Higher Calling

Every day, more than 500 people go to the hospital because of a ladder-related accident. Don’t be one of them.

As the national safety director for a company that designs and manufactures ladders, I read a lot of articles about ladder-related accidents and injuries. Recently I read one about a young woman named Amy. She was reaching for something while on a ladder and fell 10 feet to the concrete floor below. Her family said, “We know Amy has the will and fight to make it back, but the road to full recovery will be a long one.” Amy wasn’t trying to be unsafe, and she certainly didn’t want to be injured; she was just trying to get the job done.

All too often, we overlook a safety precaution because it’s just a little thing or we’re in a hurry. I am sure if Amy had it to do again, she would choose taking the extra time to get the job done. Unfortunately, there are stories like this every day, and some have an even sadder ending.

Most of us started climbing ladders as children, and sometimes we take the same risks now as we did then. Because ladders will continue to be a necessity in nearly all walks of life, we need to find better ways to prevent these accidents and thus save lives. The two best ways to accomplish this goal are providing better safety training and designing safer products.

The American Ladder Institute (ALI), which comprises the major players in the ladder industry, has developed the best online ladder safety training available; it can be found at www.laddersafetytraining.org. This free online service site provides a pre-test, an informative training video, and a post-test and allows for printing a certificate of completion. Managers can track the training of their employees.

Sometimes, hands-on experience and live training are the most effective methods to preventing injuries. As national safety director, I travel all over the country to contractor, utility, telecom, and service companies to provide live training sessions.

Designing Safety into the Ladder

Although it is extremely important, training alone is not enough. Even an experienced, well-trained pro can fall off a poorly designed traditional ladder. Better, safer, newer designs are now hitting the market that will help prevent the kind of ladder accidents that “just happen.” Designing safer ladders is also necessary to help prevent workers from using the ladder incorrectly.

Advances in technology have led to major innovations in ladder design to make safer products. The following are the three major causes of ladder accidents and how a few of these new ladder innovations are reducing injuries.

1. Repeated handling of heavy climbing equipment. Back and shoulder injuries caused by moving and setting up heavy ladders are usually not too serious, but they are by far the most common kind of injury, so they account for the greatest expense — as much as $75,000 per incident in lost time and actual costs. Better training in handling the ladder and properly setting it up is very helpful but still not a complete solution.

Using modern advances in fiberglass-resin composites and engineering design, one company has reduced the weight of a traditional extension ladder by up to 25 percent without reducing its strength. Reducing the weight of the ladder, along with training in proper technique, greatly reduces this type of injury.

2. Using the wrong ladder for the job. We’re obsessed with speed. I see it at nearly every job site. Shortcuts such as using a ladder that is too short for the job, climbing on the top rung to reach just a little higher, or using a stepladder and leaning it against the wall like an extension ladder are proven to lead to accidents. And these accidents are usually more serious because they often end with a fall that might result in broken bones or permanent disability. We have to convince our operators that taking 60 seconds to get the right ladder for the job is worth it.

Multipurpose ladders, which have increased in popularity in recent years, can adjust to varying conditions to provide a safe, stable solution.

3. Falls due to overreaching. These are the most serious type of ladder accidents, often resulting in disability or death. Instead of climbing down and moving the ladder over a few feet, some operators reach just a little too far and cause their ladder to tip. Uneven ground makes overreaching even more dangerous. Just 1 inch out of level at the bottom of a 28-foot ladder will cause the top of the ladder to be 16 inches off center, throwing your center of gravity completely outside the base footprint of the ladder and vastly increasing the likelihood of a deadly side-tip fall. Adding levelers to the ladder can help to alleviate this concern but does not protect operators when they overreach, which they always do. Levelers also add extra weight to the ladder, increasing the possibility of a strain or sprain.

Recently, a new extension ladder design with retractable wide-stance outriggers has been proven to increase side-to-side stability by 600 percent. And because no job site is perfectly level, these outriggers double as levelers to adjust to uneven ground.

Overcoming Complacency

We get so used to using ladders every day that sometimes we get complacent and don’t pay close attention to what we’re doing. We need to remember that ladders are inherently dangerous, and using them incorrectly or using the wrong ladder for the job can result in serious injury.

Every day, more than 500 people go to the hospital because of a ladder-related accident; 25 of those people are permanently disabled, and one of them dies. A combination of better safety training and the introduction of ladders designed to be safer will literally prevent injuries and save lives.

This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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