I'll be honest with you.
Of all the Driver CPC modules, Safe Vehicle Loading is the one that gets the blood boiling the most.
Maybe it's the legal implications, the liability issues or the threat of bodily harm (or more likely, a combination of all 3), but boy, does it get the whole class talking.
The stories, real or exaggerated, that I've heard some drivers tell have made my hair stand on end.
If you don't believe me, simply type death by dangerous driving cases into Google, and you'll get newspaper articles about broken straps, lack of training, and chaos in the loading bay - many contributing to some pretty nasty fatalities.
And it's not just the physical consequences, either. When it comes to accountability, these stories can flabbergast the most experienced of HGV drivers. Many ask the question: how can they be held responsible for that?
It's a tricky area. And one that needs some clarification. Now, I can't deliver a Safe Vehicle Loading course in one blog post. So I've put together 4 key things you need to know when it comes to loading, unloading, where your responsibilities begin, and where they end.
2. Legal responsibilities
3. Loading bay hazards
4. Handling systems
1. Make sure you're properly trained
On the face of it, this sounds simple. Basic, even. After all, why would you do something complicated and potentially dangerous if you've no experience or training in it?
Doing so would not only jeopardise your job, but would expose you to liability and put you and your colleagues at risk.
But the reality is, if you're new to the role and keen to crack on, you're more likely to act as though you already know that lashings should definitely not be secured to rope hooks, for example. I've spoken to young drivers who admit that they have, on occasion, been too keen to impress. So in the past, when their line manager ran through some 'training' (if you can call it that, these toolbox talks are almost always too brief, too vague and of little practical value), the youngsters 'yeah yeah'd' their way through it, which, I suppose, is understandable.
No one wants to sound like an amateur. But you've got to look out for yourself, first and foremost. That means if your boss asks you to do something, and you don't know what's what, demand that you are trained. And when they get a seasoned veteran to walk you through the process, make sure they answer your questions comprehensively, and that they observe as you carry out a practical demonstration.
There was a recent court case concerning a driver who had failed to properly strap a generator to the back of a flat-bed. The driver's colleague believed him to be 'competent enough' to secure the load, though their employer admitted the driver had received no training. The driver, of course, was held responsible.
This brings me to my second point...
2. When it comes to liability, the buck (generally) stops with the driver
During the course, when we move onto legal responsibility, the roles reverse. It's the newer drivers who swallow this pill fairly easily.
Older drivers, and those returning to the industry after time away, tend to find it more difficult to stomach.
Some feel the odds are stacked against the driver. There are some real-life examples to support this view. To start with, some haulage firms don't even let drivers inspect loads. So, if you're assigned to a wagon, you'll not be able to lay eyes on the goods until you've delivered them. These firms have a policy which states the trailer is not to be opened from when it's sealed at the depot, to when it's received at the final destination. And yet you, as the driver, will be held responsible for anything that happens with the load in the meantime.
It's not a situation any driver wants to be in. Yet it's not uncommon. No matter who you drive for, you will always be accountable for the load you're transporting, regardless of your involvement in securing it.
So, if the chap who loaded the lorry left a gap between the goods and the headboard, and you hear a terrifying thud when you break at the first junction - explaining that to the TM falls mostly on your shoulders.
Don't get me wrong, the driver doesn't bear all the responsibility for a load-related mishap. Accountability is a pie in which many have a finger - managers, vehicle owners, and warehouse staff.
I advise drivers to do everything they can to ensure, by their own judgement, that a load is secure. Don't rely on the word of others - check it yourself. The vast majority of firms will allow you to do this.
Ignorance, in this instance, is an invitation to trouble.
3. If you're not happy with the state of a loading bay - put it in writing!
For some, chaotic loading bays are so common they no longer notice them. And to be honest, we've all been there.
You pull into the yard, park up in the bay, carefully avoiding the roll cage that seems to be moving of its own free will. You climb down, step over the bag of rubbish that's been tossed in the wind, and then walk around some broken pallets, straight up the stairs to the main office. Maybe the forklift driver asks you where you think you're going, as he flies around the front of your cab.
You get to the office and tell the site manager, in no uncertain terms, that the yard is a hazardous work environment. I know as well as anyone that this can be a pain. You're likely working to a deadline, and your TM won't be impressed when you tell him you're late getting back because you were informing a site manager of, well, anything.
So, perhaps you're back there next week, and you can see that nothing's been done to remedy the situation. What's the next step? Well, if you think your safety is endangered by the hazards around the loading bay, write a formal complaint.
Any driver whose ever made a written request to a transport office will know: you don't just write one complaint, you write several.
There are wagoners who, after a while of going unheard, are left with no recourse but to refuse to work in those conditions.
If things still remain unchanged, however, you could issue a notice to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE). Before you do this, though, make sure you inform the site manager and your employer in writing (yes, seriously).
For your more immediate purposes, however, the most important thing is to put pen to paper. The written word is your friend. If you can provide evidence that you informed the individual(s) in charge, then you minimize the chance that you'll be held responsible for any accidents surrounding your vehicle in that horrendous loading bay.
4. Know your equipment
This is one that's flown under the radar, but is getting more and more common.
Lots of major concerns, especially supermarket chains, use Load Handling Systems in their depots. Now, this doesn't mean much to those that haven't encountered them. But if you have, you'll know where I'm going with this.
Those supermarkets that use these electronic systems (Aldi and Lidl are two that spring to mind) have any driver delivering to their depots sign an agreement that they will unload their own truck using the equipment. Of course, most drivers don't have the necessary training needed to operate these machines competently. The agreement they sign, however, states that the company in question cannot be held liable for any injury sustained by yourself or others as a result of your misuse of the Load Handling System.
Of course, if you don't sign this agreement, you won't be able to unload the truck. So you'll contact you TM and give him a rundown of the situation, and they will almost certainly tell you to sign the agreement and get on with it. After all, they can't afford to jeopardize a contract with a multi-national retailer just because of one member of staff's ethical (which is how they'll see it) refusal to provide one little signature.
So, how do you guard against this? It's easier in theory than in practice.
See, there is no out-and-out safeguard against the potential peril these arrangements can bring.
The best advice I can give you is to get properly trained. And this brings me back to my first point.
Newer drivers may find this a little more helpful than those who've been in the game a long while. The industry's moving fast; technology's taking over the logistics landscape faster than you can jot your name on a paper tacho. So expanding your skill-set to incorporate as much tech know-how will be of immeasurable benefit going forward.
There's only one way to get this training - by securing a job at one of the aforementioned multinational concerns. These major companies want their staff as highly-trained as possible, and getting on their payroll is the best start a driver can get.
But this isn't a recruitment blog, and career guidance is a bit out of my jurisdiction. I can tell you, however, that I've delivered Safe Vehicle Loading to many drivers who have boasted that these jobs, while difficult to secure, set you on an upward curve of continuous professional development - that means a better CV, higher value and a reduced risk of workplace accident.
Go on then, here's one more...
5. Bone up on the load information...
As a driver, you should be given relevant information about how the load has been restrained. This is vital if you've not actually watched the truck being loaded. You should keep the information with you in the cab. The HSE says employers should produce the information with consideration to those staff who don't speak English as their first language. Interestingly, they make no mention of those with dyslexia and the like.
I've trained countless drivers with dyslexia, and I know it can be a bit of a sensitive issue. Some are unwilling to admit they have it, thinking it'll jeopardise their job. It's worrying to think of HGV drivers hauling a load across the country, with information on their passenger seat that they are unable to get to grips with.
If something happens with the load, you will not be able to use dyslexia as a defence. The only instance in which it would be valid, is if you've told your employer and manager, and they made no arrangements to accommodate it. Even then, however, the question will be asked: why did you travel with this load, without having any idea as to how it was secured? And just like that, the onus falls back on to the driver.
So, transparency is key. Inform your employer that you may have trouble with the information. And whatever you do, don't start up that engine until they've made arrangements for you.
Well, that'll be all from me. If there's one thing I hope readers will take from this post, it's this: each driver is responsible not only for their own safety, but for their professional success. The era of relying on TMs to tell you what training you can and can't do is fading quickly. Drivers are valued professionals in their own right, and they are in charge of how far they go in this industry of ours.
As a parting gift, here's something to get your teeth stuck into. Think you're up-to-snuff on Drivers' Hours and the WTD? Well, you now you can prove it. Put your knowledge to the test with our online HGV driver courses: