Falling Cargo: Injuries When Opening Trailer Doors Expert Article

Cargo that shifts during transit presents a potentially serious struck-by hazard when the trailer doors are opened. The danger of falling freight is well recognized in the commercial trucking industry and has been addressed by regulations and industry standards.

This article explores the regulations that govern trucks and their cargo from the site of the shipper, the truck and driver on the road, and the destination receiver, as well as the standards of care that must be followed in order to prevent injuries.

Falling Cargo Injuries Expert Witness

Falling Cargo: Injuries When Opening Trailer Doors - Expert Article

During transit, cargo can become loose or unstable in a manner that causes it to fall out when the trailer doors are opened, and if the trailer doors (specifically swing doors, for the purposes of this article) are not opened safely according to industry best practice, severe injuries can occur.

The method with which the trailer doors are opened is the main factor behind incidents where cargo has fallen out and struck a person standing in its path. From there, a forensic trucking operations expert would investigate to determine whether the responsible parties violated the standard of care in a manner that caused the incident.

Regulations That Apply to the Movement and Handling of Cargo

There are two main regulatory bodies that govern trucking operations: FMCSR and OSHA. During an investigation of an incident where cargo has fallen out of a trailer, information regarding the location of the incident and who was involved will dictate what regulations apply.

  • OSHA: Governs what happens off the highway during loading, pick up, and delivery. Applies to all workers who are involved with the loading, check-in, and unloading of the trailer.
  • FMCSR: Governs the motor carrier while the truck and cargo are in transit on public roadways.

OSHA and the DOT have a “Memorandum of Understanding” that clearly defines which agency has jurisdiction over a specified activity and workplace. The Department of Transportation (DOT)’s and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)’s authority essentially ends when the commercial truck and truck driver arrive at a freight pickup or delivery, at which time the baton of authority is passed to OSHA.


Given the risks involved in improperly opening trailer doors, training on safe door opening practices is paramount for all employees in receiving, yard operations, warehouse workers, and drivers.

At a minimum, all employees and contractors whose job duties may include opening trailer doors should receive training in the following safe method for opening trailer doors:

  1. Never open both doors at the same time and always assume that cargo may have shifted and may be up against one or both doors. The driver must confirm that trailer doors are correctly latched before attempting to open. If not properly latched, or if doors appear to be bulging, the driver must ask for assistance before attempting to open.
  2. Stand behind the left door while releasing the right door latch.
  3. Remain behind the left door, while carefully opening the right door all the while checking to see if cargo is stable.
  4. If the cargo does not appear to be stable, ask for assistance before proceeding.
  5. If the cargo is stable, secure the right door, and then carefully look inside the trailer to ensure nothing is leaning against the left door. Once confirmed, proceed to open and secure the left door.
  6. If there are any concerns about unstable or falling cargo, seek assistance before proceeding.

Cargo Loading & Securement

Under FMCSR 392.9, Load Securement is the motor carrier’s responsibility to prevent freight from falling out of a truck during transit and to prevent freight shifts that would affect the handling of the vehicle. Load securement devices such as straps or bars that belong to the motor carrier will not stay with the delivered load. Shippers are not governed by the FMCSR’s and OSHA does not address cargo loading as it relates to these cases.

Loading and securement of cargo is essentially a three-step process:

  • Step One: Loading of the cargo by the shipper.
  • Step Two: Securing the cargo, usually by the motor carrier’s driver.
  • Step Three: Inspecting that the load is safe and secure by the motor carrier’s driver and ready for transport on a public highway.

Responsibilities of the Driver

Regulations place the ultimate duty to inspect and secure the cargo on the driver and motor carrier. In most cases, the driver can inspect and secure the cargo; however, this is complicated if the doors are already closed and sealed by the shipper.

The regulations further stipulate that the rules do not apply if the driver of a sealed commercial motor vehicle has been ordered not to open it to inspect its cargo or to the driver of a commercial motor vehicle that has been loaded in a manner that makes inspection of its cargo impracticable.

Case Example

In modern supply chain/warehousing operations, it is common for a loaded trailer to be dropped at a Receiver’s facility to be unloaded later. If securement devices (straps, bars, etc.) have been removed by the carrier, the loaded trailer and unsecured cargo become a potential risk to yard workers tasked with moving the trailer to a loading dock.

In this case, a yard worker improperly opened a trailer that had traveled only two miles between warehouses for the same company and was injured.

Falling Cargo Trucking Expert Witness Image

Yard workers and security personnel are sometimes tasked with checking trailers and may open the door of a loaded trailer. In these instances, the facility operator is responsible for providing hazard awareness training and safe door opening training to all affected workers.

Expert Findings

Our expert found that the carrier’s driver retrieved his load locks as instructed when he dropped the trailer in a drop lot. A dangerous condition was present when the trailer was subsequently moved to the dock area without re-securing the cargo and then opened by an untrained yard worker.

Trucking Operations Investigations

The experts in the Trucking Operations Group at Robson Forensic have decades of experience in the trucking/transportation industry, in long haul trucking, LTL trucking, as well as non-CDL commercial transport. All are CDL licensed drivers who moved into the safety and compliance departments and became safety managers and safety directors for Motor Carriers across the United States. These experts use their countless miles of driving experience and management/oversight work to examine every facet of a trucking incident investigation.

For more information, contact the author of this article or submit an inquiry.

Featured Expert

Mark Respass, Commercial Trucking Expert

Mark Respass

Commercial Trucking Expert
Mark Respass is a Commercial Trucking Expert with nearly 40 years of diverse experience as a driver, fleet safety director, and transportation risk manager for a major insurance provider. He applies… read more.


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