The Ladder: Too Familiar to Be Safe

The humble ladder tops the list of injury agents

Ladder safety seems like an odd topic for an ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR article. One would think there are more serious issues to be addressed. Most of us have been using ladders from the time we could climb. It could be this familiarity that places the ladder atop the list of injury agents and as No. 7 of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) most frequently violated standards by electrical contractors.

Each year a large number of electrical contractors are injured or killed in ladder accidents. The three most common causes for ladder accidents are: 1. Ladders In Poor Condition; 2. Improper Selection; and 3. Improper Use. OSHA regulations target these by setting specifications for ladder construction, installation, maintenance and use. This includes mandated ladder safety training for all employees.

The first step to preventing accidents is matching the right ladder to the job. Knowing the basic types of ladders and classes of ladders is essential. The most common types of ladders are stepstools, stepladders, single ladders and extension ladders. They are designated as such by their use and have height restrictions.

Stepstools are self-supporting and have flat steps and a platform-like top. Their maximum height is 32 inches. They are not adjustable. Unfolded and properly set up, they will safely support a worker on all steps and the top cap.

Stepladders are the most common. They are self-supporting, have flat steps and a hinged back. The maximum height is 20 feet and the top two steps cannot be used. The height is not adjustable.

Single ladders are not self-supporting. They must rest against a surface, such as a wall. Single ladders are made of two side rails with steps or rungs between rails. The height is not adjustable. The maximum height is 30 feet.

Extension ladders are similar to single ladders. They consist of two or more sections of ladder traveling in guides or brackets, allowing the length to be adjusted. Extension ladders are not self-supporting. They are placed against a surface for support. The maximum height of an extension ladder is 60 feet. However, the sections must overlap.

The most common materials used in manufacturing ladders are wood, aluminum and fiberglass. Because of its light weight and low cost, aluminum ladders are the most popular. However, since the material the ladder is made of must match the conditions of the working environment, aluminum ladders cannot always be used. For example, aluminum ladders should never be used by electrical contractors. Working near exposed electrical lines is a common cause of electrocution in all trades.

The following are the ladder classifications by weight limit:

  • CLASS IA––300 pounds maximum capacity (Heavy Duty)
  • CLASS I––250 pounds maximum capacity (Heavy Duty)
  • CLASS II––225 pounds maximum capacity (Medium Duty)
  • CLASS III––200 pounds maximum capacity (Light Duty)

A ladder must not be overloaded. Remember to factor in the weight of the worker and his tools.

Once the ladder has been selected, matching height, materials and weight capacity with the intended use, it must be inspected.

The ladder should be examined for burrs or sharp edges, safety feet in good repair and no structural damage. All hardware on the ladder, rope, spreaders or other locking devices, support braces, and nuts and bolts need to be checked.

Ladders that are found to be defective should be removed from service. Mark the ladder with the words “DANGEROUS — DO NOT USE.” Many electrical contractors destroy the ladder to prevent employees or others from trying to salvage discarded ladders.

If the ladder is deemed safe for use, certain procedures must be followed. It must be set up on a level, stable surface. If working on soft ground, boards can be placed to stabilize the surface. Some ladders are equipped with automatic levelers that mechanically adjust the legs.

An extension ladder must be positioned before extending it. If the ladder is placed in front of a door, the door must be blocked or barricaded. The ladder must rest against a firm surface and the base be secured. The distance from the ladder base to the supporting structure should be one-fourth the length of the ladder. Some ladders have a slope guide pasted to the side rail. Ladders used to access an upper landing surface must extend at least three feet above the landing. Anchor the ladder at the top to prevent movement.

The final part of ladder safety is what the worker does on it. OSHA does not consider a ladder a working surface. Its main purpose is access to a higher level. When climbing or standing on a ladder, three points of contact are required (i.e., two hands and one foot or two feet and one hand). Tools must be in a belt while climbing or hoisted to a worker. If these requirements cannot be met, personal fall protection may be needed.

OSHA regulations should be consulted for additional ladder and fall protection requirements. Ladders are too dangerous to be taken for granted.

About the Author

Joe O'Connor

Freelance Writer

Joe O'Connor is with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Based in Waverly, Pa., he can be reached at 607.624.7159 or joconnor...

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