Flatbed Truck

What are the dangers of flatbed trucks?

Operating flatbed equipment poses risks to the drivers who have the tough, day-in, day-out job of hauling these loads. It’s an accepted fact in the profession that driving an old-school flatbed poses some of the most frequent and potentially dangerous hazards in the industry.

Little has changed in the basic format of flatbed operation over the decades. Most risk factors are, in fact, “built-in” to both the equipment itself and the nature of freight traditionally hauled by flatbeds. Here are four common risk factors involved with flatbed equipment:

Flatbed trucks serve a vital purpose in transporting many items across the United States every day. Flatbed trucks help carry heavy loads that usually do not fit on traditional trucks, like construction equipment, sheds, even parts of houses. Unfortunately, the cargo carried by flatbed trucks can also increase the risk that those trucks and their drivers will cause serious accidents.

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Flatbeds Have Particularly Heavy Cargo

The heavier a vehicle is, the more time and distance it may require to slow a truck down or bring it to a stop. Flatbed trailers do not have walls or ceilings. Hence, trailers are able to carry oversized and heavy pieces of cargo. Examples of cargo on flatbed trucks can include heavy pieces of machinery, large loads of lumber or building materials, other motor vehicles including military tanks, or even entire houses. Heavy cargo can create challenges for a driver when stopping or slowing down. Drivers who are not properly trained or qualified to operate this type of truck may misjudge the distance they need to stop, which can lead to rear-end collisions and override accidents.

Due to the heavyweight of the cargo on a trailer, a flatbed truck’s coupling may also fail, and it can lead to a jackknife accident. In a jackknife, a trailer swings out perpendicular to the truck cab and the road. When a trailer swings out, it can hit any cars in its path and can also quickly cause a truck driver to lose control of his or her truck. Runaway trucks often leave catastrophic damage in their wake; affected victims can suffer life-threatening injuries, including spinal injuries, traumatic brain injuries, burns, dismemberment and more.

Although a collision can certainly cause improperly secured cargo to come loose, other actions may result in dangerous cargo spilling onto the roadway. For example, if a load is not properly secured, a trucker’s sudden breaking or rapid acceleration may cause the cargo to shift and ultimately spill off of the truck and into the roadway. An improperly secured load may also shift while the truck is making a turn. Any of these actions can cause cargo to fall into the roadway and into the path of oncoming traffic, potentially leading to chain-reaction collisions. Or, an improperly secured cargo load may even fall on top of another vehicle. This can cause devastating injuries to multiple motorists, all who may be entitled to substantial compensation from the negligent trucking company that owned the flatbed truck and/or hired the truck driver.

Falling from a flatbed truck can cause serious injuries. Many companies don’t have an effective flatbed safety strategy or even carry proper fall protection equipment for drivers until after an injury has already occurred. Four major factors increase your risk of a potential fall from a flatbed truck or trailer that you should know about.

Flatbed Truck

Small work areas

Flatbed trailers are often parked very close to one another. Usually, you will find only a few feet to work in a while, moving and arranging loads. This small area restricts your movements when you are trying to secure equipment or items to your bed. Trying to tie down a tarp in this limited workspace will increase your risk of falling, as well as many other injuries.

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Unsafe surfaces

You may find yourself having to walk on the flatbed to secure your load. An uneven or wet part of the decking can easily cause you to slip or even fall from the trailer. Walking on the surface of the trailer is one of the most dangerous activities you can encounter. When you combine the act of walking on the surface with climbing up and down the trailer, you greatly increase your chance of injury.

Working with loads of different shapes

Flatbed trailers are used for loads that do not fit into vans or trailers or those that require being loaded from the top or side. These items often come in different shapes and are difficult to secure to the bed of the flatbed trailer. Long pieces of wood or steel are common loads for these trailers, as well as most machinery.

Once you’ve covered these types of equipment with a tarp, it can be hard to know where you’re stepping. Sometimes loads shift during transport and create empty spaces you are not aware of, or the load is uneven, making stepping onto it dangerous. If you step into a gap or onto an item that shifts, you are at risk for a serious fall.

Climbing up and down on a flatbed trailer

Climbing onto and off of your flatbed trailer can be dangerous for many reasons. If you are using the tires to climb, these can be slippery or too high to reach efficiently. When dismounting, you may be tempted to jump down from the trailer, but this is one of the biggest risks for truck drivers. If the trailer is too high, you can cause joint and bone damage, or slip and get an even worse injury.

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What happens when you fall from a flatbed trailer?

Falling from a flatbed trailer can cause you to lose valuable work time. Most falls require medical attention and can even lead to hospitalization. These falls could lead to lawsuits, hospital bills, and even loss of income. Drivers and their companies should stay safe by providing proper equipment, rather than deal with these issues.

One way to improve safety with flatbed trailers is to use portable safety ladders, like the Deckmate Ladder. This trailer safety tool can attach to either existing rub rails or bolt-on rails. Other safety features include non-slip grips, a support bar, and durable steel construction. This ladder has been approved by the Department of Labor for accident prevention and is used in many industries, including the U.S. military and railroad companies.

Dangerously-sized and secured loads

The flatbed truck’s open-frame design allows for easier access to the shipped items. This practical design also presents a greater risk of a crash. Flatbed trucks often transport larger, heavier loads, and these loads may contain irregularly shaped and sized goods such as lumber, steel, or machinery. Properly securing irregularly shaped and sized goods may prove to be a difficult task.

Improperly secured goods are a hazard to Florida drivers as items can fall off the trailer and crash onto Florida roads if the flatbed truck takes a wide turn or strikes a pothole. Drivers may find it difficult or even impossible to avoid a collision with these objects. Such an accident may also cause “chain-reaction crashes” in which multiple vehicles subsequently crash into the original accident or debris. These accidents may result in serious personal injuries in addition to significant property damage for many people.

Obstruction

The sheer size of a flatbed truck can cause complications for drivers. Flatbed trucks take up more space on the road, can obstruct views, and leave little room for vehicles to maneuver in emergencies. For example, obstructed views can lead to serious injuries if flatbed trucks keep drivers from seeing hazards such as stopped vehicles, objects on the road, or lane closures. Failure to see hazards can cause serious accidents with lasting complications.

The size of flatbed trucks may also cause particularly severe injuries in accidents caused by reckless driving. For instance, flatbed truck drivers who suddenly slam on their brakes can leave trailing vehicles vulnerable to collision. In some instances, this can result in serious injuries, and there have been instances of death as drivers strike the truck’s low beds.

Slippery Conditions

The design of a flatbed truck is not conducive to precipitation runoff. As a result, the bed of flatbed trucks can become very slippery when wet. This can result in injuries, even death, for individuals, even workers, walking on the back of these trucks. Slippery conditions may cause an individual to fall from the truck bed or even strike a part of the truck’s frame.

Tarping

Tarping is required in about 60% of flatbed loads. It’s a significantly hazardous task, often performed multiple times each day by a driver, increasing the odds that something bad will happen eventually. As canvas tarps can weigh as much as 200 pounds, throwing and tugging them into place is a perfect storm scenario for strains, muscle tears and back injuries. Tarping also frequently requires the driver to climb on top of the load, as high as 13 feet off the hard pavement below—no safety handholds and no net. While the unloaded flatbed deck itself is typically five feet off the ground (a fall from four feet is considered sufficient to cause brain injuries in severe cases) the higher fall from atop the load could be catastrophic. Where freight facilities lack dedicated tarping areas, drivers also resort to impromptu roadside areas with little clearance from speeding traffic.

Loading/Unloading Risks

Another area is posing dangers primarily specific to flatbeds. Forklift trucks on an open flatbed can accidentally drive off the edge of the deck, posing the danger of fatal injury to anyone nearby. Because of the characteristics of flatbed freight, certain loads must be loaded or unloaded by cranes or other equipment remotely-operated from some distance away. This separation increases hazards on and around the trailer while the process is underway. Also, odd-shaped or large flatbed freight may be unstable until fully strapped down. Heavy freight may unexpectedly roll or topple and could cause traumatic injury to anyone working on or next to the trailer. The expertise of shippers loading freight can also pose an issue if the shippers aren’t specifically skilled in flatbed loading. Drivers may feel reluctant to intervene, and correct customers are loading the trailer in a manner that might be unsafe on the road or during unloading at the destination.

On-The-Road Risks

By its oversized, odd-shaped nature, flatbed freight may place a driver at greater hazard from load shifting in transit than freight enclosed in a typical van trailer. Because many flatbeds don’t incorporate protective front bulkheads, drivers are at severe risk if heavy freight suddenly slides forward and impacts the cab during a scenario such as a sudden stop or a collision. Also, specific dangers accompany situations where very tall loads contact overhead obstacles. 

Hazardous Destinations

Flatbeds frequently deliver loads to construction zones or other makeshift loading/unloading areas that provide few of the safety protections drivers of conventional trailers benefit from informal freight facilities. Flatbed drivers report a higher incidence of injuries more normally associated with construction work than freight hauling, such as puncture wounds from sharp objects, exposure to toxic substances, electrical hazards, etc.

Curtain side trailers can eliminate or significantly reduce some risks associated with flatbed equipment while still accommodating many loads that previously required a flatbed. Doing the hazardous chore of tarping a thing of the past alone removes a major source of potential injuries—not to mention improving the odds of recruiting and retaining professional drivers.

What causes flatbed truck accidents?

Flatbed trucks, like other big trucks, have disadvantages that can quickly lead to accidents. In addition, flatbed trucks have some unique attributes that can increase the danger you face when sharing the road with one.

Falling Cargo Accidents

On a flatbed truck, loaders and operators typically secure cargo with straps. Flatbed trucks have only a flatbed to support the cargo, with just straps to hold it in place. If one of those straps breaks or the cargo was loaded improperly, heavy items could fall from the flatbed truck, resulting in an accident. When heavy cargo, like construction equipment, falls off the back of the flatbed truck, it can lead to substantial injury for other drivers on the road. Smaller cargo can also fall off of the back of the truck, causing drivers to have to swerve out of the way, slamming into the front of vehicles behind the flatbed, or increasing the risk of tire blowouts for other vehicles on the road.

Accidents Due To Overhanging Cargo

When cargo hangs over the edge of a truck’s bed more than four inches on the sides or four feet in the back, truck drivers must use triangular flags to indicate the extended size of the load and help notify drivers of the location of the load, which drivers may struggle to discern as they approach. Flatbed trucks carrying wide loads must also have special wide load signs indicating that the truck’s load extends outside the parameters of the lane the truck travels in. Flatbeds with wide loads may also have escort vehicles that help prevent other passenger vehicles from getting in the way of the truck. Despite these precautions, overhanging cargo, especially if it shifts, can still cause accidents. In some cases, cargo that hangs over the side of the truck can increase the risk of a sideswipe accident.

Blind Spot Accidents

When unloaded, flatbed trucks have smaller blind spots than other big trucks, since the bed does not prevent the driver from seeing using their mirrors or looking out the back of the truck. But when the bed carries a heavy load, visibility depends on the load on the truck. Entering a loaded flatbed truck’s blind spot can substantially increase accident risk, since the truck driver may have no idea you are there. Blindspot accidents can include right-turn accidents and sideswipe collisions.

Mechanical Failures

Like other big trucks, flatbed trucks require a large number of parts to keep the truck running smoothly. Any type of mechanical failure, from a tire blowout to windshield wiper failure in bad weather, can substantially increase the driver’s risk of becoming involved in an accident.

Jackknife Accidents

Like falling cargo accidents, jackknife accidents often occur due to improperly secured cargo. As the cargo shifts during a turn or abrupt stop, the trailer may swing forward, causing it to move separately from the body of the truck. The heavy load’s flatbeds often carry can contribute substantially to this momentum, making it difficult or impossible for the driver to get the trailer back under control. When the trailer swings out of control, it can take the rest of the truck with it, leading to rollovers or crashes.

Driver Error

Truck drivers are legally allowed to spend up to eleven hours on the road every day during a fourteen-hour shift. With all those hours on the road, truck drivers can easily become inattentive, struggling to pay proper attention to every detail on the road around them. Other truck drivers may become distracted by text messages, talking on the phone, or eating and drinking in the truck.

Not only that, but many truck drivers may also choose to ignore traffic laws and regulations to attempt to meet their deadlines and goals. Since many truck drivers get paid by the mile, they may push speed or try to not to come to complete stops, increasing the miles they travel over a shorter period of time. Unfortunately, these measures may not increase the truck driver’s speed at the end of the shift, but they can substantially increase the risk of an accident.

In addition to other safety checks and paying attention to the road, flatbed truck drivers should pull over periodically to check on their cargo and ensure that it remains firmly in place, with tight straps that prevent movement or the risk of rolling. Some drivers, however, skip these safety checks or fail to note important details that indicate the cargo could move, especially if they have spent too many hours on the road.

Sharing The Road With Flatbed Trucks

When sharing the road with commercial trucks, you should pay attention to many of the same details as to when you are sharing the road with any large truck: avoiding the truck’s blind spots; leaving plenty of room for the truck, especially in bad weather; and noting signs that the truck plans to change lanes or needs to turn. But when you are sharing the road with a flatbed truck, you may want to exercise a few extra precautions, including:

Keep An Eye On The Cargo

If you notice cargo wobbling on the back of a flatbed truck, you may wonder if the driver properly secured that cargo before heading out on the road. If you suspect the cargo may fall, make sure you maintain plenty of distance from the truck. Pull off the road and allow the truck to pass safely if you suspect that the cargo may fall. You may also want to attempt to notify the truck driver if you notice cargo wobbling dangerously or starting to fall. Do not put yourself in danger to get the driver’s attention. If needed, pull off the road and notify the police, who can pull the driver over more safely.

Besides, the trucking company often decides what truck gets sent to pick up a particular load. While flatbed trucks can handle larger, more unwieldy loads than semi-trucks, which must adhere to the limitations of the trailers they pull, that does not necessarily make a flatbed the right choice for hauling some types of equipment or loads that can easily fall from the back of the truck. If the trucking company sends the wrong size flatbed or sends a flatbed to haul a load better carried by another type of truck, the trucking company may share liability in falling cargo accidents or other accidents caused by the cargo.

Both the manufacturers of the truck and its parts and the manufacturer of the straps that hold cargo in place bear a duty of care to everyone who shares the road with those trucks. If parts fail, causing an accident, the manufacturer may bear some of the liability for the accident, especially if the truck driver used those parts according to the manufacturer’s specifications.

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