Safe loading: how to avoid loads of trouble

Weighing rubbish for recharging

Overload a commercial vehicle and the penalties can be eye-watering. And the the fines aren’t levied solely at the driver.

A removal company, two of whose vans were found to be overloaded by 33% and 46% within the space of a month, was fined £48,000 by Bristol magistrates, reports the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA). The drivers were fined £1,848 and £2,464 respectively. 

The business involved had a history of overloading.

Such substantial fines are, admittedly, rare. More typically, drivers face a fixed penalty notice from £100 to £300 dependent on how overweight the vehicle is. 

If the overload exceeds 30%, however, then the enforcement authorities will report the driver with a view to prosecution. 

A fine of several hundred pounds is a likely outcome if the individual is found guilty.

The owner may be prosecuted for causing or permitting the offence, with penalties on conviction likely to be several thousand pounds for each axle overload, and for the gross overload too.

“Fines from £3,000 to £5,000 are common,” says Axtec sales director, Derek Hack. The Cheshire-based firm supplies onboard weighing systems as well as weighbridges.

 Overloading can result in the issuing of a  prohibition notice and the vehicle being immobilised by the DVSA until the excess weight is removed. 

“That may mean missed deliveries and the business concerned will incur the cost of having to send out a second vehicle to take on part of the load,” points out Axtec managing director, Keith Gresham. 

Matters are likely to become more serious, and the penalties heavier, if the overload is enough to justify a charge of using a vehicle in a dangerous condition, or if the vehicle happens to be a truck. 

If that is the case, the Traffic Commissioner must be informed of any overloading conviction. 

The commissioner could take action against the operator’s O-licence if the offence is sufficiently serious, or if the operator has committed a number of other offences at the same time. 

A firm's OCRS

It will certainly affect the firm’s OCRS – Operator Compliance Risk Score – which means its trucks are likely to be stopped by the DVSA more frequently and it will affect its eligibility for Earned Recognition. 

Hack can understand why overloading is viewed as such a serious offence. It affects the vehicle’s brakes – the extra weight means it will not be able to stop as quickly in an emergency – as well as its steering and suspension, which means its handling will be impaired.

“If it is involved in an accident, and the insurers discover it was overloaded, they may declare the insurance invalid and refuse any claims,” he says.

There is a further good reason for objecting to overloading. “It represents unfair competition,” Hack points out.

Carrying excess weight gives the firm concerned a (hopefully temporary) advantage over businesses that operate legitimately.

Axtec’s OnBoard Load Indicator employs load cells connected to the chassis which can measure a gross overload plus individual axle overloads on up to four axles and alert the driver accordingly. The latest version was launched at April’s Commercial Vehicle Show, with larger in-cab displays.

Have it fitted to a two-axle truck – an 18-tonner, for example – and it will cost £1,449, supplied and installed, says Hack.

Best-known for its Urban Eat range of sandwiches, Adelie Foods had an earlier version of OnBoard Load Indicator fitted to 200 refrigerated Mercedes-Benz Sprinters with an eye to maximising their payload without breaking the law. 

“It gives our drivers a safe and simple means of seeing the fullest possible load information so they don’t have to worry about accidental overloading,” says a company spokesman.

Wellingborough Norse, which collects refuse as well as proving other services, has had a dynamic weighbridge installed at a depot it operates in Northamptonshire on behalf of Wellingborough Council. It uses it to weigh its vehicles to ensure they remain legal, and allows third parties to use it too, for a fee.

This type of weighbridge costs from £16,000 to £20,000, including groundworks. “It has been a shrewd investment for us,” says operations director, Bernard Gallyot.


Real-time weighing

Some trucks are fitted with onboard systems that record the weight of items as they are loaded and allow the fleet manager to see what is happening in real-time via a web portal.

Those items are often big-capacity bins used to collect trade waste. A certified weigher allows the operator to bill the customer for the amount of waste that has been picked up (see picture at start of article).

Enviroweigh from Vehicle Weighing Solutions (VWS) enables Wiltshire-based Grist Environmental to do exactly that. Six of its trucks are equipped with Enviroweigh, and more will follow.

The system can be monitored remotely.

“It allows us to pick a vehicle and either see what is happening right now or select a day and time-frame to check a particular bin or collection round,” says Grist head of projects, Jonathan Taylor. 

“It’s really helped us with the management of heavy bins.”

Like Axtec, VWS supplies dynamic weighbridges and offers onboard weighing systems that will identify gross and individual axle overloads. Its Vehicle Overload Protection System (VOPS) relies on sensors that monitor the movement of the suspension when a load is imposed and its portfolio also includes a more sophisticated system that employs load cells mounted between the chassis and the body.

The former is accurate to within 1.5% and is around one-third the price of the latter, which has an accuracy of better than 0.5%, says VWS managing director, Julian Glasspole. 

“We recommend that onboard weighers are calibrated every 12 months,” he adds.

Other onboard weigher suppliers include VPG, which introduced the latest version of its VanWeigh gross and axle overload monitor for light commercials earlier this year, and Red Forge.

Commercial vehicle manufacturers have not traditionally fitted overloading indicators on the production line, but that attitude may be changing. Virtually identical aside from their badges and some styling differences, Peugeot’s Partner, Citroën’s Berlingo and Vauxhall’s Combo can all be ordered with them.

Having cargo tumble off a van or truck and land in the middle of the motorway, potentially causing an accident, is unlikely to endear the driver or the operator to the authorities. Again, legal action against both driver and operator is likely to ensue, with steps taken against the firm’s O-licence if a truck is involved; especially if somebody is injured.

If someone is killed, then a prosecution for corporate manslaughter could follow.

Curtainsider bodies are especially vulnerable to load loss given their lack of solid sides. 

Even if cargo is not lost, the DVSA can take action, and issue a prohibition notice if a curtain is bulging outwards because an insecure item has shifted.

Highways Authority traffic officers are increasingly passing information on vehicles that appear to be loaded incorrectly to the DVSA so it can act.

Working with other agencies, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has been involved in a pilot scheme which has resulted in trucks being randomly stopped to see if their cargo is properly secured, whether their curtains are bulging or not.

Section 40A of the Road Traffic Act 1988 says anybody who uses, causes or permits another to use a vehicle on the highway with a load that could fall off and injure someone because it has not been secured properly is committing an offence.

No strapping

Given this, it is perhaps surprising that loads transported in curtainsider bodies do not always need to be strapped down, a time-consuming exercise which can result in inadvertent damage to palletised cargo if it is lashed down too tightly.

To qualify for this exemption, businesses must use bodies built to European Standard EN 12642-XL. To meet this standard, a body has to have its roof reinforced, and both its strengthened curtains have to be capable of withstanding a sideways force equivalent to 50% of the maximum payload without the need to strap the load down laterally. In addition, they have to be able to handle a frontal force equal to 100% of the maximum payload and a 50% rearward force.

If they can do all this, then they are deemed to be capable of containing the cargo without any further measures having to be taken. “You should be able to pick the vehicle up and shake it, and nothing will fall out,” says Road Haulage Association (RHA) head of technical services Malcolm Dodds.

However the standard only works if the load is a full one, pushed right up against the headboard, positioned almost up to the rear doors – it must be restrained at the back – and no more than 80mm from each set of curtains. 

It has to be a uniform one too. If it consists of pallets bearing loads of differing heights interspersed with un-palletised items of various widths and heights, then it probably won’t be legitimate.

If the cargo does not meet these criteria, or if part of a full load is unloaded half-way through the vehicle’s journey, then it has to be fully restrained. The best way of doing so is to secure it crossways using ratchet straps, with wider straps, load-rated nets, and tarpaulins with integral straps used to spread the load if the cargo is at risk of being crushed.

“Bags full of aggregates, for example, can be secured with wide straps which won’t chafe and result in their contents spilling out,” says Dodds.

Edge protectors can be used to help protect vulnerable loads. “It can also make sense to put friction mats on the load bed to make it less likely the cargo will slide,” he says.

Palletised loads can vary significantly in weight. Concern has been expressed by both operators and drivers in recent years over the weight of some of the pallets drivers working on their own are expected to deliver to domestic premises using a tail-lift and a pallet truck. 

The issue grew in significance after a truck driver died delivering a pallet of tiles weighing 1.1 tonnes to a residential address back in 2016.

Having carried out extensive research and tests, the HSE has decided against imposing a maximum weight limit, suggesting, instead, that operators carry out their own risk assessments and impose restrictions accordingly. Some pallet networks and transport fleets have already voluntarily opted for a 750kg limit.

Strapping down tall pallets can be challenging, with drivers sometimes obliged to hurl a strap with a half-kilo ratchet on the end over the top from one side of the body to the other.

That cannot be viewed as a safe practice.

A far better approach is to install straps that retract into the body’s roof. They can be pulled down onto the cargo, then secured on each side of the load bed.

Body and trailer builder Schmitz Cargobull’s Sliding Lashing System works along these lines, and can be combined with its beefy Power Curtains. “They’re thicker than standard curtains and reinforced with Kevlar,” says Matthias Muffert, head of product for Schmitz’s curtainsider range.  

The curtains are so strong that they can be used as anchorage points for horizontal straps that can be used to secure the rear of a palletised load, he adds.

Restraint straps must comply with the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998. They must not be cut, seriously frayed or have holes in them, and the metal parts fitted to them must not be missing, damaged or corroded.

They must also be labelled so the driver can see how strong – and how old – they are. 

“Including load restraints in the driver’s daily walk-around check is not a bad idea,” says Freight Transport Association head of engineering and vehicles standards policy Phil Lloyd (pictured).

He suggests operators produce a leaflet outlining the basics of safe loading, and ensure it is put in the cabs of all of their vehicles. 

“Admittedly, there is a lot of information about this topic on the internet, but that doesn’t mean that drivers will bother to read it,” he observes. 

They might not read a leaflet either, of course. But they could be tempted to pick it up and glance through it if it is sitting in front of them.

To help ensure drivers understand what they need to do, trailer and body builder Don-Bur and the RHA have put together a half-day Certificate of Professional Competence course entitled
Practical Safe Loading. It covers the theory and includes practical content too.

FORS, the Fleet Operator Recognition Scheme, requires fleets to ensure appropriate load restraints are used and that vehicles are not overloaded. 

Risk assessments should be carried out, says FORS, suitable restraint equipment made available and drivers should be trained so they know how to use it. They should also be made aware of the potential risks if correct procedures are not followed. 


Regular reviews

The policies the fleet follows should be fully documented and reviewed every 12 months.

No matter how well it is run, no fleet can be certain corners will never be cut. 

“However, there is a far better chance of the right thing happening if the safety culture in the business is right,” says FORS director John Hix.

The FORS requirements are set out in the latest version of its Going for Bronze handbook, which also points out that information on safe loading is available online from the DVSA and the Health and Safety Executive ( Even if drivers cannot be persuaded to visit the websites concerned, fleet managers certainly should.

The HSE chairs a load security steering group which includes representatives from the DVSA, the Health and Safety Laboratory, vehicle, trailer, body and load restraint manufacturers and the road transport industry.

Operators periodically complain that drivers sent to collect cargo from warehouses are told to stand behind a safety barrier while their trucks are loaded. As a consequence, they have no idea whether the load has been secured properly, despite the fact that both they and the truck’s owner can be held liable if it has not.

“A number of RHA members have raised this as an issue,” says Dodds.

It is in the interests of warehouse keepers to ensure vehicles are loaded correctly because they, too, may be held liable under the Road Traffic Act if the cargo shifts, warns the HSE. So, allowing the driver to emerge from behind the crash barrier and offer advice could be wise.

Safe loading leaflets should be put in the cabs of vans as well as trucks contends Lloyd, because many light commercial drivers do not know how to load their vehicles correctly.

“There is a genuine lack of understanding among them,” he says. “So from the DVSA’s viewpoint, pulling over vans it suspects are overloaded is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel.”

Put the suspect vehicle on a weighbridge, and it is almost certain to get a result; and a hefty fine may follow.

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