“Fragile” is Meaningless: Blunt Confessions of a UPS Handler

"I won't lie and say I've never stood on a package."

UPS handler
Eddie Guy for Reader’s Digest

The holidays are coming! It’s that special time of year when we spend hundreds of dollars to show our love for family and friends—but if anyone lives farther away than shouting distance, you’re going to need the help of a parcel delivery service. Of course, “parcel delivery service” is a synonym for “herds of uncomfortable, sleep-deprived people shoving too many boxes into not enough truck.” I was once a seasonal package-loading zombie for UPS. Now I’m here to tell you how to make sure that Xbox or envelope full of cash arrives in one piece. It’s harder than you think.

Why Your Box Arrives Squished
You stuffed the box full of Bubble Wrap and taped the heck out of it. But please don’t underestimate how this thing could get abused. These packages sit on a slide while hundreds of others push from behind. If an especially heavy package slides down on top of yours, the box can burst open or get flattened. And I won’t lie and say I’ve never stood on a package to reach the top of the trailer.

Many people submit claims for damages, only to have them denied because the tape on the box wasn’t wide enough. If you don’t package your stuff exactly according to a delivery service’s rules, the handler can deny your damage claim. (This is true for both UPS and FedEx; check their websites for packaging guidelines.) Oh, and I’ll give you an extra hint: Waterproof what’s inside. The trailers are gigantic metal or wooden boxes that sit outside for years. Sometimes they get holes in them; when it rains, they may leak.

Have I made you paranoid that you can’t ship something expensive without vacuum-sealing it in layers of Kevlar? Let me offer a quick tip: Buy a cheap plastic cooler. They’re about $10. Put the expensive item in the cooler; put both inside a box. If you don’t understand why, take the cooler out back and pound on it with a baseball bat. You have a better chance of the bat bouncing up and breaking your nose than you do of breaking through that cooler.

Write “Fragile”At Your Own Risk
We know how you think: Just write fragile on the side of a box (regardless of what’s in it) so all those strangers handling your package will take extra care! Ha, no. Each loader handles hundreds of packages an hour during a four-hour shift. No one is treating your box like a princess because you had a Sharpie and five extra seconds.

On my very first day, my supervisor took me to one of the trailers to show me how to load. He took a light package and tossed it up to the top of a stack. He missed. He picked it up off the trailer floor and tossed it back up there. “That said fragile on it,” I said, scandalized. He looked at me like I was crazy. “They all say fragile,” he said.

So you figure you might as well mark that box anyway—can’t hurt, right? When Popular Mechanics shipped sensors in both marked and unmarked packages, the “fragile” boxes wound up taking more punishment.

If your shipment must arrive in one piece, you can pay more to have your goods deemed a “high value” package. Special employees put these packages in waterproof bags and load them into the trailers. They don’t go on any belts. They are hand-carried the whole way.

Crayons Get Me Every Time
I’m in my trailer for up to four hours at a time, surrounded by brown. Anything that stands out can brighten my day. So if you want your package handled a little more tenderly, give it to your small child and let him or her write on it in crayon. I’m not about to smash a package that belongs to some kid. I see all the crayon scribbles and poorly spelled adulation for Mom or Grandpa, and all I can picture is a toddler sending a beloved teddy bear to Grandma because she has only days to live. Nothing is going to happen to Teddy on my watch!

We Feel Bad for Envelopes
Much of the A-to-B movement of your precious shipment isn’t done by hand. Boxes ride belts, and every time one belt meets another, there is a chance an envelope can get stuck between them. When that happens, it’s like tripping at the head of a stampede. There’s nothing we can do for your envelope but say a quiet prayer.
If you need to send a letter, and e-mail just won’t do, put it in a box or use the U.S. Postal Service. Envelopes are their specialty, and the way things are over there right now, it’ll probably get a truck all to itself.

The Problem with Reusing Boxes
Many of you forget to remove old labels. If I happen to notice that a box has two labels, I have to guess which is right in maybe 30 seconds. I usually go with the cleaner label, as I figure it’s been through the system fewer times, making it newer. If I’m in Missouri and I see only the label that says Arizona, that’s where it’s going. But suppose the guy in Arizona sees only the label that says Missouri. Theoretically, your package could just go back and forth forever.

If you don’t like the environmental impact of buying a brand-new box every time, remove all old labels or memorize the route to your recycling center. And pick up a cooler on your way back while you’re at it.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest