Prior to loading containers with goods, there are a number of important factors that need to be taken into account when shipping freight. To ensure no money is wasted, goods are not damaged and employees stay safe, it’s imperative that everything is done by the book, from making sure everything inside the container is securely stored and packaged to ensuring the loading process is safe for those charged with loading and unloading. 

Whether you’re looking to improve loading times or find more efficient and safe ways to pack and secure your goods when shipping freight overseas, read on for professional advice on how you can make loading and unloading shipping containers a slicker, safer and more efficient process.

How to load a shipping container

Accidents involving shipping containers are surprisingly common. It is thought that each year approximately 1,000 containers are lost at sea, while thousands more are significantly damaged due to incorrect loading by the freight companies. This causes significant financial losses for both the logistic companies involved, as well as their partners. It can also be extremely dangerous for people working on cargo ships and those who unload each container when they reach their destination. For this reason, knowing how to safely and efficiently load a shipping container is vital. Luckily, this can be done in four simple steps:

1. Check the container’s condition

The first thing you need to do before you even start loading a container is to check it thoroughly. Over a lifetime, these containers can take a real battering, leading to damage – as an overseas shipper, it is your responsibility to ensure the container you’ve been provided with is in good condition and safe to use.

Your first job is to establish what the container’s official weight payload is to ensure it meets your requirements, and also check if it is displaying a valid Container Safety Convention (CSC) plate. This should be attached to the door of your container. If it does not have one of these, it will need to be returned to your supplier. If the CSC plate is in place, it’s time to check the exterior and interior of the container for signs of damage. Be sure to look out for the following:

  • Tears, holes or extreme rust to the outside panelling of the container.
  • Damage to the exterior door handles/locks.
  • Dirty or unclean container interiors which could make loading your goods unsafe or produce an unhygienic freight environment.
  • Damage to the floor of the container – look out for items such as dangerous protruding nails or screws, or loose packaging from previous shipments.

If you notice any of these issues, contact your supplier and request a new container. 

2. Create a stuffing plan

Next you need to think carefully about how you are going to load your container based on the weight and size of your goods – this is called a ‘stuffing plan’. Remember – randomly placing your goods in a container until it reaches capacity can lead to an unbalanced and potentially dangerous situation. Instead, think about how your cargo can be equally distributed across the floor of the container.

According to the Department for Transport, you should never load more than 60% of the payload in less than half the length of the container. This is because it could result in a dangerous axle overload. With this in mind, consider the size and weight of every item carefully and be sure to always securely store heavy cargo and liquids at the bottom, evenly distributed, and lighter goods stowed on top. This should make for a secure container with a safe, low centre of gravity. 

3. Secure cargo

Once your goods are correctly positioned in the container, it is time to ensure it is securely packed as tightly as possible. Working from the bottom up, try to fill any empty spaces between items with packing material, empty boxes or blankets. This will give items less space to move around in during transit, preventing unnecessary damage. 

It is also a good idea to use strapping devices, such as tie-downs, fasteners, friction lashings or other bracing solutions to secure items in place. Heavy seas and wind can put a huge amount of strain on shipping containers, meaning if the items inside are not correctly secured, they can move around, become damaged or even displace the container inself. This is dangerous and can cause costly damage.

4. Final checks

Finally, before you send your cargo on its way, taking the time to do one final check is always a good idea. Ensure all items are stored and secured correctly and that all goods are evenly distributed and space has been used effectively.  If everything looks good, securely close the container’s doors and lock them using a heavy duty padlock. 

Can a forklift load a shipping container?

Yes, forklift trucks can be used to load shipping containers. Thanks to an array of different attachments that can be used on forklifts, these handy vehicles are used at many ports to load everything from pallets and boxes to large drums and coils. 

How long does it take to load a shipping container?

The time it takes to load a shipping container depends on what you are loading (how heavy your cargo is and if it is made up of fragile or hazardous materials), how much help you have in terms of manpower, forklifts and cranes, and what size containers you are loading. 

However, as a rule of thumb, to pack a 20-foot container it usually takes around three hours, while a 40-foot container will take closer to six hours. 

What is a full container load?

A full container load (FCL) is a full shipment which contains cargo owned by one party. This is the opposite of a less than container load (LCL) which describes a container that features cargo from multiple shippers, packed together. 

How to unload a shipping container

Unloading a shipping container is typically easier than loading, especially if you are prepared. There are two main ways to do it – from the ground or from a raised container. 

A raised container simply means that the shipping container is still mounted on the chassis of a truck during the unloading process. This method is typically used to unload containers holding regular or palletised cargo. To unload a raised container, you may want to move the cargo inside it either by hand or using a pallet trolley. A forklift can then be used at ground level to lift the goods out of the container. Alternatively, a mobile yard ramp can be used. These smart pieces of equipment can be rolled into position, temporarily fixed to the back of the container and used to quickly unload cargo. Although these ramps are large and difficult to store, it means forklifts and pallet trolleys can easily be rolled in and out of the container, speeding up the unloading process.

If you are attempting to unload a container that is holding very large or extra heavy cargo, it is not always safe or even practical to unload while the container is still raised. For this reason, sometimes a shipping container will have to be lifted onto the ground while still full to make the unloading process safe. To do this, a crane, heavy-duty forklift, reach stacker or side loader will have to be used. Once the container is on the ground, a regular forklift or hand-operated pallet trolley can be used to safely unload your cargo. While the specialist equipment needed for this type of unloading can be expensive, whether you are purchasing or renting it, if you will be unloading shipping containers regularly, this is the most efficient and economical way to do so.

Can you unload a shipping container sideways?

While side opening shipping containers are available from some suppliers, they are not very common. Standard shipping containers, both 20 and 40-foot models, tend to only feature doors fitted at one end. For this reason, if you think you require a shipping container that is capable of sideways loading/unloading, you will have to speak to your supplier.