Keys to Preventing Ladder Falls
What do you do about a problem that is never going away? I think you have to design around it.
- By David Francis
- Jan 01, 2014
As I travel around the country speaking about ladder safety, I have the opportunity to meet with groups from different industries and talk with them about their ladder problems. Some industries face very unique challenges, but there are always a few that remain the same. Ladder accidents occur because of complacency. People have been climbing ladders since they were little children on the playground, and they don't think of ladders as safety equipment.
The overriding rule on a job site is to get the job done, so sometimes it becomes accepted to break the rule. How do you tie off an extension ladder before you climb it? How do you maintain three points of contact while getting the work done? Some of these concerns can be addressed through training, but some need to solved by better design.
The Number Speak for Themselves
In 2008, the CPSC estimated that more than 500,000 people were injured while using a ladder or stepstool. In 2010, the estimate rose to 724,000--that’s nearly 2,000 people injured every day. Experts estimate 100 people will suffer a long-term or permanent disability each day. And one person will die, every day.
The American Ladder Institute (ALI) offers what I consider to be the best online ladder safety training available at www.laddersafetytraining.org. There are several online "academies" that charge a fee; but the ALI training modules are completely free. The website provides a pre-test, training videos, a post-test, and, upon completion, a printed certificate. The site also lets you load an unlimited number of employees and tracks their progress through the four modules.
As national safety director at Little Giant Ladder Systems, my sole purpose is to travel to organizations and job sites all over the country performing live ladder safety training events at no charge. If you need help training a large number of employees, look me up. It's my job.
Last Century's Ladders
Training is important, but training alone is not enough. We need to stop climbing Grandpa's ladder.
If you stop to think about it, there are very few products we use today that are basically the same design they used 100 years ago. Sure, they went from wood to aluminum to fiberglass, but the functional design has remained the same.
One of the problems with ordinary ladders is that they are not tested to bear up under actual use, meaning they aren't tested and designed to be used the way people actually use them. Last century's ladders are tested on a flat floor in an ANSI-compliant testing lab with static dead weight, no movement, no human reaction, and no over-reaching.
Understanding how people actually use ladders and, more importantly, how they get injured using ladders is key to designing new and safer climbing products. Studying the numbers, we can divide the majority of ladder accidents into three categories: strains and sprains from handling heavy ladders, using the wrong type or size of ladder, and catastrophic falls from over-reaching or improper setup.
First, nearly 50 percent of reported injuries involving ladders are caused by the awkward size and weight of the ladder. The easy solution to this problem is to make a lighter ladder. Second, we use the wrong type or size of ladder for the job. Quite often, this problem is caused by the first. The ladder that is actually tall enough to do the job is too heavy, so we grab the smaller one. And when we have to reach a little higher, we just climb on the top rung or the top step.
The third category is by far the most costly per incident, both in financial and human costs: falls from height due to over-reaching or improper setup. These are the kinds of falls that change lives or end them, the kinds of falls that result in families left behind.
You train your people to keep their bodies between the side rails, but you know this doesn't always happen. All too often, you see them 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. We have to understand this problem is not going away. But what do you do about a problem that is never going away? I think you have to design around it.
Uneven Ground is the Norm
On many job sites, it is nearly impossible to find a perfectly level setup for a ladder. On an outdoor job site, the ground is almost never level. Some indoor sites are just as bad; I've seen facilities with floor drains every 20 feet. 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 of center. That puts the top of the ladder completely outside the footprint of the ladder. Even if you keep your body between the side rails, you are outside the center of gravity, and your ladder will tip.
When I ask people what they do on unlevel ground, most just use a brick or a board to build up the low side of the ladder. Spending time on a scavenger hunt looking for the right-sized board to level your ladder doesn't sound very productive or safe. OSHA recommends you dig out the high side of the ladder instead of building up the low side, which is safer but even more time consuming. After-market leg levelers can help, but they have two major problems. First, they add extra weight to an already heavy ladder (remember problem #1), and second, they do not any extra stability to the ladder.
Think about all of the equipment on a job site that comes with outriggers: cranes, backhoes, lifts. Why not an extension ladder? One thing I will never understand is why ANSI and OSHA require a stepladder to be wider at the bottom than the top, but not an extension ladder. We send our people 20, 30, even 40 feet up an extension ladder with almost nothing beneath them--it doesn't make sense. By adding outriggers to an extension ladder and merely doubling the base width, we can increase the side-tip stability by over 600 percent! Add in leveling to your outriggers, and now you can talk about preventing injuries and saving lives.
Stepladders Need to Step Up, Too
Stepladders present a different set of challenges. Over-reaching is still a huge issue on stepladders, but there is also the three-points-of-contact issue and any tie-off rules that might apply. And what do you do with a stepladder over uneven ground or a staircase?
You should always maintain three points of contact when ascending and descending a ladder: two feet and one hand or two hands and one foot. But what do you do when you stop climbing and start working? Most safety pros 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.
The OSHA standard does not include portable ladders in the 6-feet-and-above tie-off requirements, but that has not stopped a lot of companies from applying tie-off rules to portable ladders. In fact, I've visited several companies that require operators to tie off from above from as low as 4 feet. Even further, some companies have banned ladders altogether. These rules are meant to protect the user but are very difficult and sometimes impossible to follow.
Because of these difficulties some general contractors have gone as far as imposing pretty strict rules against using ladders on their job sites. One of the leading contractors in the world, Turner Construction, has developed a Ladders Last program that requires subcontractors to use approved equipment (not an ordinary ladder) or find a different way to get the job done.
Designing to Solve Problems
By combining the platform and handrail system of an enclosed scaffold system with an adjustable fiberglass stepladder, you can solve all of these issues. A new category of climbing equipment called aerial safety cages has recently hit the market. While working in the caged platform, you do not need to maintain three points of contact and can work freely with both hands. The 42-inch handrail system on the aerial safety cages satisfy tie-off requirements, allowing operators to get the job done quickly and safely, especially when there is nowhere to tie off. The adjustable base also allows it to work safely on uneven ground and stairs.
Two things, training and innovation, are going to help us prevent injuries and save lives. There are new, free training resources are out there. And now you can find this century's ladders, designed and tested the way people will actually use them. It's time to stop using Grandpa's ladders.
This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.