Loading and Unloading Truck Freight: Practices and Equipment

Loading and unloading truck freight can be difficult for a truck driver. With these practices and equipment, you can handle your freight shipments efficiently.


Jacob Lee
March 10, 2022
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Loading and unloading truck freight is a task usually taken care of by warehouse workers. However, there are certain occasions that a truck driver will have to get their hands dirty and handle the freight themselves. As a company that employs many truck drivers, we know just what you need to load and unload your freight successfully.

Loading and unloading truck freight when you’re a truck driver is done using a few pieces of important equipment and following essential safety practices such as:

  • Forklifts
  • Pallet Jacks (Electric or Manual)
  • Liftgates
  • Dock Levelers
  • Trailer Restraints
  • Loading Pallets In the Order Of Your Stops
  • Hydrating

Loading and unloading truck freight the right way is important to your safety and the safety of the freight you’re hauling.

What Is It Called When You Load and Unload Freight? 

A warehouse worker unloading truck freight from the inside of a trailer

Many different terms are used in the shipping industry to describe the process of loading and unloading freight. The most popular one is called freight handling. 

Most truck drivers don’t have to worry about loading or unloading freight themselves. This is because companies have teams of warehouse workers that will load the freight for them. 

That said, some companies do require their drivers to load and unload their trailers. Oftentimes this is because the trucker is transporting an LTL shipment or if the truck driver has to make a residential delivery.

Best Equipment for Truck Drivers When They Load and Unload Truck Freight

Your safety and the safety of your freight are of the utmost importance when you load and unload freight. In order to do that, truck drivers utilize forklifts, pallet jacks and liftgates to handle freight.

If you’re new to the trucking industry or have trucking experience but have never loaded or unloaded your trailer, then knowing how these pieces of equipment work are essential.  

Forklift Procedures

A warehouse worker loading a trailer with a forklift

Unlike non-palletized freight, pallets are way too heavy to be lifted by hand. Fortunately, forklifts handle all of the heavy lifting when it comes to picking up pallets.

Forklifts are used frequently when pallets are loaded into trailers. Despite their convenience, forklifts can be dangerous to the safety of others if they’re not operated with care. 

OSHA, or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, recommends outlines useful forklift safety procedures when loading and unloading freight. The forklift safety procedures that OSHA provides will help you with these six important areas of forklift operations:

  1. Safe Handling Fundamentals
  2. Approaching Pallets
  3. Mast Position
  4. Proper Fork Positioning
  5. Lifting and Lowering Loads
  6. Loading and Unloading Trailers

Forklift Fundamentals

Before you even begin to use a forklift to load your trailer, you should be aware of some fundamentals of operating it. These fundamentals should always be followed at all times:

  1. Secure the load so that it’s stable
  2. Don’t lift damaged pallets or pallets with damaged freight
  3. Keep loads as center as possible when lifting
  4. Know the lifting capability of your forklift to avoid overloading
  5. Use a backrest for the load extension

Following these guidelines will help you avoid hazards like off-center pallets, loading over the forklift’s capabilities and lifting goods that are damaged. 

Approaching Pallets With A Forklift

Once you’re on a forklift you want to approach the pallets you plan on lifting carefully. Approaching pallets too fast and making rapid turns could damage the pallets and the freight on top of them. 

When you approach a load, you should:

  1. Approach slowly
  2. Don’t raise the forks until you’ve stopped your forklift and have set your break
  3. Make sure you have enough overhead clearance when you lift your load
  4. Use the forklift’s inching pedal to creep the load to the stack

Masting Safety

The mast of a forklift is the part that allows the forks to go up and down. This part of the forklift must maintain a proper position when a load is lifted. If not, the palletized load could be dropped or tipped over. 

 To ensure proper mast positioning, you should:

  1. Use care when you tilt loads. 
  2. Only tilt loads forward when you elevate or deposit loads
  3. When you’re stacking tiering a load you can tilt back just enough to stack or tier the load
  4. Don’t travel with a load while tilting forward

Fork Positioning

Keeping your forks in the right position is extremely important. If the forks aren’t kept at the appropriate position pallets could get damaged. 

Fork positioning requirements are:

  1. Lever the forks before placing them inside a pallet
  2. Keep the forks underneath the load as much as you can
  3. Forks should be two-thirds the length of the pallet you lift
  4. Center the weight of the pallet between each of the forks
  5. Tilt the mast for further stabilization

Lifting and Lowering Procedures

Boxes stacked on the ground in front of an open dry van trailer

There are many hazards to look out for when you lift or lower freight using a forklift. A potential hazard to look out for when you lift freight is clearance. Pallets can also fall if they’re lifted or lowered incorrectly. 

When you lift a pallet, you should:

  1. Check how much clearance you have
  2. Carefully lift the pallet
  3. If the pallet you’re lifting is stacked on top of another pallet, then lift the first pallet four inches above the bottom pallet
  4. Once the pallet is lifted tilt the mast back slightly so that it rests against the backrest load extension
  5. When you move the palletized freight watch out for any obstructions

When you lower a pallet, you should:

  1. Make sure that the pallet is still secure
  2. Return the mast to vertical position just before lowering the pallet
  3. Start lowering the load to the ground
  4. Slowly pull the forks from the pallet

Trailer Loading Procedures

Trailers are extremely tight spaces to operate a forklift in. Because of these conditions operating a forklift could be dangerous to you and the freight you’re loading. To ensure trailer safety when you load pallets with a forklift you should:

  1. Inspect the trailer’s floor to determine if it will support the forklift and the pallet
  2. Check if the door to the trailer has enough clearance for your pallet and load to fit in
  3. Drive the forklift over bridge plates when you enter and exit the trailer
  4. Use light on the loading dock to illuminate dark trailers
  5. Honk the horn of the forklift to signal to other workers in the dock area that you’re exiting the trailer

All of these forklift safety procedures can be used for unloading pallets onto a loading dock as much as they can be used to load pallets into a trailer.

A pallet jack inside a warehouse with packages stacked next to it

Pallet Jack Procedures

Pallet jacks are basically like forklifts but much cheaper, smaller and don’t require nearly the same amount of safety requirements. Pallet jacks can come in two different varieties which are electric pallet jacks and manual pallet jacks.

Electric pallet jacks are great but require more upkeep and are more expensive. Manual pallet jacks on the other hand require a little bit of physical effort to operate. The table below will give you a better perspective of pros and cons between each type of pallet jack.

Pros/Cons of Electric and Manual Pallet Jacks

Physical Effort Needed To OperateX
Versatile For Different Pallet TypesX

How To Operate A Manual Pallet Jack

Manual pallet jacks have handles on them that allow you to push and pull them. Located on the handle is a lever that allows the prongs to be lowered. 

When you approach the pallet you need to unload, use the lever to drop the prongs and slide them under the pallet. The prongs should be able to easily slide underneath the pallets. If that doesn’t happen, then try lowering the prongs a little more.

The prongs should be pushed far enough through the pallets for the wheels of the prong to be touching the floor on the other side. With the prongs underneath the pallet, pull the handle back toward you to jack the pallet up. You only need to lift the pallets just high enough so that they’re not dragging along the floor.

Pulling the handle of a manual pallet jack repeatedly to lift pallets over and over again might wear out your hands. Fortunately, we have a list of the best truck driver gloves you can use to protect your hands.

How To Operate an Electric Pallet Jack

An electric pallet jack in a warehouse with boxes laying on a pallet behind it

Pallet jacks have to be charged when they’re not in use. Before using one, make sure you remember to unplug it from its charging area. Electric pallet jacks usually have a compartment where you can store the plug so you don’t lose it. 

On the handle of electric pallet jacks is a directional pad that allows users to manipulate the prongs. Before you can pick up a pallet use the “down” button to lower your prongs. Using the controls, move the pallet jack forward and slide the prongs underneath the pallet. 

Afterward, lift the pallet just high enough above the ground and use the controls to move the pallet where you want it placed. After using an electric pallet jack, plug it back in so it will have enough power for when it’s used again. 

Pallet Jack Safety Tips

Regardless of what type of pallet jack you use to unload your trailer, you should follow these safety precautions before and while you operate one. The first thing you should do before using a pallet jack is to inspect it. 

When you inspect the pallet jack, look for anything that could make operating the jack ineffective or unsafe. Pallet jacks are pretty narrow but still require a clear path to be pushed or pulled.

When you’re done using your pallet, you will want to secure it safely within your trailer. The best way to keep a pallet secured within a trailer is to use a pallet stopper. A stopper will keep a pallet in place when a trailer is being pulled down the road. 

Always use extra caution when you load and unload truck freight in rainy weather. When it rains it’s likely the loading dock can become slippery which is a hazard. 

For more tips on what to do when it rains check our rainy weather safety tips for truckers.

Lift Gate Procedures

A lowered lift gate laying on the ground

The last important piece of equipment used by truck drivers when they’re loading and unloading freight is the liftgate. This piece of equipment is great for loading and unloading freight when a loading dock is not available.

Using a liftgate can be dangerous so be sure to follow these guidelines to keep yourself safe when you unload your trailer:

  1. Put your truck in park, neutral and engage the parking brake.
  2. Keep your truck running
  3. Turn on the liftgate
  4. Have anyone near your liftgate moved away from the area
  5. Remove the safety chain or push down on the control lever of your liftgate
  6. Keep hands and feet away from pinch points
  7. Lower liftgate to the ground and then unfold it
  8. Using the pallet jack, begin bringing freight onto the liftgate
  9. Use controls to lower the liftgate with the pallet on board

Best Practices For Loading and Unloading Truck Freight

A warehouse worker bent over in pain with their on their lower back

Truck drivers have to keep a tight schedule and they achieve that by making sure their deliveries are fast. When you load and unload trailers, you also need to maintain safety. Fortunately, there are many efficient practices for loading and unloading truck freight that will help you do both.

Load Pallets In The Correct Order Of Your Stops

One way to maintain safety and fast unloading at your delivery is to load pallets of freight into your trailer in order of the stops you have to make. That means the freight for your last stop should go into your trailer first. 

Organize the way you load your freight in this manner until the last pallet you put in is for your first stop. The reason this will help make your deliveries faster is because you won’t have to take the time to search for the right pallet of freight when you reach one of your delivery points.

Using this loading method will also help prevent you from injuring yourself when you unload your trailer. Reorganizing pallets in your trailer as you search for the correct one for your delivery can be physically strenuous. By having pallets organized in the order of your stops, you save yourself physical strain.

Use Dock Levelers

A great tool to use when you’re loading your trailer with pallets is a dock leveler. Dock levelers are used to fill in the gap between a trailer and the loading dock. If there is a height difference between a loading dock or trailer, a dock leveler can compensate for that as well. 

Gaps between the trailer and loading dock can be dangerous for a few reasons. For one, workers could slip or trip in between the gap causing them to injure themselves. Height discrepancies between the trailer and the dock will make driving a forklift in and out of a trailer difficult or impossible.

Use A Trailer Restraint

Another great way to maintain safety when you’re loading or unloading truck freight is to use a trailer restraint. This device keeps a trailer in place in case someone tries to drive off in the truck that carries your trailer. 

Since you’re the one driving your truck, you shouldn’t have to worry about anyone else getting in it and driving off. However, company trucks often look the same so it’s possible another driver will accidentally get into your truck thinking it’s their own. 

Staying Hydrated

Loading and unloading freight, whether you’re using a pallet jack or a forklift, can dehydrate you. Trailers can get extremely hot, especially during the summer months.

Even though you’re performing a minimal amount of physical movement on a forklift the heat can still affect you. Pay attention to the way the heat makes you feel when you load and unload truck freight.

For loading, try to take a short drink break after every three or four pallets you load into your trailer. As for unloading, you can have a drink once you finish your stop. Unloading will usually be much quicker since you will be unloading a small amount of freight for every stop that you make. 

A great way to make sure you can always keep yourself hydrated is by keeping plenty of cold drinks in your truck using a 12- volt cooler. 

If you don’t already have a cooler then our article on the best 12-volt coolers for truckers will help narrow down your search.

Start Your Truck Driving Career With ABCO

If you’re looking to work for a transportation company that cares about its drivers, then look no further than ABCO. When you work with ABCO, you’ll receive some of the best treatment a truck driver could have.

Being on the road for weeks on end away from friends and family can be stressful. That’s why at ABCO we allow our drivers to have flexible schedules so they can recharge and put time into their personal lives.

ABCO also allows our drivers to bring passengers along on their journey, like a family member or your spouse, when you go out on the road.

Fill out your truck driver application and start working for a company that will care about you. 

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