Knapheide’s ABS thermoformed partition is crash-tested up to 7,000 pounds, partially sealed to...

Knapheide’s ABS thermoformed partition is crash-tested up to 7,000 pounds, partially sealed to keep HVAC systems up front with the driver, and designed to allow full driver seat travel. All this is done with the safety of the driver in mind.

Photo: Knapheide

Fleet managers often feel pressure to design the most productive truck possible. But one thing that should not be forgotten in the process is safety. 

Jeff Haag, VP fleet sales for Decked, noted that many upfits were designed decades ago when safety and ergonomics were not a concern. Giving operators a truck that is not up to safety standards can be a costly mistake.

“Look at the stats of safety within your industry. You’ll find that on average, workers’ comp claims affect 2.8 out of every 100 workers that work out of their pickups and vans. Those claims average about $40,000 per incident and result in a loss of work,” Haag said. “If a company operates vans, pickups, or service bodies, they know the drivers are working out of the back of those trucks on every call they make — every day. Those same companies have a responsibility to their drivers to provide them with a safe environment when they’re on the job.” 

Most importantly, a well-upfitted truck that is spec’ed with safety in mind can lead to safer and healthier drivers.

“Space planning and storage improve technician safety by reducing clutter in the van/truck which reduces exposure to trips and fall hazards. Slips, trips, and falls are the second-leading cause of accidental death on the jobsite, behind motor vehicles, and one of the most frequently reported jobsite injuries,” said Julie Allen, business development manager – service fleets for Ranger Design.

Ensuring your truck is safe is more than adding an extra grab handle. Fleets should consider safety at all stages of designing a truck, from initial purchase to upfitting.

“It’s important to get the right-sized chassis, body, and crane not only for operational use but also for safety,” said Adam Oppermann – product manager for Stellar Industries. “If the crane is too small for the job, the operator won’t be able to do their job and may try to use the equipment in a way it’s not intended for. Factors to consider include what the crane will be lifting. This determines the appropriate size of crane, body, and chassis to support it.”

Upfit partners will often offer advice and guidance, and step in when an upfit has room for improvement. But it’s best to establish what you want, and how that upfit aligns with your fleet’s safety needs.

The custom reel system (bottom left corner) designed for a telecommunications company reduced...

The custom reel system (bottom left corner) designed for a telecommunications company reduced overall wear and tear on their drivers’ lower backs. These specific reels are extremely heavy and previously the driver had to pick them up several times a day. The custom reel cabinet allows for safe storage and easy access, while also reducing overall work-related injuries.

Photo: Ranger Design

Set Your Safety Goals 

Step one should be deciding what your company considers a safe truck.

Allen of Ranger Design noted a few questions fleet managers should consider when planning a truck upfit: 

  • What will the driver be using the vehicle for each day (e.g., maintenance, delivery, or utility)? 
  • What type of tools and equipment does the driver need every day to complete his job functions (e.g., heavy equipment, chemicals, or specialty items)?
  • Is there a general concern for reducing driver distractions to improve safety?

“These few questions can provide critical insight on developing a design/layout which solves for safe storage and separation. One of the best investments for any upfit is a properly fitted and tested safety partition,” Allen explained.

Elements of a Truck Upfit

When designing an upfit, it helps to think about how the driver moves around the truck and interacts with the tools and equipment in and around it.
James Muiter, product manager for Reading Truck Group, shared a few examples of specific solutions that ensure a safe worker and job site:

  • Easy access to tools and materials through upfits such as bed slides, limits the amount of time and risk of injury getting in and out of the bed of the truck. 
  • Three points of contact, which means using two hands and one foot, or one hand and two feet to support the body while mounting or dismounting a vehicle. Extra-long grab handles that are reachable from the ground and flexible or retracting (movable) steps can help. 
  • A reliable, locking system that ensures tools and materials are safe on the job site and secure while the vehicle is in motion. 
  • Ergonomic accessories such as drop-down ladder racks and grab handles. These features ensure operator safety and reduce insurance claims due to operator strain.
  • Secure storage and organization features, including external compartments and internal shelving/storage systems that ensure valuable equipment is kept safe during transit. Storage solutions should always prevent the cargo from spilling out when the operator opens the doors.

Katie Groves, national fleet manager for Adrian Steel, noted that a fleet’s safety priorities vary depending on the company. In her experience, when a company is managing fleet assets through an environment health & safety department or HR, safety goals are clearly defined and communicated up front. But a fleet managed under finance or procurement may need to be asked about safety initiatives when putting together the specifications.

These safety priorities might include compliance. Groves noted that many companies might set standards for a specific brand or sizes of ladders that must be used by the operator, a requirement not always known by the person making decisions about the upfit — especially if that individual’s performance is measured by upfront year-over-year savings.

Groves also pointed to electrical work, which can be an oversight for fleet decisionmakers.

“It’s really important if we’re installing an inverter to understand what the customer is plugging into it and how he or she is using it within the cargo solution,” Groves explained. 

Chris Rolsen, national business development manager - fleet for Knapheide, noted that Knapheide’s truck solutions are designed with OSHA and DOT compliance in mind to maximize safety for the driver.

Weight requirements are another feature of upfitting where compliance is vital.

“A well-spec’ed upfit with an optimal weight distribution helps the driver best utilize all the safety features of the chassis and their equipment. If the weight is distributed optimally, there is a reduced risk for rolling, better drivability, etc. Additionally, trying to limit the number of times an operator needs to climb in and out of the load bed to access tools reduces the risk of accidents,” explained Oppermann of Stellar Industries.

Understand the Driver and the Job

Once parameters are set, the next step is defining what is needed. This involves familiarizing yourself with the operator — what they need, how they utilize the vehicle, and where safety needs are not yet met. 

“The most important factors are how the driver can do his job with the least strain on his body,” explained Jose Reyna, national fleet and sales director for A.R.E

This often means storage solutions that maximize space and are easy to access.

“A properly designed upfit solution should focus on how the driver utilizes the cargo area of their van. Tools, equipment, and components that are frequently used should be easily accessible while being safely stored. Heavy equipment that may require a hand truck, lift, or ramp should be placed closest to the rear of the vehicle,” said Allen of Ranger Design.

Putting yourself in the operator’s position can help understand how 

Upfit needs can vary widely depending on the job and the industry. A simple starting point is listing the tools an operator might keep on hand and determining how they will be stored.

“Bins and toolboxes should be viewed with the safety of the driver first and foremost,” said Haag of Decked. “Most upfits store equipment and tools. The real question should be ‘will they do so and also be safe for my drivers?’ Our slide-out drawer for pickups, full-sized vans, and service bodies allows the driver to pull out the drawers and easily grab their tools, parts, and more, without having to reach or climb into the back of the truck. The No. 1 and No. 2 workers’ comp claims are slip and falls and strains — both of which can be reduced or eliminated using the right system.”

Rolsen of Knapheide noted the company’s upfits include vented compartments and strobe lights when needed and three points of contact. “All of this and many other steps are taken to make sure we provided the best product and safety design possible to the customer,” he said. 

In addition, there are solutions that enhance the operator’s experience but may often be overlooked in daily use. 

The Stellar CDTplus crane remote allows the operator to use the crane at a safe distance and...

The Stellar CDTplus crane remote allows the operator to use the crane at a safe distance and with optimal visualization of the work area. It also gives visual and tactile feedback to the operators, allowing them to keep their eyes on the lift.

Photo: Stellar Industries

“When upfitting a truck, the main focus is to maximize efficiency,” explained Reyna from A.R.E. “However, you must also consider the effects the upfit has on the driver’s field of view while operating the vehicle, changes in the vehicle’s handling characteristics, and how the changes affect ergonomics while accessing the equipment at the job site.”

James Muiter, product manager for Reading Truck Group, pointed to lighting, which allows operators to work day or night, and respond to emergency calls when necessary. Supplemental lighting (such as strobe or work lights) can be chassis-mounted or body-mounted. 

Visibility is another factor to consider. “Installing a backup camera warning system or shelving and drawers that eliminate the need to climb in and out of the vehicle are all positive things that an upfit can do to enhance the safety of the driver,” Rolsen said.

Already have a backup camera? It doesn’t hurt to look past this, allowing operators to see more.

“Rear-view camera systems are now mandatory for many vehicles, so the next frontier is 360-degree camera systems that can be especially relevant on larger custom upfits which are complex to maneuver,” Muiter explained.

It’s important to prepare for the worst case scenario as well. Groves of Adrian Steel pointed to first aid kits, fire extinguishers, and reflective triangles that can often be forgotten during the order process. 

About the author
Roselynne Reyes

Roselynne Reyes

Senior Editor

Roselynne is a senior editor for Government Fleet and Work Truck.

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