Trailer safety protects everyone

Trailer safety is often overlooked, but it’s a vital part of keeping your inventory — and especially your crew and customers — out of harm’s way.

Sometimes ignored, trailers for delivering equipment, whether by you or your customer, can be a major safety issue. Trailers are the leader in general liability losses among rental dealers, accounting for 30 percent of all general liability losses, according to a study conducted by St. Paul Travelers Insurance. A mishap with a trailer can be an expensive proposition since it affects not only the trailer but also its cargo and most likely the tow vehicle, not to mention other vehicles and personnel in the area.

Jim Ladner, trailer manager at Landoll Trailers, says, “Trailer safety starts with buying the right trailer. Not using the right size in DOT legal condition can be the root cause of an accident. It’s not just the driver that’s liable in the event of an accident; the owner is fully liable too. Owners must be diligent in maintaining their equipment.”

The need to provide good service by quickly delivering or renting a piece of equipment that has recently been returned can mean that trailer maintenance and correct towing and loading procedures can be neglected in the rush to satisfy a customer. To avoid becoming one of the general liability claims, taking the time to assess your trailers and reviewing proper operating procedures with the personnel responsible for them can be a worthwhile investment.

Equipment concerns

Supplementing Ladner’s remarks about the trailer, the tow vehicle (whether it’s the customer’s truck or one of your own) also needs to be compliant with regulations as well as having sufficient capacity to carry the load.

For customers bringing their own trailers to rent equipment, yard personnel need to be alerted to check for mirrors, an adequate hitch and operating turn signal, running and brake lights. If the customer’s trailer isn’t frequently used, it is easy to let the electrical connection corrode so it needs special attention. Personnel should also check to make sure that the safety chains are long enough to make tight turns and that they are crossed to act as a cradle in the event of a hitch failure.

To encourage trailer safety, four major trade associations comprising manufacturers of trailers, recreational equipment, marine equipment and trucks have joined together to form the Trailer Safety Industry Coalition (TSIC), which has developed a series of safety tips especially for trailers with less than 26,000 lbs. of GVWR (Gross Vehicle Weight Rating - the combined weight of the trailer plus it load).

  • Lug Nuts - The first report the TSIC issued concerned the tightness of lug nuts. A torque wrench should be used to do this periodically. Tandem axles don’t steer so the wheels on them are under greater stress when turning corners and likely to becoming lose.
  • Tire Pressure - Because they carry greater loads, tire pressure for trailers is higher than the tow vehicle and a critical dimension. The TSIC says tires can lose 1 to 3 psi per month. While traveling, an underinflated tire builds heat faster, leading to quicker degradation. The Coalition also says that the average life of a trailer tire is about five years under normal use.
  • Lighting and Brakes - With the vehicle’s headlights on, all the relevant running lights, turn signals and brake lights should operate properly.
  • A point that has not yet been covered by the TSIC that has application to smaller trailers and to heavy equipment haulers as well is decking. Trailer decks frequently are made of hardwood; and while it might seem obvious to check them, they can become lose or develop holes where a wheel could slip down, tipping the machinery being loaded. Anchor points, especially on customer supplied trailers, are another item that need to be checked. Tiedowns wrapped around a side stake just aren’t acceptable.

    All of the TSIC guidelines include a recommendation for the 24-page brochure titled “Towing a Trailer,” published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (, a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation. The brochure is primarily directed to consumers, not professional drivers.

    Personnel is key

    Gary Knudsen, in-house and regional sales manager for Towmaster Trailers, says, “While common sense should prevail when dealing with trailers, the yard personnel that have gained their knowledge through experience and training are the key element in trailer safety. They know how to attach them to the tow vehicle, load the equipment, secure it properly and can instruct trailer customers how to use the trailers.” To aid in safety, Towmaster has posted an 18-point safe towing guideline on its website ( and includes safe towing instructions in all product manuals.

    To train heavy equipment owners and operators, the “package” Eager Beaver Trailers provides with each of its trailers includes a training CD that covers safe trailer operations for heavy equipment haulers. The package also contains a copy of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations pocketbook that describes the major driver and equipment regulations prescribed by the U. S. Department of Transportation. Brent Hohman, western sales manager at Trail-Eze Trailers, says that his comapny has two different CDs that come with its owners’ packages. One is for hydraulic-tail trailers, the other for sliding-axle trailers.

    Tony Spence, warranty manager at Eager Beaver Trailers, also publishes periodic “Beaver Bulletins” dealing with specific safety issues for trailer operators. His most recent issue covered the new de-icing compounds such as magnesium chloride used to prevent slick conditions. Unfortunately, these chemicals can have a corrosive affect on brakes, wiring and other components on the underside of trailers, Spence’s bulletin warns.

    Be sure to inspect

    Along with getting the right size trailer for the load, Ladner points out that trailers in an owner’s fleet must have inspection and maintenance on a regular schedule and the local department of transportation (DOT) guidelines for their delivery area. It’s the owner that is fully liable if there is an accident and the owner is responsible for safe education. He emphasizes, “It places a huge responsibility on the owner.”

    Drivers also need to inspect the equipment on a daily basis before starting out and should check the security of a load again for settling after the first 50 miles of any long trip.

    Tiedown tips

    While not strictly part of the trailer but worth noting is the transport chains and binders used to secure heavy equipment loads. Chain is not that large an investment; if your chain is the least suspect, better safe than sorry. Chain comes in various grades and thickness; the most commonly used chain in securing loads is Grade 70, 3/8 in., which has a 6,600-lb. maximum pull. For heavier loads, there is a Grade 70, 1/2 in. with 11,300 maximum pull.

    Binders, chains, hooks and clevis pins all should be permanently marked with their capacity. If you find you need to upgrade your binders, ratchet binders have twice the strength of mechanical lever binders, and they are also much easier to tighten than the lever ones.

    Whether its chains, ropes, wraps or webbing, whatever secures the load must comply with the Federal Motor Carrier Regulations regarding the Aggregate Working Load Limit. The basic requirement is that tiedowns must have the combined strength equal to at least 50 percent of the load being secured.

    The way to calculate the aggregate load limit is to add 50 percent of the working load limit of each tiedown used to secure the load; and if the total is greater than 50 percent of the load being carried, it is secured within the limit requirements. For example, assume that a trailer is being loaded with an 11,000-lb. telehandler, which will be held with four Grade 70, 3/8-in. chains. Since each chain is rated at 6,600 maximum pull, the aggregate working load limit is 6,600 lbs. divided by two. The total of the four chains added together is 13,200 lbs. That’s more than enough to hold the 11,000-lb. telehandler.

    Loading methods

    Centering a load in the middle of the trailer is a basic tenet in proper loading, but it sometimes is overlooked when adding attachments or loading a large piece of equipment with limited view of the deck. Using a deck board as a guide to keep the load centered is an effective method of keeping the load centered. Overall, the weight of the load should be slightly forward so that 10 to 15 percent is on the front tongue. Fifth wheel trailers can handle as much as 25 percent of the load on the front.

    A dealer, who wishes to remain anonymous, says, “While trailer safety should mostly be common sense, it seems that the last thing many customers seem to remember is the safety of their trailer and what they are hauling. I estimate that 90 percent of the warranty claims we see are due to mishandling of the equipment. The time spent in training drivers, owners and those responsible for loading and securing loads pays off big time.”