Think Again

by Adam Ledlow

TORONTO, Ont. – The old saying, “You get what you pay for,” is a phrase most fleets tend to take seriously when buying new equipment – especially when it involves safety. Load securement components, whether they be straps, winches, hooks or chains, are certainly not something that should be scrimped on, and yet a startling number of substandard products are finding their way into the North American marketplace. Off-shore manufacturers from countries like China, Taiwan and India are creating budget-friendly tie-downs, but they’re often not being tested to meet North American standards – and in some cases, they aren’t being tested at all.

“(Overseas manufacturers) are great copiers. They’ll take a product and they’ll duplicate it, but not know how to test it properly or not realize there’s a safety issue,” says Todd Walker, Central Canada sales representative for Kinedyne Canada. In one such example, Kinedyne had developed a winch bar in the past which, after several rounds of testing, was found to be unsafe. The design was subsequently abandoned by Kinedyne, but the product was picked up by a Chinese manufacturer and is still being sold by brokers to this day.

In addition to being ill-informed with regards to foreign markets and their laws, many off-shore companies have outdated manufacturing processes, Walker says. China does much of its labour and sewing patterns for its straps by hand, while in Canada and the US, they’ve moved to a much more consistent computerized sewing system. Walker admits when Kinedyne used to sew by hand years ago, even its best sewers were inconsistent in their quality. The result is a product which does not always meet industry-set standards.

“We find that the off-shore webbing has a lot more elasticity and it takes a lot to get it tight. They also don’t seem to last as long. Even if they look alright and they do a test in terms of breaking strength, they wouldn’t last as long in a North American marketplace,” says Larry Harrison, general manager, Kinedyne Canada.

Ralph Abato, director sales and marketing with Ancra International, says his company brings in a good deal of product from overseas, but products must meet their own internal manufacturing standards first.

“To me, the major difference is most people that are peddling some off-shore product don’t work off a drawing at all. They just send an e-mail or fax and they say, ‘Give me a price on that yellow strap’ and everyone just makes the assumption it’s what it’s supposed to be,” he says.

Of all load securement components, straps tend to pose some of the greatest threats to safety if they are improperly labeled. In North America, strap manufacturers take their queue from the Web Sling & Tie Down Association (WSTDA) when it comes to strap ratings.

The standard test to determine a strap’s breaking strength is the pull test. With a pull test, if only the webbing is being tested, the strap is placed into a fixture that has jaws that clamp the webbing and continue to stretch out until the fabric webbing fails, or almost “explodes” as Abato says. Pull tests can also include the complete assembly (which includes all components) to determine what component fails first and at what point it fails. After performing a number of pull tests on a given product, the manufacturer is then able to determine the rating the product shall receive.

This complete assembly pull test is vital to determining the strength of the full assembly, instead of testing each component individually.

“Most people (in our industry) rely on the time-tested comment that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” Abato says. “With tie-downs, if you were to take a 10,000-lb rated ratchet buckle, a 10,000-lb rated flat hook, and a 10,000-lb rated webbing, you do not have a 10,000-lb assembly.”

Abato explains that once you put needle and thread through the webbing to sew it, you now have what’s called “sewing efficiency.” Typically the webbing will lose anywhere from 10 to 15% of its strength at this point, so that same group of 10,000-lb rated components, once sewn and assembled, is actually only an 8,500 to 9,000-lb rated assembly.

“The biggest shortcut that most people take is they never test, they never actually do a pull test in-house or have an independent lab do a test for them. They just make assumptions like that and so you’re getting inferior products,” Abato says.

This aggregate method of determining an assembly’s breaking strength has load securement manufacturers like Ancra concerned about product safety. As a result, both Ancra and Kinedyne perform their own in-house tests on competing products from both North America and abroad. Their results are not surprising. Bigger manufacturers’ products typically perform better, while smaller manufacturers’ products will usually break sooner. Walker says many smaller companies will not perform pull tests at all, either because they don’t have proper testing equipment or the financial ability to get someone else to do the test. As a result, their ratings are often inaccurate.

So if manufacturers like Kinedyne and Ancra are finding inaccurate (and therefore dangerous) ratings on off-shore products, why aren’t they being pulled off the shelves?

The main problem is enforcement, or lack thereof. As Abato says, when a CVSA roadside inspector looks at straps, they are essentially looking at the ratings on the tags. Once the tags are added up, the officer can determine if the driver has the correct amount of tie-downs, but has no way to test the rating’s validity.

“It’s really not his job at the roadside to verify whether the strap was made correctly,” Abato admits. “I always use the argument that you can’t buy a $10 desk lamp that doesn’t have an Underwriter Laboratories (a product safety certification organization) label on it and yet you can go out and buy a strap that’s going to hold a load of cinderblocks on a flatbed trailer that’s going 80 miles an hour on the highway and it could be made by somebody who doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing. There is no regulatory body that actually inspects, verifies, approves or accredits manufacturers of tie-downs.”

Compounding the problem is the fact that once an off-shore product hits the water, the foreign manufacturer is absolved from all liability, Walker says.

So now the problem falls on the shoulders of fleets, but unfortunately, according to Abato, most carriers don’t even know there even is a problem.

“They get a strap assembly, whether it’s off-shore or domestic North American-made and it has a label on it and that label will say 10,000 lbs. And the trucker, to their defense, says, ‘Well, that’s what I need, is a 10,000-lb strap. I’m putting it on there.’ His assumption is whoever made the thing actually labeled it properly, which is often not the case.”

While Abato doesn’t say it should be the carriers’ responsibility to perform their own pull tests, he does recommend requesting a copy of the results of the manufacturers’ test or sending the product to be tested at an independent facility.

“Unfortunately, I’ve seen examples of people who just don’t care about the reality of pull testing and certification and all the quality that goes into a product,” Walker says.

One carrier that has proven its desire for quality and safety over the years is L.E. Walker Transport of St. Thomas, Ont. So when the company purchased flatbed carrier company Mid-America, L.E.’s fleet maintenance manager Bill Arthur was first to suggest testing the company’s straps. Arthur had the straps sent to an independent testing facility, only to find their breaking strength was less than two-thirds of the rating the label indicated. Arthur says it’s vital to perform testing like this for liability reasons.

“If there was an issue, where a truck hit something and went up in the air and the load shifted and the straps broke and the load fell on a car and there were lives lost, I’ll tell you, the lawyers would be all over you just like white on rice. They would test e
verything humanly possible. They’ll look for any out to hang you,” Arthur says. “There are certainly areas in the business where you don’t want to skimp on and safety for sure is number one.”

Okay. So smaller, off-shore manufacturers who lack documentation and proper testing practices are probably not the way to go when it comes to buying tie-downs. But customers are safe using products that fall under the WSTDA umbrella, right? Wrong. According to both Abato and Harrison, the only requirement a member company of the WSTDA needs to use the association’s logo on their products is to pay their dues and provide proof of insurance. In essence, because the WSTDA is a “self-regulated” association, members don’t even technically need to follow the association’s set standards.

“They might latch on to the Web Sling and Tie Down Association, but they’re not doing any testing, nor do they even understand the testing in some cases,” Harrison said.

Abato, who has served as an active member of the WSTDA for many years, has been fighting for an accreditation program so members will be forced to provide verification that they are in fact following association standards. “All of my attempts have been met with lukewarm response,” Abato lamented. “I think it’s pretty clear that many companies have joined our organization so that they can fly the Web Sling & Tie Down Association logo on their labels and on their banners and on their literature, and by inference can be associated with reputable companies that follow standards.”

So if you can’t trust the WSTDA logo, you should at least know what a good strap looks like and what they’re capable of. Webbing straps for flatbed tie-downs have a marker thread in them: a single-line marker indicates a 5,000-lb per inch break-strength of the webbing and a double-line means 6,000-lbs. When using ratchet straps, double-line webbing must be used almost exclusively.

For example, to get a two-inch strap to have a 10,000-lb assembly, you have to start with a 6,000-lb per inch two-inch strap, which is 12,000-lbs. A 12,000-lb rated webbing with 10,000-lb rated hardware, once sewn, will have a 10,000-lb full assembly. “So anyone that sells ratchet straps – whether two- or three-inch – and uses a single-line maker is probably overrating their straps,” Abato says.

Kinedyne also offers educational programs for both fleets and distributors on knowing a good product from a bad one, often free of charge. Abato is still continuing his fight to hold WSTDA members accountable, but in the meantime, he hopes many fleets will take this issue to heart.

“It’s an issue that I’ve been trying to hammer home for a long time,” he says. “It certainly bothers me that there are a lot of companies that don’t think it’s a big deal. I think about it because I drive on the highway next to these trucks just like everybody else. And I’d hate to think that somebody is taking shortcuts so that they can sell more tie-downs and it’s going to endanger somebody’s life someday.”

Bill Arthur’s attitude, and hopefully the attitude of many other fleet maintenance managers, echoes Abato’s sentiment, and he recommends trucking companies avoid dealing with unknown products and be wary of costs that seem too good to be true.

“We don’t just want to operate to be within the bounds of the law, we want to be a good corporate citizen here and a friend to every automobile on the highway,” he says. “So if we can do a little bit more and keep that load on the trailer, we’re definitely going to do it.”

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