They are able to adjust to work on stairs or uneven surfaces and, unlike most lifts and scaffolds, aerial safety cages are constructed with nonconductive fiberglass rails, so they are approved for use around live electrical circuits. (Little Giant Ladder Systems photo)

Fall Protection vs. Fall Prevention: A New Approach to Ladders

Everything else has improved with technology; it's time we started improving ladders.

Every day in the United States of America, two thousand people are injured while using a ladder. One hundred of those people will experience a long-term or permanent disability from that injury. And every day—today, in fact--one person will die from a ladder accident. For most industrial companies, ladder-related incidents account for the single largest injury-related expense. The financial burden can be staggering, but it does not add up to the terrible human cost. What is the cost to the individual who never works again or to the family of a lost loved one?

I have visited several companies that have actually put restrictions on the use of ladders, forcing supervisors and operators to seek better options. One of the largest general contractors in the world has created and is promoting a new "Ladders Last" program requiring operators to get written permission before using a ladder on the job, forcing them to look for a safer option first. Such a policy is sure to slow production, but in this company’s estimation, that’s better than a serious injury.

Recently, industrial companies have begun to apply tie-off rules to portable ladders, even though OSHA and MSHA currently do not. Standards vary from company to company, but most of them follow a basic rule: Operators working at a height of 6 feet or more must tie off to a suitable fall-arrest anchor point. If such an anchor point is not available, the operator must work in an approved, enclosed power lift or scaffolding. I’ve visited several companies that have reduced the height limit even more, to 4 feet.

What About 'Fall Prevention' Instead?
Trends such as "Ladders Last" and fall "protection" requirements should be a major concern to the major players in the ladder industry. The fundamental design of traditional ladders hasn't changed in centuries, and it’s no coincidence that the rate of ladder injuries has increased over the past decade. The true leaders of the industry will focus on designing fall prevention into their products.

When it comes to safety equipment, the highest form of design is to design out all dangers. This is outlined in the hierarchy of controls. Simply put, engineer the danger out. If you cannot engineer the danger out, guard against it. If you are unable or unwilling to adequately guard against it, then warn, train, and provide personal protection equipment. Unfortunately, long ago someone decided that the traditional design of a ladder couldn’t be improved--that they couldn't or would rather not engineer the danger out. So they just put a lot of warning labels on them and force safety professionals to hold countless training meetings where they tell people not to do the things we all know they're going to keep doing anyway. Everything else has improved with technology; it’s time we started improving ladders.

Understanding the Causes of Injury
Understanding how people use ladders and, more importantly, how they get injured using ladders are the keys to designing new, safer climbing products. Studying the statistics, we can divide ladder accidents into three categories:

1. Repeated handling of heavy, traditional equipment. Strains and sprains result from unloading, carrying, and setting up a heavy, traditional ladder. Almost half of the reported injuries involving ladders are caused by their awkward size and weight. Two easy solutions to this problem are to make the ladder lighter and add wheels to limit the need to carry it.

2. Using the wrong type or size of ladder for the job. A lot of times, this cause is born out of the first cause. The right size ladder is too heavy, so we grab the smaller one and try to make it work by climbing too high on the ladder. A lot of really sad stories have started with, "He was just trying to reach that last thing." We are trained to keep our bodies between the side rails to prevent us from over-reaching, however, we know this doesn't always happen. Too often, we stretch to reach that one last thing instead of climbing down and moving the ladder. No matter how much we train people, it's human nature.

3. Over-reaching and improper setup. Falls from height due to overreaching or improper setup result in the most catastrophic, life-altering injuries. Another factor in side-tip accidents is how level the ground is in the set-up. To give you an idea of how much level ground can affect tipping, if a 28-foot extension ladder is 1 inch off at the base, the top of the ladder will be 19 inches off. That puts the top of the ladder completely out of the footprint of the ladder.

When faced with uneven ground, most people use a brick or a board to build up the low side of the ladder. OSHA recommends digging out the high side of the ladder instead, but almost nobody does. You can add after-market leg levelers, but they have two major problems: They add extra weight to an already heavy ladder, and they do not any extra stability.

The next time you're on a job site, stop for moment and look at all of the heavy aerial equipment—excavators, power lifts, etc. You'll notice they all have outriggers or stabilizers of some kind. Seems to make sense, right? Why not apply the same to extension ladder? By adding outriggers to an extension ladder, we can increase the side-tip stability by more than 600 percent. Because level ground is such a big factor in most side-tip accidents, designing the outriggers to also adjust to the terrain will also greatly reduce the possibility of a tip due to overreaching.

Extension Ladder Positioning Systems
Some of the most catastrophic falls occur when an operator uses an extension ladder to access a roof or an upper level or when working on utility poles. A new innovation called an extension ladder positioning system allows an operator to securely fasten the top of an extension ladder to a suitable anchor point, scaffolding crossbar, or utility pole strand before ascending the ladder. A patented claw mechanism is activated by the weight of the ladder and becomes even more securely fastened when bearing the weight of the operator.

The positioning system also includes a fully contained, integrated rope system and a positioner, or rope grab, which the operator can connect to an approved safety harness. If the operator loses his balance or the ladder is destabilized, the clamp holds tight to the anchor point and the positioner immediately halts the operator’s fall—essentially impact with the ground is eliminated. When used correctly with a properly rated safety harness, this new extension ladder positioning system can prevent an operator from ever hitting the ground.

Stepladders vs. Aerial Safety Cages
Stepladders present different problems. People still fall because they over-reach, but now they also have to comply with well-intentioned rules about maintaining three points of contact and tying off above a certain height. And what about working on uneven surfaces or over stairs?

You should always maintain three points of contact when ascending and descending a ladder (two feet, one hand or two hands, one foot) but what do you do when you have stopped climbing and start working? Most safety people say you should still maintain three points of contact. Most workers will say it's hard to get the job done using just one hand.

Aerial safety cages are not really a ladder and not really a power lift or scaffold. Aerial safety cages allow an operator to work in a fully enclosed, height-adjustable platform that complies with all guardrail and tie-off rules. This new kind of access equipment is more versatile than a traditional ladder or a powered lift. They are able to adjust to work on stairs or uneven surfaces and, unlike most lifts and scaffolds, aerial safety cages are constructed with nonconductive fiberglass rails, so they are approved for use around live electrical circuits. For some industrial companies, this innovation couldn’t have come soon enough.

"It has been challenging," said Jason Cuskelly, a safety manager at Big-D Construction, a leading western states contractor. "We have found ourselves on jobs where tying off was very limited, using a lift was not always possible, and alternate methods were very expensive and time consuming. It made maintaining compliance, keeping employees safe, and maintaining work flow very difficult. We needed a better solution." To find that solution, Cuskelly worked with the manufacturer to develop the product.

Fence vs. Ambulance
Would you build a fence at the top of a cliff or would you park an ambulance at the bottom? Training will always be a huge part of keeping our people safe and getting them home to their families every day. In this effort, fall protection will always have its place, but when it comes to ladders and aerial access equipment, fall prevention is the future.

This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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