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An Elevated Threat: Ladder Safety

By Tom O'Connor | Feb 15, 2016
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In recent years, ladder-related injuries have been on the rise. It is estimated that more than 90,000 people are hospitalized annually as a result. Additionally, roughly 700 occupational deaths are attributed each year to elevated falls. Fortunately, most of these accidents can be prevented by following some basic safety protocols.


First, it is important to understand the most common causes of ladder-related injuries and fatalities, including using the wrong ladder, using faulty or damaged ladders, incorrect ladder placement and not using a ladder properly.


Ladders are almost always composed of wood, fiberglass or metal (typically aluminum). Each has an intended use. For example, a nonconductive ladder should be used when working on or near electricity because they are specifically manufactured for use in electrical work. Similarly, there are ladders made for a wide range of other tasks. Some of these are stepladders, single ladders, articulated ladders, fixed ladders and extension ladders.


There are five categories of duty, or weight, ratings for various types of work and workers. These are Type IAA (extra-heavy-duty industrial), 375 pounds; Type IA (heavy-duty industrial), 300 pounds; Type I (heavy-duty industrial), 250 pounds; Type II (medium-duty commercial), 225 pounds; and Type III (light-duty household), 200 pounds. When determining the appropriate rating, factor in the weight of any tools, objects and clothing that a worker will use on the ladder. Weight-capacity ratings are on the label and should always be adhered to.


Before using any ladder, the user should inspect it. Periodically, a competent person should also do an inspection. If any slippery material is on the rungs, steps or feet, the ladder should not be used until it has been properly cleaned. In addition, if there are any indicators that a ladder is damaged, broken or unsafe, it is unfit for use and must be tagged and either removed from service until it can be repaired to manufacturer specifications or discarded.


Position a ladder in a location where it cannot be displaced by other work activities. This means avoiding passageways, doorways or driveways, unless protected by barricades or guards. It is imperative that ladders are placed on a stable and level surface. They should never be placed on boxes, barrels or other unstable bases to obtain additional height. It is also important that the user ensures locks on the ladder are properly engaged.


Human error is, by far, the leading cause of ladder-related injuries and fatalities. Prior to using any portable ladder, it is crucial to read and adhere to any instructions, labels, markings or manufacturer recommendations. When an individual is climbing a ladder, he or she must maintain three-point (two hands and a foot, or two feet and a hand) contact and try to keep his or her body near the middle of the step, always facing the ladder.


A user should avoid, at all costs, reaching or leaning for objects because it can result in the ladder tipping over. Whenever possible, use the buddy system, one employee to hold the ladder in place while the other is working. Working with a buddy can also be helpful for accessing tools and equipment.


Only one person is permitted on a ladder at any given time unless the ladder was designed to support more than one. Ladders must never be moved or shifted while a person or equipment is on it, and under no circumstances is it acceptable for anyone to use the top rung or step of a ladder. If a taller ladder is needed for a particular job, work should not be attempted on one that is too short. Ensuring workers use ladders of appropriate size can prevent many hazards.


Employers can improve ladder safety by ensuring all ladders are safe and in good operating condition. They can provide employee training on hazards associated with ladders; safe use, maintenance and inspection of ladders; and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations pertaining to ladders. They can remind employees who work in an elevated environment to be aware of power lines or exposed, energized electrical equipment.


“Whether working on roofs or scaffolds, climbing ladders or performing any work from heights, falls can be prevented with the right equipment and training,” said David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for Occupational Safety and Health.


For more ladder safety information, visit www.osha.gov.

About The Author

O’CONNOR is safety and regulatory affairs manager for Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm. Reach him at [email protected].

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