Safely Load and Transport Heavy Equipment

The safe and legal transportation of heavy cargo and construction equipment is no easy task. When handling some of the most massive pieces of machinery ever built by humankind, a set loading, transportation, and unloading protocol is not only a best practice — it's the only practice. We recommend using these guidelines for safely hauling construction equipment.

Preparing Construction Equipment for Transport

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Preparation is key. When nearly half of all injuries occur during loading and unloading heavy equipment, safety measures need to be taken from the beginning for mitigating liabilities and avoiding construction accidents. Let's review the proper ways to prepare heavy equipment for transport.

1. Perform a Documented Risk Assessment

When it comes to heavy equipment liability, construction companies bear the responsibility of dotting their i's and crossing their t's. Risk assessments are preemptive compliance documents allowing you to prove how detailed and thorough your fleet management processes are.

Consider adding one for your equipment transportation preparation protocol. They can be done by a senior manager or supervisor, containing the full operation and transportation timeline and its weight loads, plus relevant project risks and what's been done to address them.

2. Outfit Sites With PPE

We can't say it enough — safety is the backbone of the industry. Having your crew wear a complete set of personal protective equipment is a safety standard across all construction operations, not just when preparing for safe & legal transport of heavy cargo. It's also something routinely overlooked, with many sites taking shortcuts to chain up a trailer quickly and move on to the next task.

PPE documentation is also a risk-mitigation strategy. You'll round out a stronger risk assessment and permit application when you note all the safety protocols you and your crew adhere to on top of routine tie-down requirements for heavy equipment.

3. Inspect the Hauling Capacities of Your Truck or Trailor

Next in line when preparing for heavy equipment transport is to check the things that'll be doing the actual transporting. A complete inspection of your trailer or truck includes the following:

  • Tires: Assess the condition of your trailer and truck tires, notably for tire pressure. Multi-ton machines take a toll on tire air pressure and will quickly deflate any that are already weak.
  • Lights: Front and brake lights should work without a hitch.
  • Brakes: Similar to tires, your oversized load affects your vehicle's braking abilities. Assure all brake functions and components are in good shape.
  • Tie-Down Points: Check your load's required point number, their securement condition, and spacing. Most states' standards mandate a minimum of four tie-down points for loads exceeding 10,000 lbs., each with its own binder or boomer and individual chains connected to trailer hitch points. These boomers are responsible for supplying the tension to tighten the actual chain connection and as such should be inspected themselves.
  • Weight: Confirm your tie-down working load limits add up to equal at least half the weight of your load.

While most states mandate four tie-down points, and most operations concede to that number, some heavy equipment requires even more. Any machine with attachments or appendages must have those attachments dislodged and separately secured, meaning now a minimum of five tie-down points. A typical example of this is when securely transporting excavators.

How to Load Heavy Equipment Safely

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A load is only as strong as its weakest link. And those weak links often come not because a basic heavy equipment loading procedure wasn't followed, but because it was — just in a rushed, halfhearted, or passive way.

Loading heavy equipment safely is not just about driving a new dozer up the ramp, looping in a few chains, and sending it on its way. We've got a few more points of consideration to ensure you reliably and legally transport heavy cargo. Refer to these safety measures for secure loading operations.

1. Designate Duties

Before actual loading occurs, the team should have a clear understanding of who's in charge of what. You'll need someone to drive the equipment onto the deck, but you'll also need a spotter to deliver hand signals and direct the driver up the ramp and onto the trailer bed. It's likely they won't have a clear line of site to do so themselves.

What's more, the rest of the crew should be notified if a loading procedure is on the docket. No drifting personnel or other vehicles should interrupt loading operations, which are generally unsafe to stop once they have started.

2. Clean the Ramp and Trailer

Ramps and trailer decks should be as dirt-, oil-, and debris-free as possible, especially if they are metal. This ensures the piece of loading equipment has as much traction as possible to move up its ramp. A clean ramp and trailer bed also means a dry one, clear of ice, snow, and water. If you are still concerned about equipment smoothly moving up ramps, consider employing ramp friction devices during this step.

3. Clear and Level the Loading Area

Pick an uninhabited and even space to set up the ramp and perform heavy equipment loading. Again, this is intuitive, but in the midst of a busy workday or at peak hours in the yard, such measures can fall to the wayside.

You'll also want to ensure the actual ground in the loading area is compact enough to bear the full weight of your loaded trailer. After rain or during seasons with thaw, the combined weight of these two vehicles has the potential to cause sinkage.

4. Begin the Machine/Ramp Line-Up

Slow and steady is the name of the game here. With the driver in the cab and a spotter positioned in plain view, begin driving the heavy equipment up the cleared ramp and onto the transportation vehicle's deck.

Note that during this ramp movement, the machine's center of gravity will shift. This is the most dangerous part of the loading process, with the equipment's weight caught momentarily in a point of limbo. Just keep moving gradually.

Also note that when appropriately positioned at final rest on deck, the majority of the equipment's weight should be distributed toward the front of the trailer. This avoids fishtailing while en route.

5. Start Chaining Down Heavy Equipment

Check state laws on how heavy equipment must be secured during public highway transportation. While the 4-5 tie down points is near-universal, each state has additional oversized cargo restrictions and regulations to respect.

With the heavy equipment safely positioned on deck, you can initiate one of the most critical steps in the loading and unloading procedure — tying it down.

There are three predominant concerns with chaining down:

  1. Tight, Secure Chains: There should be no wiggle room or movement with your chain. Equipment cannot shift or bounce while en route.
  2. Properly Located Tie-Down Points: Most manufacturers label the appropriate tie-down points on their machines for you to follow. Be especially careful if these land near a machine's cylinders, hydraulic hoses, or brake components, though. Tying down heavy equipment at appropriate points prevents equipment damage plus ensures the tightest, most compliant links.
  3. Adequately Matched Chain and Hook Binder Grades: If you look closely, every 4-5 chain links you'll find a number etched into the metal. Cross-reference that number with the one printed on the boomer handle, making sure they're aligned. The sum of the working load limits of all your tie-down components must equal at least 50 percent of the weight of the cargo. Always ensure the grade of the chain and its working load limit doesn't exceed the boomers' listed limit.

Here are a few additional reminders in order to achieve the proper way to chain down an excavator, loader, and more:

  • All chains fastened linearly, with downward force, with no horizontal twists, bends, or angles
  • No slack. Wrap excess chain around the rest of the link so it won't come loose.
  • At least four chains in use. Use two connecting to the trailer's front corners and two connecting to the trailer's back corners. The tension from these opposing forces should keep the equipment in place.
  • Always review chain and hook sizes. You need to guarantee they're complementary and tight, not mismatched.

How to Transport Heavy Equipment Safely

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Vehicle accidents due to heavy trucks and cargo transport are on the rise. This merely reinforces how vital it is to not only follow proper loading and unloading procedures in the yard but also safely haul that equipment while on the road. We've got a few strategies.

1. Map the Most Linear Transport Route Ahead of Time

We've all heard the horror stories and seen the videos of trucks too tall to clear an overpass. A designated transport route planned ahead of time — plus an actual on-the-road run-through — ensures nightmares like this don't strike.

Keep an eye out for road widths and bridges analysis for the safest heavy cargo transportation, especially in rural areas. The least amount of bridges, turns, starts, stops, and difficult terrain encountered by the driver, the better.

2. Apply for a Transportation Permit

This is especially important if your load qualifies as oversized or overwidth, which — let's face it — most heavy construction equipment will. Cranes, excavators, dump trucks, graders, dozers, and scrapers are just a few that carry extra heavy equipment liability. Prepare accordingly, whether that means deconstructed transport strategies that avoid overwidth or overweight designations or applying for the proper state permit from the onset.

3. Immobilize Equipment Wheel Components

It takes a little extra time, but the security is worth it. Apply the equipment's parking brake. Also consider using wedges, chocks, or cradles against equipment wheels, securing them in place and preventing them from rolling on deck. They will also bolster your defenses against the following weight-distribution forces that naturally occur during transport:

  • Forward Force: 80 percent of vehicle weight gets applied when braking during transport
  • Rearward Force: 50 percent of vehicle weight gets applied when accelerating, shifting gears, or reversing
  • Upward Force: Up to 20 percent gets applied when driving uphill or over bumpy terrain
  • Sideways Force: 50 percent gets applied when turning, lane changing, or braking while turning

This is also a great time to double check any extra machine-specific loading and transportation conditions outlined by a spec sheet or manufacturer's guidelines.

4. Outfit Transport Vehicles With Signs and Flashing Lights

Oversize loads are designated on the road with proper banners, signs, and lights. In the most extreme cases, you may be required to have escort vehicles — one guiding your own transportation truck and the other following behind, alerting others on to the road to the technical operation.

It's also important to note that proper communications between transport and escort vehicles do not mean by cell phone. Two-way or CB radios are the industry standard for safe communication between drivers.

5. Run and Document Complaint Inspections While En Route

The safe and legal transport of heavy cargo doesn't stop once you start the ignition. Heavy load securement requires check-ins and inspections while on the road, especially when traveling long distances.

Industry safety standards recommend the following as inspection benchmarks while heavy cargo is en route:

  1. Once during the first 50 miles of transport.
  2. Once every 150 miles or once every 3 hours — whichever comes first for long-distance hauls.
  3. At every change of duty or change of driver station. Have the new driver run a full inspection themselves, then document that inspection in a transport log.

How to Safely Unload Heavy Equipment

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Safely unloading construction equipment rounds out the compliant transportation process. As with other protocol, there are key steps and risk-mitigation strategies to assure the success of this final step.

1. Clear and Level the Unloading Site

Before the transportation vehicle even arrives, take the time to review and clear the designated unloading area in the receiving yard. Just as you pay attention to this during the loading phase, wet and muddy ramps and uneven unloading ground make this part of the operation much harder than necessary.

This doesn't stop at clearing away dirt and debris, either. Alert personnel of cargo schedules so only relevant crew members are in the area when the transport vehicle arrives.

2. Do a Walk Through

Guide the transport vehicle to its exact unloading area. Once the vehicle is parked, have the ramp clean and ready for deployment. Line it up with the rear of the trailer bed as methodically as possible, taking time to match joints and eliminate any gaps between the trailer and the ramp. Once the machinery begins backing up later on, there will be no time to reposition.

With everything in place, conduct a final condition survey. Look over the equipment's tires and hitches to ensure their health. Review roles with personnel, appointing a spotter and an equipment operator just like during the loading process and before you begin breaking down the chain tie points. You'll also want to do a brief survey on the condition of the tie downs themselves before their release. It is highly unsafe to undo straps and chains if the load has shifted, even minutely. If this is the case after performing a walk-through, you and the operators will have to draw up a custom unloading plan.

And remember — try not to rush this review, even if everything seems in place. It never hurt any fleet supervisor's reputation to be methodical.

3. Free the Load

Unlease chains and tie bounds one at a time, beginning with the rear corners. Unravel excess chain that may have been wrapped around the links, then start loosening tie downs with their ratchet-style wrench boomers. Do so carefully, as chains and binders have been wound and should still be tight and pressurized. You don't want a metal chain unexpectedly snapping up because joints and tension weren't adequately reduced with the ratchet boomer.

4. Slowly Back the Heavy Equipment Down the Ramp

Maintain a safe distance between the piece of equipment and its spotter. The equipment operator's visibility may become hindered, so position the spotter in a way where they're accessible but out of harm's way. Keep the rest of personnel away from the unloading site while the heavy machinery is in reverse. All attention should remain on safely ushering it down the ramp.

5. Wrap It Up

Do a final ground inspection of all equipment, the transport vehicle, anchor points, and tools before sending everyone on their way. Document the conclusion of the transport — and pat yourself on the back for successfully completing the safe and legal transport of heavy cargo.

Contact Thompson Tractor for Heavy Equipment in Alabama

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Transporting construction equipment is no easy undertaking. We hope this resource has provided insight into its proper techniques and protocol for your heavy load securement and transportation operations.

Share it online or print it off for future reference, and reach out to Thompson Tractor with any construction equipment questions or concerns.