April 05, 2021

Flatbed Load Securement: 4 Rules to Remember

Flatbedders are definitely a different breed of over-the-road truck driver, and proper load securement is one of the specialized skills they must master to be safe and successful at their job.

There's an inherent danger when transporting tons of freight on a flatbed truck's open-deck trailer at high speeds. Add in surrounding vehicles on the roads and highways, and the risk is even greater. That's why it's critically important for flatbed drivers to safely secure loads in line with federal DOT regulations and trucking company safety policies. In 2019, more than 1,000 commercial drivers died from occupational injuries—the highest number since 2003, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's (FMCSA) cargo securement rules have been in place since 2002, with commercial freight carriers being required to comply with the standards in January 2004. After nearly two decades, these securement regulations remain the best bet for preventing serious accidents, injuries and fatalities.

At their core, the FMCSA's rules aim to keep flatbed cargo "firmly immobilized or secured" by using approved cargo securement and tiedown equipment, such as straps, chains, webbing and wire roping. The right securement device for flatbed freight depends on the weight and tiedown tool limitations, but the end result is the same—safe and secure cargo that stays put until it reaches its destination. Avoiding securement mistakes also means avoiding violations.

Like aircraft mechanics prepping a plane for takeoff, truck drivers must be meticulous and vigilant about following flatbed securement guidelines. Their safety and the safety of others on the road depends on it. Here are four rules to add to your load securement checklist when securing cargo on flatbed trailers.

1. Double-check your specs and evenly distribute cargo on the flatbed trailer.

Be a stickler for manufacturer ratings and recommendations when hauling heavy freight on your flatbed trailer. If there's even a sliver of doubt, be sure to check your trailer's load rating and verify your tractor's maximum towing capacity. Weight ratings are usually found inside the driver's door and on the trailer identification plate. Exceeding these limits can have dangerous consequences.

The maximum freight weight for standard flatbed trailers is 48,000 pounds, but the cargo must be distributed evenly to prevent the trailer from swerving uncontrollably or tipping over. Calculating and distributing weight plays a major role in cargo securement.

Think of a flatbed trailer like a cafeteria tray. You wouldn't stack all your meal items in one corner. If you did, the weight would be off-kilter, making the tray more likely to topple when you change direction.

For trailers—and lunch trays—you want to start in the middle and move outward, keeping a low center of gravity and placing heavier items lower to the deck and above the axles. About 60% of the load should be in the front half of the trailer to keep the back end slightly less heavy and unwieldy in transit.

2. Select the correct tiedown equipment, plan out cargo placement and secure the load.

Once cargo is safely loaded and distributed on the trailer bed, it's time to determine how many tiedowns you need and where they should go. Thankfully, the federal government has a formula based on the load's length and weight.

FMCSA requires at least one tiedown for every 10 feet of cargo and any fraction beyond that. For example, freight that's 35 feet long would require four tiedowns. Plus, the total working load limit of the securement devices, tiedown straps and chains must be 50% of the total cargo weight. Those limits are set by manufacturers and should be visible on tags or in manuals sold with the devices.

Choosing the right securement device depends largely on the cargo itself. Chain binders, chains and ratchet straps keep freight tightly fastened in place when your rig is moving. Cargo straps may be a better choice for softer materials like lumber or plastic piping, but they are more easily damaged and should be checked thoroughly before each use. Corner and edge protectors are a good investment to extend the lifespan of your trailer's tiedown straps.

After you've selected the proper load securement equipment, placement and anchoring of tiedowns on your flatbed trailer is paramount. You'll want a clear strategy based on best practices. And don't assume everything's kosher after hitting the road. After 50 miles, do a quick inspection to make sure no cargo has shifted and that your tiedowns are holding.

3. Take the necessary precautions when working on or around the flatbed trailer.

When securing heavy cargo, flatbed drivers must be extremely careful when working on and around their trailers. Trucks don't have to be moving for accidents to happen—they can and do occur during the loading, securement and unloading processes. And they can result in life-threatening injuries or even death.

Fall injuries, in particular, have been a focus of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, in recent years. OSHA updated its fall protection and safety standards in 2017, and flatbedders are considered a high-risk group. Climbing onto trailers, walking atop cargo and jumping down may seem harmless as you're going about your load strapping and securement process, but these actions can result in all sorts of mishaps that could lead to broken bones or something worse.

Slips, trips and falls are a real threat in this line of work, accounting for 30% of work-related injuries—and half of those injuries are critical. Winter is considered the most hazardous time of year for these types of injuries.

Don't become a statistic when securing loads on flatbed trailers. In addition to what you've learned during your load securement training, follow these tips to stay safe:

  • Don't skip steps. They're there for a reason. Use them!
  • Invest in non-slip footwear with ankle support and a good tread.
  • Stay away from narrow ledges and obstructed walkways that could cause you to lose your footing or fall awkwardly.
  • Avoid jumping from the trailer. Use the steps or climb down carefully.

4. Choose the right tarps if needed and properly secure them.

Tarping is another area familiar to flatbed truckers. These cargo covers won't be necessary for every load, but when they are, you'll want to make sure you're choosing the best flatbed tarp and tarping your trailer like a pro.

Tarpaulin sheets and systems will keep your freight protected from the elements and ensure that your payload arrives in pristine condition. Different types of cargo require different tarps. Some tarps are made specifically for hauling lumber or steel, while others are designed to guard freight from the wind. Depending on your intended application, custom flatbed tarps are another option.

Covering cargo with a tarp—even a lightweight flatbed tarp—is physically challenging without a forklift. These protective barriers can weigh up to 150 pounds, and affixing them outdoors can be even more difficult if it's hot or the wind is whipping up. That said, roadside tarping is considered a cardinal sin in flatbedding. Never attempt to cover cargo or rearrange your tarp alongside moving traffic. Reserve this task for rest stops or parking lots.

Tarping takes practice, but there's a set of general rules you'll want to add to your securement checklist. Here are the basics:

  • Roll out the tarp flatly and smooth out any wrinkles on the top.
  • Center the tarp and make sure it's even on each side.
  • Fold in any overlapping fabric on the corners to avoid wind pockets.
  • Connect the tarp to the trailer with rubber tiedowns.
  • Use nylon ratchet straps to secure the tarp and load in place.
  • If there's a back flap, make sure there's a seal between the trailer and cargo.

At JLE, we have flatbed load securement down to a science, and our safety team is always available to help drivers tighten up any loose ends (wink, wink). If you're an experienced OTR flatbed trucker, drive with JLE and become part of an elite unit of flatbedders who take their job seriously and always put safety first. Start the online application process today!