How to prevent freight damage

There are few events that frustrate shippers, carriers, and customers more than the arrival of a damaged item. While less than 1% of shipments are damaged, booming e-commerce trends have made it a common experience for customers at some point and damaged freight is the reason for a substantial fraction of e-commerce returns.

Not only can replacing a damaged product be more costly than the initial shipping cost, but filing claims can also be time-consuming, supply and inventory management can be disrupted, and insurance costs can increase. The true cost of damaged freight, however, is lost business, a tarnished brand image, and soured relationships. 

Less-than-Truckload (LTL) shipments can be handled multiple times while in transit. LTL carriers use a hub and spoke network of terminals and trucks to move freight while combining and recombining consolidated loads. Spoke terminals take in freight from various shippers in the surrounding area and bundle that freight onto trailers for transit to the regional hub. There the freight is unloaded and the separate shipments are inspected and weighed to ensure that the accompanying paperwork is correct. The freight is then recombined for further transit.

This is all to say that LTL Shipping includes more loading and unloading than other shipping methods and that taking steps to reduce the vulnerability of freight to being damaged is correspondingly important.

Five Common Types of Freight Damage

It is important for shippers to consider not only how the most common forms of freight damage may impact the goods they are shipping, but also the strength and effectiveness of the packaging protecting it.

  1. Dropping. As much as all parties try to avoid it, mistakes are possible, especially if freight isn’t packaged or labeled properly, or if it is stacked in a problematic way at some point on a truck, loading dock, or warehouse.  One industry rule of thumb is to consider how resistant any given freight load would be to a four-foot fall, or to other cargo tipping tumbling onto it from above.
  2. Bumping and side impacts. Another source of damage through handling is when crates or pallets sustain a side impact as they are jostled against other cargo in transit or during loading and unloading.
  3. Vibration. Goods in transit are exposed to vibration, directional shifting, and jolts from trucks and conveyor belts which can cause screws and other fasteners to loosen and other wear and tear as surfaces rub together. 
  4. Atmospheric. Temperature and humidity can change sharply while freight is in transit, negatively impacting the freight through warping, freeze/thaw cycles and mold.
  5. Internal container spills and sweat. Humidity can impact freight not only when it is introduced from the environment, but when the contents either spill or sweat builds up within a container due to poor ventilation or lack of proper desiccants in the packaging.

Packing to Avoid Freight Damage

LTL shipping depends on quickly and efficiently combining and recombining freight from different sources as it flows through a network of trucks and warehouses on its path to final delivery. Most often, this is accomplished by properly and efficiently assembling pallets of goods, which is why there are roughly 1.4 billion reusable pallets in circulation in the United States.

The freight carrier’s responsibility is to move the cargo from here to there, not correctly package it. Packaging generally costs a sliver of the overall value of the freight it protects. Think carefully before cutting corners. 

Common and avoidable mistakes include:

  • Not using rigid supports such as pallets and crates
  • Placing heavy items in weak or old boxes
  • Leaving too much empty space within containers
  • Not filling empty space with cushioning material
  • Not using high-quality adhesives for sealing boxes and other containers
  • Insufficiently labeling containers or wrapped pallets to reflect fragility or other sensitivity

In general, shippers should consider how to create a hard outer shell around cushioning inner packing, segregate liquids and seal them within water-tight packages, and ensure that adhesives like tape are water-resistant and at least two inches wide. Inspecting, photographing, and properly documenting outgoing freight, and keeping loading docks organized and clear or clutter are also important precautions.

Using the Right LTL Carrier

Avoiding damage should be one of the focuses when establishing an LTL relationship. In addition to making inquiries about a company’s reputation and freight damage history, be mindful that a carrier’s insurance coverage is there to cover the carrier’s liability and not the value of all claims. If there is a ceiling on the coverage value per 10,000 pounds of freight, consider whether your freight is adequately addressed. It can also be important to determine whether the carrier inspects freight thoroughly prior to delivery and proactively communicates about how to handle any damage that is documented. Another important point to discuss is what accessorial services the LTL carrier offers, and whether these are covered in their basic rates or charged as separate fees. 

Accessorials related to the prevention of damage include:

Liftgate Pickup and Delivery

The liftgate is a mechanical platform on the back of a vehicle that can be raised during the loading and unloading of heavy cargo. This is used when there isn’t a  loading dock or forklift at the site of pickup or delivery to load or unload the freight and is crucial for avoiding damage to freight from being dropped.

Dedicated Shipping

Most LTL truck drivers are assigned a variety of deliveries each day. The receiving companies and residences change every day, and also the driving route. If goods are uniquely fragile or perishable, even with the more secure packing requirements of LTL shipping, they may be damaged when lumped with more durable cargo.

Dedicated freight service means that a pickup or delivery trip is reserved for one customer alone. That vehicle will then be outfitted with any needed storage equipment, and the cargo delivered at a predictable time rather than within a broad window. Using dedicated shipping also eliminates one of the more common forms of damage – multiple containers or pallets being stacked atop each other, and accidentally tumbling down in transit or during loading/unloading.

Debris Removal

Because LTL shipping involves more repeated loading and unloading and the transportation of freight from multiple sources on a common truck, the freight is almost always very securely packed, palletized, and shrink-wrapped to avoid damage. White-Glove LTL services will often include unpacking the shipment and removing all packaging materials, blankets, shrinkwrap, and other shipping debris from the receiving home or business. In the case of furniture or appliances, removal of items that are being replaced may also be included. 

If Freight is Damaged

If freight is delivered in a damaged condition it is important to take several steps. First, accept the shipment and pay the charges. Not accepting the shipment may make you liable for additional shipping charges related to additional movement and possession of the freight, and disputes over payment of charges can slow down the resolution of a shipping claim.

Next, document thoroughly any damage, while the delivery driver is still present if possible. Keep both the damaged freight and its preserved packaging set aside in a safe location where it will not be disturbed or damaged in order to speed up any investigation. Finally, file a claim as quickly as possible so that the matter can be resolved without triggering any legal deadlines.

White-Glove Delivery with ExpressIT

ExpressIT is a White-Glove pick-up and delivery service that provides key accessorial services such as dedicated delivery, after-hours delivery, inside delivery, limited access delivery, liftgate use, and debris removal – often without adding them as separate accessorial charges on top of established rates.

At ExpressIT shipments are inspected prior to delivery, and if damage does occur, pictures are taken and the shipper is contacted to find out how they would like the situation handled. Their services are optimized to reflect positively on the brands they are delivering, and for proactive communication with warehouses, freight shippers, and end customers in order to handle difficult situations with attentive professionalism.