Recently, OSHA released some startling statistics: it only takes one second to hit the ground from a height of 16 feet, and more than half of the fatal falls in construction are from heights of less than 25 feet. So a fall can happen in a blink of an eye and can be serious. To help illustrate the importance of ladder safety, let’s look at three recent fatalities reported by Massachusetts Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (MA FACE) that fall into this category:

• A 37-year-old plumber ascended an extension ladder to inspect a rooftop ventilation system. The ladder collapsed, sending the plumber 20 feet to his death. The rung locks had failed to grip properly.
• While installing exterior molding on the second-floor porch of a new home, a 62-year-old general contractor fell 20 feet to his death. He was working from a 7-foot stepladder and had apparently lost his balance. His crew found him on the ground with the ladder on top of him.
• While carrying a 40-foot aluminum ladder, a 29-year-old carpenter was electrocuted when it contacted a power line 24 feet above the ground (the May 2012 Safety column covered some similar electrocutions).

You may not be a plumber, general contractor or carpenter, but your work likely involves ladders. OSHA is still concerned with falls from ladders, and it has included them in “OSHA’s Big Four.” Ladder safety can be looked at the same way as safety on any job: planning for the job, job setup and use.

If using a ladder is necessary for a task, plan to spend some time on ladder maintenance. Before use, inspect the ladder for loose, cracked or greasy rungs; split side rails; and worn shoes. Ensure rung locks are in good working order. If there are any defects, the ladder should be tagged and removed from the job site. The inspection should periodically include changing shoes that show signs of wear and lubricating metal bearings, locks and pulleys.

Select the correct ladder for the job: self-supporting, straight, step or extension. When choosing the ladder, check the duty-rating label, and follow it. The maximum load (300 lbs. for Type 1A) includes the worker and his or her tools. If you are working near power lines, call the electric utility before you begin.

Proper ladder setup can help prevent or minimize worker falls. Once the correct location of the ladder is determined, prepare the site. Clear away any debris or obstructions, and block off the area around the bottom of the ladder to prevent it from being bumped into. The ladder must be set on dry, level ground. To determine the firmness of the ground, use the heel test. Stomp your heel; if it goes into the ground more than one inch, the ladder needs a base. Bases need to be placed on a secure, even surface. Plywood can serve as a base if it is dry, clean and sturdy enough to support the load.

When setting up a ladder
• Remember the 4-to-1 rule. For every 4 feet of height, the base of the ladder should be placed at a distance of 1 foot away from the object the ladder is resting against.
• When using the ladder to climb onto a porch or roof, the side rails must extend 3 feet above the landing. If extra stability is needed, the ladder can be secured by tying it to the building.
• When placing a ladder in front of a door, secure the door shut so it cannot be opened.

Safety basics
• Only one person should be on the ladder at a time.
• Always face the ladder.
• Maintain three-point contact with the ladder at all times: two hands and a foot or one hand and two feet. Use a tool belt or hoist to lift tools.
• Center your belt buckle between the side rails at all times to ensure your body weight is centered. Observing this guideline will also limit pulling, leaning and stretching, which could throw your body off balance.
• Never work on the top three rungs of an extension ladder.

Although ladders are used every day on every job site, workers may take them for granted. They are actually complicated tools, and employees require training to remain safe while using them.

KELLY is a safety and health specialist with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. She can be reached at 800.745.4818 and Joe O’Connor edited this article.