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Safe driver, safe vehicle, safe load: Getting it right

Dr Karen McDonnell, Occupational Health and Safety Policy Adviser at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), discusses load safety, and how everyone in the transport chain has a responsibility for the safety of loading and transporting goods from their start point to their final destination.


Safe driver, safe vehicle, safe load: Getting it right f
Dr Karen McDonnell

Road safety doesn’t start and stop on the way out of a site or as materials leave a depot to be delivered to their chosen destination. It starts as soon as each of us thinks about driving, whether for work or other purposes every day.

The world’s roads are a shared space, whether in cities, towns or rural areas, vehicles driven for work must mix with other road users, including cyclists and pedestrians. Vehicles transporting loads to or from places of work have greater power and, as a consequence, greater responsibility to other road users, especially vulnerable road users. Understanding the layers of responsibility, whether personally or organisationally, to keep people safe on the world’s roads is central to our success.

Humanising road safety and visualising the people and families behind the statistics we use to assess performance improvement must surely be a shared vision for people across the world. Each driver sitting behind a steering wheel has decided about their personal fitness to drive, whether it is to work or for work. Every day businesses and organisations make road safety-related decisions by putting systems in place, such as checking in with drivers, ensuring loads are secured, undertaking vehicle checks, planning delivery routes, and putting contingency plans in place to cover any emergencies.

Safe driver, safe vehicle, safe load: Getting it right p

In the world of occupational safety and health management systems (OSH), these safe systems of work save lives. Take a moment to pause, reflect and re-set around the vehicles that leave your site and travel on the world’s roads. Very few businesses operate without using workplace transport, and when this mix of workplace safety and road safety goes wrong, the results can lead to death and injury on our roads or disruption and delays with knock-on effects that last generations.

Proactive approaches to vehicle loading and unloading can save lives, disruption and delays. Following a safe systems approach every day embeds a discipline that significantly reduces the likelihood of something going wrong. As you read the remainder of this article, think about how you can apply these basic principles of loading and unloading to all types of vehicles, from your family car when preparing to go on holiday to loading the works LGV or HGV… these principles can save lives.

As with every safety-related task, planning underpins success, from loading to bulkheads, to evenly distributing the load and ensuring it is stable, and securing the load to the vehicle or trailer. It all sounds straightforward enough but just where are the legal responsibilities?

Within a UK context, when transporting goods and materials for work, everyone in the transport chain has a responsibility. From the person or company who loads the vehicle to the vehicle operator to the driver themselves. Within this chain, there is a shared responsibility to carry out the transport operation from start to finish. A blend of road safety and OSH legislation is there to guide businesses to get this right in the UK, and these core principles are fundamental in ensuring that no one is harmed as a consequence of transporting goods for work. Unsafe vehicle loads injure more than 1,200 people a year and cost UK business millions of pounds in damaged goods.

The word checklist within the OSH world often has a negative connotation suggesting a ‘tick box’ approach to managing health and safety, where in fact, the definition of the word suggests quite the opposite … ‘a list of items required, things to be done, or points to be considered, used as a reminder’ … not only that health and safety in this case encompassing road safety is not a business burden, but also a reminder to:

  • Assess the risks of transport activities and plan how these will be controlled
  • Provide appropriate equipment and training to workers
  • Provide information so that drivers can be sure their load is safe

Not only do unsecured loads shift, becoming difficult to unload with the potential to fall on people, but if there is insufficient time for unloading, the opportunity for drivers and those assisting with unloading becomes pressurised and the time to stop and think evaporates, putting people at risk. Spilled loads cause delay and congestion that impact all road users and magnify the challenge for those who drive for work.

Safe driver, safe vehicle, safe load: Getting it right p two

Falls at work and falls at home are a key priority of RoSPAs; this is a reminder that people fall from vehicles during loading and unloading operations. Providing safe access and egress to a trailer bed is fundamentally important to reduce the risk, and falling from even a short distance can kill and seriously injure workers.

Pause, reflect and re-set after reading this very recent prosecution taken by the Health and Safety Executive.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is Britain’s national workplace health and safety regulator. Their focus is the prevention of work-related death, injury and ill health through regulatory actions that range from influencing behaviours across whole industry sectors through to targeted interventions on individual businesses. These activities are supported by globally recognised scientific expertise.

A transportation company has been fined almost half a million pounds after a driver fell from the lorry he was unloading and later died.

Christopher Barnes, 69, from Middlesbrough, was making deliveries for Devereux Developments Limited, of Daimler Drive, Billingham, in his curtain-sided HGV.

While unloading the vehicle at Cotswold Doors Limited, Fairford, on 23 April 2018, he climbed onto the lorry bed, and then the load, to untangle securing straps.

He fell more than 7ft from the lorry onto a concrete floor, was injured and died the following day from his injuries.

An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found the company did not have in place a safe system of work for work at height on vehicles because it had not carried out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment.

The company should have identified and implemented suitable control measures to reduce the risks to their drivers during unloading operations.

Devereux Developments Limited, of Daimler Drive, Billingham, pleaded guilty to breaching Section 2 (1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974.

The company was fined £480,000 and ordered to pay costs of £12,053 at Cheltenham Magistrates’ Court on June 28 2022.

Speaking after the hearing, HSE inspector, Pippa Trimble said: “A safe system of work should have been in place, and this shows that even large, well-established companies can get things wrong.”

Refreshing safe systems of work

Effective management and supervision of workplace transport safety establishes a foundation for progression and performance improvement:

  • Check, in consultation with your employees, that your level of management control/supervision is adequate
  • Are your supervisors, drivers and others, including contractors and visiting drivers, aware of the site rules and their responsibilities to help maintain a safe workplace and environment?
  • Has a risk assessment been carried out for all workplace transport hazards?
  • Is the level of supervision sufficient to ensure that safe standards are maintained?
  • Are penalties applied when employees, contractors etc., fail to maintain these standards?
  • Do you take adequate steps to detect and correct any unsafe behaviour of drivers of both on-site and visiting vehicles, as well as pedestrians?
  • Do you make sure the underlying reasons for unsafe behaviour are investigated?
  • Is there good cooperation and liaison on health and safety matters between your employees and those who collect or deliver goods

With specific reference to managing loading and unloading tasks:

  • Are loading/unloading operations carried out in an area away from passing traffic, pedestrians and others not involved in the loading/unloading operation?
  • Are the load(s), the delivery vehicle(s) and the handling vehicle(s) compatible with each other?
  • Are loading/unloading activities carried out on ground that is flat, firm and free from potholes?
  • Are the vehicles braked and/or stabilised, as appropriate, to prevent unsafe movements during loading/unloading operations?
  • Are systems in place to prevent vehicles driving away while they are still being (un)loaded?
  • Are drivers and others kept in a safe place away from the vehicle during (un)loading?
  • If drivers need to observe loading, is there a clearly marked, safe area for them to do this?
  • Has the need for people to go onto the load area of the vehicle been eliminated where possible, and, if not, is safe access provided and used?
  • Is appropriate lifting equipment available for (un)loading vehicles?
  • Is loading/unloading carried out so that, as far as possible, the load is spread evenly to avoid the vehicle or trailer becoming unstable?
  • Are checks made to ensure loads are adequately secured and arranged so that they cannot move about?
  • Are checks made to make sure vehicles are not loaded beyond their capacity before they leave the site?

A score of points that each reader can consider within their sphere of influence towards the right result of fewer people killed and seriously injured due to loading and unloading vehicles – that has to be music to the ears of OSH and road safety professionals around the world.

To find out more about RoSPA, please visit, or if you would like to contact Karen, please email her at

About Dr Karen McDonnell

As OSH Policy Adviser at RoSPA, Karen’s work helps deliver their vision of more lives free from serious accidental injury through the exchange of life-enhancing knowledge and skills.

Focussing on the working-age population and key issues, including fatigue, she has gained strategic and operational experience globally.


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Owain joined Volvo Cars in June 2021 to lead Circular Economy in the Global Sustainability Team. The company has committed to being a circular business by 2040 and has financial, recycled content and CO2 based targets for 2025, all of which Owain is working across the company to make happen. Owain previously worked for circular economy consultancy Oakdene Hollins where he advised businesses on evidence led circular economy implementation. 

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