop or mobile phone in a vehicle can become a potentially dangerous projectile if not properly secured.

The clear and obvious aim is to ensure that loads, whatever their type, do not shift.

Taking load safety seriously

Naturally, vehicle operators want loads delivered safely and undamaged. They also want vehicles loaded and unloaded quickly to cut costs; the compromise or conflict between safety and speed must be recognised and managed, safely.

Whether the load is made up of cargo or tools and equipment for a job, it must be secure and safely fixed. Of course, sometimes people simply make mistakes. The ability to assign blame or make excuses does not heal injury or death. Compensation and fines may concentrate minds, particularly legal ones, but they do not undo the damage.

The only credible approach is to take load safety seriously. It has to involve everyone from driver to managing director, both of whom incidentally might face courts and prison if they and their systems are found seriously wanting.

Much of the answer is to instil a “no harm” culture at every level in an organisation; the more people look for risks, the more should be spotted and avoided. However, this approach needs common sense or it can cripple an organisation.

Life is a risky business and action demands a balanced approach to risk, which is where sensible risk assessment helps. This sometimes sounds daunting but is a common-sense and valuable approach to load safety.

Importantly, people need to resist the temptation to use risk assessments as an excuse to overcomplicate load safety routines or they will become impractical. Balance and common sense are vital; bureaucratic systems may invite corner cutting, defeating the object of the exercise.

Practical risk assessment follows a logical five-step process.

  1. Identify the hazards.

  2. Decide who might be harmed, and how.

  3. Weigh up and rank the risks and decide on precautions and priorities.

  4. Record the findings and implement them.

  5. Review the assessment regularly and update if necessary.

Code of Practice

The UK Department for Transport (DfT) publishes a Code of Practice Safety of Loads on Vehicles; this document is Crown copyright and may be reproduced free of charge. Every transport operation should have a copy and the relevant people should read it. In summary, it says that both the law and common sense demand that all loads are secured, whatever the journey.

The UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) also produces leaflets and web-based guidance on vehicle loading and risk assessment. See the HSE website.

The newly formed Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) already works closely with the HSE and says it will pay “closer attention” to load safety in its roadside checks. The UK Government formed DVSA by merging the Driving Standards Agency (DVA) and the Vehicle and Operator Standards Agency (VOSA).

How to keep loads safe

Make sure the load does not move, not even a millimetre. Once something starts to move independently of the vehicle, it is uncontrolled and on the way to becoming a potentially dangerous projectile.

Gravity and friction are not enough to hold a load in place. The heavier an object, the greater its momentum, making it more likely to move under sharp braking, acceleration or cornering. The only safe solution is to restrain it with suitable chains straps or other fixings, attached to strong points on the vehicle.

Load security systems also need regular checks for wear and tear, with any defective parts replaced straight away, and the vehicle needs to be correctly specified for the job in hand. The law demands protection for all involved in driving, loading and unloading and for other road users and pedestrians. To that end, trained people who know the risks should load and unload vehicles, with their work subject to a risk assessment. Drivers must also understand the risk of the load, or part of it, moving when the vehicle is being driven. This applies to all vehicles and to all types of load.

The Code of Practice also makes it clear that the driver is ultimately responsible for the safety of the vehicle and load, whether or not he or she was involved in its loading. At 123 pages, Safety of Loads on Vehicles is not light reading but it is clear, comprehensive and covers a huge range of operations. It should be required reading for any UK van or truck operator.

Credible organisations must do their utmost to ensure and demonstrate that all their loads are safe.