Ladders: From Research to Smart, Safe Practices

Research shows the best practices to use when involving a ladder in your work.

Getting to a higher level in a workplace often means using a ladder. However ladders, if used incorrectly, become the reason for many fatalities and injuries.

Worksites clearly struggle with implementing safe practices for ladders, as OSHA recently announced the Ladders, construction standard (29 CFR 1926.1053) has climbed the list of Top 10 Most Frequently Cited Standards from number five to number three with 2,036 violations cited between October 2020 through September 2021.

At the National Safety Council’s 2021 Safety Congress & Expo, Erika Pliner, Ph. D., a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Human Neuromechanics Lab at the University of Florida talked extensively about the research she has conducted on falls from ladders and some fall prevention strategies that might help your worksite to create more safe practices.

In their research, Pliner and her colleagues looked into many factors that impacted the amount of risk associated with using a ladder. Some of the topics researched were toe gap distance, ladder angle, overall strength, upper arm strength and general risk taking in individuals.

Here’s a few of the findings from the research:

Toe Gap Distance
Part of the research included analyzing the amount of room a ladder user might have on the rung. If the ladder is affixed to a wall, for instance, the amount of room between the ladder and the wall may be limited. The smaller amount of space between the wall and the ladder, the greater the risk of falling.

Pliner and her team found that when there was at least seven inches of space between a ladder and the wall, the risk of falling were significantly decreased.

Ladder Angles
Another commonly discussed ladder topic, ladder angle, was part of Pliner’s research. Pliner and her colleagues had their test subjects climb ladders at 75, 83 and 90 percent angles. The research showed that the more vertical the ladder was, such as the 83 and 90 percent angles, the more risk their was in falling.

The research supported the NIOSH recommended ladder use angle of 75 percent, as the team’s findings showed that when a ladder is placed at a 75 percent angle, the risk of falling is decreased.

General Risk Taking
Pliner’s team surveyed to find out the most unsafe practices when using ladders. They found 11 general unsafe practices when using ladders (such as descending backwards). Pliner’s team asked those they were studying if they used any of these unsafe behaviors. If they scored a four or higher—they were deemed unsafe users, if they scored three or less, they were put in the “safe ladder users” group.

From there, the research found that unsafe ladder users generally scored higher in taking risks in their lives, such as crossing the street to catch a bus even if when the traffic lights indicate oncoming traffic. So, in the end, the younger, more able users were found to have a greater amount of risk because they had the ability to take more risks.

All in all, Pliner and her research team concluded that the following are factors associated with greater safety when using ladders:

  • Unrestricted foot placement
  • Non-vertical ladders
  • Accommodating lower upper body strength individuals
  • Risk avoidance training for healthier individuals
  • Grasping rungs instead of rails
  • Keeping body weight over feet
  • Maintaining level feet
  • Limiting workspace for reaching

For more information about the research, feel free to log into your NSC 2021 Safety Congress & Expo account to access the session for up to 60 days after the Congress ends.

About the Author

Sydny Shepard is the former editor of Occupational Health & Safety.

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