Loaded Questions

Nearly everyone who has a driver's license has hauled something at one time or another, but if you're a landscape contractor, hauling equipment from one site to another is a daily occurrence. As such, it is easy to forget that hauling can be dangerous — especially when the load can weigh tons and may shift precariously if not properly secured. And while you probably know that loads should be secured, you may be tempted to skip that process if you're running late or if your next job is only a few blocks away. But it's important to follow safety guidelines regardless. And, in some cases, it's the law.

So to make sure that you are up-to-date on hauling and loading, here are some helpful tips, including how to prepare trucks, trailers and personnel; common mistakes to avoid; and driving tips for pulling trailers. As I prepared this article I spoke with a motor carrier officer (these are the guys who will pull you over if they spot any type of cargo that is improperly secured or overweight). As you will see, there is much more to transporting equipment and cargo than you probably knew.

DRIVER QUALIFICATIONS

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There are specific federal and state licensing requirements for different sizes of vehicles and the payloads they haul. These regulations are complex, and the officers who enforce them take their jobs seriously. It's a good idea for you to take them just as seriously to avoid a fine. To start, you should become familiar with the weight of each of your vehicles, your trailers and the weight you will be transporting. Once you know these numbers, you can determine which class of license you and your other drivers will need. For example, a 4-door truck with dual rear wheels and a heavy trailer (12,000 to 14,000 pounds) will require a Class B commercial driver's license (CDL). If you're carrying any hazardous materials, you are required to have a Class C CDL, even if you're transporting this material in a pickup truck. There are many regulations concerning driver's license, so it's best to check with your local department of motor vehicles if you have questions or concerns about licensing.

Even if your drivers have the appropriate license, you still shouldn't skip training them — especially if they are going to be hauling a lot of equipment. Training for your employees is essential with your specific vehicles. Backing a vehicle with a trailer is a skill that most people assume they have. Not so! It's a skill that requires practice and trial and error. In the safety of a large parking lot, set up marker cones and allow personnel to practice backing, with and without a trailer. The drivers will appreciate learning in this kind of environment, and they will be saved the fear and humiliation associated with making mistakes that damage equipment. Don't assume your employees know how to back up a trailer or truck, even if they say they can. Have them prove it.

VEHICLES

Trucks have weight restrictions, but many landscape contractors will try to push this limit. I recall one example of this I encountered years ago when I loaded a truck for a customer. His truck was literally broken in two before I even loaded a single pallet of sod. It was a single-axle flatbed with dual tires. In good condition, this truck should have been able to handle four pallets of sod, easily. But it wasn't in good condition and this guy wanted six pallets! The main frame rails were broken just behind the cab and were patched with large pieces of steel that were bolted to each side. I remember loading that truck and the frame starting to sag so much that we had to load a couple of pallets at the very rear of the truck to keep the frame from dragging on the ground. Yet he drove away.

Stay within the weight restrictions of your vehicle, and don't allow junk to represent your company. Make sure your truck stays on a maintenance schedule. If something on it breaks, get it fixed properly to increase the life of the truck and the safety of you and your crew. Even though vehicles must pass a state inspection (in most states), this does not always mean the running lights are working or even that the license plate can be seen. Those things are your responsibility. If you pull a trailer very often with a certain truck, you should invest in larger mirrors and attach the smaller, round, convex mirrors to the larger mirrors. These are hard to get used to, but they are very helpful — especially for longer trailers.

TRAILERS

Just like trucks, trailers also have weight restrictions. It's important to not exceed these restrictions and to use a trailer hitch that is strong enough to handle the weight without offering to break. The most widely used trailer hitches are the ball hitch and Pindle hitch, the Pindle being strongest by far. Even with a strong hitch, always include safety chains that secure the trailer to the vehicle. The only trailers that are not required to have safety chains are gooseneck and fifth-wheel trailers.

Always travel with a spare tire for your trailer. A loaded trailer with a blown tire and no spare can cost you a whole day of labor and aggravation. Even with dual axles, a blown tire will put the remaining weight on one tire, so if you continue to travel instead of putting on a spare, you will likely be replacing two tires instead of one when you reach the next destination.

Running lights on a trailer look nice when they are maintained, and they are helpful at night and during times of poor visibility. If you want a professional appearance, then keep your equipment clean and all your running lights operating. You must also keep your trailer license plates visible and lighted. Trailer brakes are a splendid addition, but only legally necessary when your trailer (combined) weight exceeds 4,000 pounds.

LOADING & UNLOADING

Equipment that you load and unload by driving it on and off a trailer nearly always creates a moment or two of apprehension. It's best to use a long, sturdy, wide ramp for loading this type of equipment. This will prevent it from dragging the ground and your drivers from having to traverse a steep incline. Doing so will also decrease the likelihood of equipment bucking like a wild bull as it climbs up onto the trailer.

The angle of your ramp is critical when loading. Try to position the ramp so that it's not too steep and in a way to minimize the angle or amount of grade (or steep angle). Putting supports under the trailer's rear-edge or under the ramps will prevent excessive up-and-down trailer movement during loading. Do not put the supports so high that the trailer is sitting on them when it is fully loaded.

LOAD POSITIONING

Incorrect positioning of your load can severely affect how your vehicle drives and handles. For trucks, it is best to place the load between the cab and the rear axle. Loading farther back than the rear axle will produce poor handling. For trailers, load on the axle(s) slightly forward of the leading axle. This will distribute some of the weight to the rear of the vehicle through the hitch. Otherwise, the trailer will seem to have a mind of it's own and wobble, or swerve.

TIRES

Tires are one of the most neglected areas of vehicle safety, and should be included in all safety inspections. Tires are rated for a specific weight, yet so few people know what this is. You can look on the sidewall of your tires and see the weight rating. If you cannot read it, it is probably time for new tires! Heavy-duty tires are available with many different weight-carrying capabilities. I have been shocked more than once to discover the loads people are carrying far exceed the weight ratings on their tires. Check with a local tire distributor for help with determining the weight ratings of your tires.

SAFETY FIRST

Finally, encourage your employees to be safe drivers by reminding them to obey the speed limits, anticipate all intersections, watch for brake lights and allow faster drivers to pass. Give them time to make it to their job sites without forcing them to drive aggressively, especially when pulling a load.

Steven Loewen is the turf manager at Piedmont Landscaping and Grounds Maintenance (Greensboro, N.C.). You can contact him at sdloe@yahoo.com.

SECURITY BLANKET

To secure your load before heading down the highway (or down the block, for that matter), there are a number of different types of tie downs with different strength ratings. For the heaviest of cargo, including tractors, heavy equipment or machinery, you should use chains and chain binders. Pay attention to the grade and size of the chains, as they must meet a minimum size and strength requirement. Ratchet binders will handle a variety of payloads, including light tractors, lawn mowers and medium-sized equipment. Federal law requires that any tractor or similar equipment over 5,400 pounds must be secured at all four corners. And secure your load firmly so you can be confident that it will stay in place when you are on a rough road. Even if you aren't sure that your load requires the extra effort of being tied down, it's best to follow this rule of thumb: “Better safe than sorry.”

Tarps are mandatory for any loose material. Your best bet is to tarp, even if you're only going a short distance. All it takes is one rock or stick falling off to cause an accident. It is worth a few extra minutes for you to add this measure of safety. An easy way to secure tarps is to use bungee cords. If you use them for this purpose, remember to bring extras because there is a chance that the wind whipping the tarp could work them loose, requiring a spare.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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