Skip to Content
Equipment Theft Prevention

Heavy Equipment Theft and Solutions—Part 2

David Shillingford | August 1, 2002

On This Page
A busy construction site.

This second of four articles by David Shillingford on heavy equipment theft deals with physical measures that can be taken to protect equipment.

This is the second of four articles that deal with the growing problem of heavy equipment theft, the costs that result for insurers and owners of this equipment, and what can be done by owners and risk managers to reduce the costs associated with equipment theft. This article considers physical measures that can be taken to protect equipment and follows the focus of Part 1 of this series that discussed the size and nature of the problem and how to align theft prevention with business goals. The remaining two articles discuss solutions using data and technology to combat theft.

Deterring Theft

There is no doubt that deterring a theft is far better than later recovering a stolen piece of equipment. Although it is almost impossible to stop a determined thief from stealing a piece of equipment, especially where equipment must be left in an unprotected, remote location overnight, there is much that can be done. A thief is likely to have a number of targets, and if your equipment is better protected than the next person's, then it is theirs that will be stolen; so your security does not have to be perfect.

Physical security is most logically broken down into ways to improve site security and ways in which to improve vehicle, or equipment, security.

Site Security

In some cases, site security is difficult to achieve such as on a highway project where the "worksite" moves every day. Even in these cases, there are many simple measures that can be taken or existing measures can be improved with a little thought. If the thief sees that the site is well secured, he is likely to conclude that the equipment is also well secured and will move on to a softer target. Good site security also protects also other valuable and mission critical items such as computers—a common target for worksite theft.

Fencing. Fencing is the first line of protection and, although a worksite will either have it or not, there are some considerations that should be made where fencing is employed:

  • Use see-through material, such as chainlink, that allows thieves to be visible from the outside in the event they get past the fence.
  • Keep fenced areas free of bushes or debris that may blow into, and get stuck in, the fence as this may inhibit visibility.
  • Ideally, fences should be at least 8 feet in height, with posts spaced at a dimension no greater than the width of the narrowest unit in the fleet, and set in concrete—effectiveness depends on the design and quality of the installation.
  • Consider using barbed wire or razor tape at the top of fences for added security.
  • Limit access to keys for all fenced areas (see below).
  • Conduct routine fence inspections, and promptly repair any damage.

Warning Signs.

  • Post "Warning; No Trespassing" signs around the perimeter of your worksite
  • Further enhance warning signs by indicating that the equipment on the premises has Product Identification Numbers (PINs) recorded in a central location within your company and, if appropriate, on a national database accessed by law enforcement such as the National Equipment Register.

Gates. The perimeter is only as good as the weakest link. There is little point in installing a high quality fence if the gate can be easily broken or key access is uncontrolled.

  • Gates should be of heavy construction, with hinge pins spot-welded to prevent easy removal.
  • Construct gates so that the longest vehicle you use can be safely pulled onto the site without extending out onto a road or highway.
  • Locking hardware should be casehardened chain and a high-security padlock permanently attached to the fence, or employ shielded or blind locking devices.
  • If possible, have only one entrance/exit at the site.

Other Worksite Barriers. In some cases, it will not be possible to fence a short-term worksite nor cost effective to fence a large area. There are options such as barriers or ditches that can have a significant effect:

  • Barriers can include low walls, posts, dirt berms, or ditches that prevent a unit from being driven or towed off the worksite.
  • A very vulnerable site is where highway maintenance is being carried out. However, these often have concrete safety barriers that can form an effective security wall if positioned correctly.
  • Walls and berms should be no higher than 3 feet as that is the maximum height a police officer can see over when seated in a patrol car.
  • Posts should protrude 2 to 4 feet from the ground, be no more than 2 feet apart, and should be sunk 4 to 6 feet underground in concrete.
  • Trenches or ditches should be 3 to 4-feet deep and sloped so that most vehicles cannot be driven across.
  • Consider a low fence of heavy steel pipe, 2 to 3-feet high, anchored by posts on 8-foot centers. This is particularly appropriate for dealerships where a fence may not allow visibility for potential customers.
  • Regardless of which barrier method is chosen, all worksite entrances should have a well-secured gate.

Lighting. Lighting is one of the most valuable deterrents as it is low cost, flexible, and can be integrated with other security devices such as fences and sensors.

  • In order to avoid a distracting glare for patrolling officers, lights should be placed along the perimeter of the property and directed in at the worksite.
  • Lights should be of suitable quality and power sources well protected.
  • Fixtures should be well maintained with the timely changing of bulbs, as needed. As maintenance is often carried out during daylight hours, testing of security lighting is often overlooked.


  • Keep a record of the serial numbers on all tools, equipment, computers, fax machines, desk and cell phones, and 2-way radios.
  • Computers should be secured to the side of a desk or the floor using strips of metal and bolts or screws.
  • Contractors should back up their computer data often; any backup disks or CDs should be stored offsite in a secure location.

Key Control.

  • Make it a company policy that keys be removed from equipment when not in use or is being stored.
  • Make a note of who has access to, or is assigned, keys to equipment or a worksite.
  • Consider a "Key Sign-Out Log" to ensure the whereabouts of all keys is known.
  • Keep all keys secured in a safe or lockable area after hours or when not being used.


  • If padlocks are used, they should be "high security," i.e., casehardened or laminated steel, and preferably with tamper proof guards.
  • Combination locks lower security due to the potential for the sharing of combinations with thieves.
  • When possible, ensure that key-in cylinder locks are protected by a guard to prevent removal.
  • Case hardened chains used with padlocks should be thick enough to resist torch, saws or bolt cutters.
  • Consider cable or wire rope instead of chain as it is harder to cut and requires special tools.
  • Consider "blind" or enclosed locking devices on equipment doors and perimeter gates.
  • Consider using gauge protectors and panel locks on your equipment.

Vehicle Security

However good the perimeter security, a thief may still gain access to the equipment and equipment may move from more to less secure worksites so it is important for vehicle security to be as good as possible.

Inventory Control

As was discussed in the first article, the low risk of arrest for equipment thieves is closely linked to the lack of accurate information about stolen equipment available to law enforcement. It is therefore important to record information about every piece of equipment AND to let the potential thief know that you have done this.

  • Using etching tools or a steel punch, duplicate a unit's PIN or other serial numbers in at least two places on the equipment, one obvious, one hidden; record the location of these numbers.
  • Customize the unit with unique paint colors, such as painting the roof a distinctive color or painting the unit number in large characters—if it is more likely to be noticed, it is less likely to be stolen.
  • Record any and all numbers on the unit, including engine and chassis numbers, along with that number's location. · Record year, manufacturer, model number and PIN from actual plates/decals.
  • When describing unit, use actual manufacturer model names; avoid using generic terms such as "tractor" or "dozer."
  • Keep records of equipment location assignments, the dates of delivery, and anticipated return.
  • Make note of any decals, special paint markings, company ID codes, etc., that you have added to the unit.
  • Use decals and signs to tell the thief that all of this has been done.

This information can be recorded with a national database such as the National Equipment Register. The topic of data management will be dealt with in more detail in the next article.

Anchoring and Immobilizing

  • Equipment that must be left on site should be anchored with either chain or cable, which should be painted brightly to avoid damage loss from unobservant thieves or even employees.
  • Removing wires or the battery and lowering all blades or buckets can immobilize large equipment.
  • Smaller items are more likely to be theft targets and can be secured by positioning larger items in such as way as to make smaller items inaccessible or difficult to move.
  • Consider installing theft prevention devices to disable fuel, hydraulic, and/or electrical systems.
  • Portable equipment can be immobilized by removing tires if static for an extended period. This has the added advantage of prolonging tire life.
  • Consider hitch protection.

Equipment in Transit

  • Trailers and towable equipment should use quality trailer hitch or king pin locks.
  • Secure and lock equipment to the transport platform.
  • Neutralize the operating controls and lock the ignition of the equipment being transported; make sure the keys for the unit being transported are not in the unit's ignition.
  • If possible, remove the tongue off of the trailer.
  • Ensure that when planning the movement of equipment, overnight stops are avoided or minimized. If unavoidable, look for temporary secure storage on the route.


Many of these items are common sense but are often ignored or forgotten. By taking the items that are relevant to your operation and developing them into a checklist that can be used by managers and employees the next theft in your area will be someone else's equipment.

Risk managers should consider developing these items into a checklist to help in the initial assessment of the level of physical security of an operation and then to develop security guidelines.

Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.