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How to Tarp a Trailer Safely & Other Trailer Tarping Tips

Semi Service October 1, 2018


Knowing how to tarp a trailer safely is a necessity as tarps are a part of everyday life for many flatbed truckers. They protect loads from wind, weather and dirt. Tarps can, and do, make the difference between a perfect, on-time delivery and one with damaged freight; which makes a huge impact to your bottom line.

There are many reasons that tarping is a dangerous procedure. Heavy tarps, as much as 150 pounds, are large and difficult to handle. Improper tarping can lead to injuries – from muscle strains to fatal falls – especially in inclement weather. Every operator needs to know how to safely tie-down a tarp, drive with it and remove it once they’ve reached their destination. While safety should be priority number one, also keep in mind that OSHA may fine businesses with unsafe practices.

Tarps can be unwieldy and the tarping process can be problematic and tedious. However, many jobs that require them pay well. Read on to learn tips on how to tarp a trailer safely, for experienced operators or those looking to purchase their first flatbed.

What Types of Loads Require Tarps?

Various types of loads require tarps. The most common are: finished machinery such as boilers or CNC machines, steel coil and tubing, lumber or construction materials, some types of construction equipment, vehicle parts (unless it is a load headed for scrap), and certain drilling and mining equipment.

There is also the occasional mixed load in which part of the load requires tarping and the other does not. The best tarping option for mixed loads is up to the driver, often times requiring a certain amount of creativity ensuring that either the entire load – or at least the part that must be covered – is tarped correctly.

Investing in a quality tarp can make a big difference in the condition of your load upon arrival. On-time arrival means next to nothing if the goods are damaged from low-quality tarps or poor tarping procedures.

Common Hazards for Tarping

It may be great for flying a kite, but the ultimate hazard for tarping is wind. Wind makes tying down tarps very difficult. It can cause the tarp to flap against your trailer or your cargo. This flapping can cause damage to your tarp, trailer or cargo.

Another hazard can be an unusual cargo shape. Properly balancing out cargo for shape and weight is a learned skill that’s critical for safety. An unbalanced load can ruin an operator’s day.

As a trailer operator it’s hard to escape oil or grease. Generally one thinks of grease or oil as something to make things run smoothly, but they can make a tough job tougher – trying to tarp your truck in a slippery, unsafe environment exacerbates the risks.

Tying a Tarp Down

Most people think of the phrase, “Location, location, location,” as having to do with Real Estate. However, where your trailer is parked can have a significant effect of tarping your load. It’s much easier to tarp a trailer if it’s parked in a location that is shielded from heavy winds. If there isn’t a sheltered area, try to park near a building or other large wind block to shield you and your trailer from wind, sleet and rain. Tarping is already hard enough without the wind!

Next, evaluate your load to be sure that the weight is distributed evenly and there are no major height shifts. If things are sticking out too far or up too high your trailer can become unbalanced. You also risk poking holes in and/or tearing a tarp if items are sticking out.

Once your load is properly distributed, a forklift is used to place the tarp on the load. If you don’t have access to a forklift, you’re almost certainly going to need help placing the tarp. According to the Department of Labor & Industries, “Tarps should always be set on the load by a forklift.”

Also, note that they state a driver is required to refuse loads high enough that a ladder must be used to shoulder the tarp onto the load. Ladders are there only for climbing atop the load; never carry a tarp up a ladder.

When climbing atop your cargo, be sure that you have a good, sturdy ladder that reaches several feet above the height of the load. Inspect rungs, side rails prior to climbing to ensure your ladder is in good condition.

Other OSHA-recommended safety guidelines include wearing non-skid safety boots and not lifting with your back. You’ll also want to stay close to the load’s center line when unrolling the tarp. Remember, don’t try to be a superhero – it almost always leads to injuries or worse.

Once you are atop the load crawl, don’t walk. You never want to stand on the tarp or your load. Unroll the tarp until the load is covered evenly from side-to-side then secure the tarp to the trailer with rubber tie-downs. Any part of the tarp that is sticking out on the corners should be folded and secured with straps – 4-inch ratchet straps are a good choice – to be sure the wind does not cause the tarp to come loose and flap around.

Check every single corner for loose tie-downs and strap the tarp as tightly as you can without damaging it or the cargo. Loose tarps are a major road hazard.

Some flatbed trailers may have a built-in ratchet system. If so, hook and secure the straps with the metal bar. Tarps with a back flap require that you ensure a solid seal between the trailer and product. Folding the flap of the tongue up and under creates a seal. You can then secure the back flap with a “D” ring.

Tips for Removing a Tarp

Tarp removal requires a safe and efficient procedure – don’t just yank it off! Be sure to wear safety gear and identify any gaps or safety concerns. Sharp edges on loads are common, even if you don’t think there are any. A ripped tarp is money down the drain. You can also potentially damage cargo if the tarp is covering a load directly, instead of a load in a container.

Remove tie downs, lift a corner of the tarp and allow the wind underneath the tarp. Let wind give you a hand. Wind is awful when trying to tie down a tarp, but when you’re removing it, the wind can help you separate the tarp from the load.

If there’s no breeze, a few flaps of the tarp as you’re removing it can help. With the weight of a tarp, though, this isn’t always easy! Once the tarp is off, roll or fold it back up and then get forklift assistance to lift and transport the tarp to its storage place.

All flatbed drivers need to learn the proper tarping and tarp removal process. It is an essential skill and ensures the safety of your freight, tarp(s), trailer, and other drivers on the road. There are some challenges involved, but many drivers welcome the opportunity to get some exercise and break up the monotony of an otherwise sedentary job.

Contact Semi Service for Trailer Parts & Accessories

Semi Service specializes in all types of trailer repairs, maintenance and sales. If you have questions or need a new or used semi-trailer, we can help!

Contact us online or give us a call at (801) 895-4419 to get started today!


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