Cool Tools: Ladders and Ladder Safety

0519 Cool Tools
Werner fiberglass step ladder

Since the first crude ladder-like climbing device was used thousands of years ago, there have been fall hazards. Ladder manufacturers today make safety a top priority, and their products include multiple design features to limit accidents; however, professional workers and do-it-yourselfers still get hurt at a rate that ranks ladder misuse as one of the leading workplace injury causes.

“In 2018, ladders remained on OSHA’s ‘Top 10’ most-cited violations for the fiscal year,” said Pam O’Brien, executive director of the American Ladder Institute (ALI). “ALI’s goal is to change that statistic. Every day, more than 100 people suffer from ladder-related injuries, and these injuries are both physically and financially debilitating. Time away from work and costly medical bills can have devastating consequences for employees and their families.”

ALI is approved by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) to develop safety standards for the ladder industry. The standards are technical specifications, which prescribe rules for the safe construction, design, testing, care and use of various types of ladders. ALI develops the standards on a five-year renewal cycle, and subcommittees comprised of industry experts review and draft each standard.

In March, ALI and its members conducted the third annual National Ladder Safety Month, an initiative dedicated to raising ladder safety awareness.

Following proper safety protocol can often prevent ladder-related injuries.

“The two most common causes of injuries, according to ALI’s Ladder Safety Training Report, are missing the last step when climbing down and overreaching while on the ladder,” O’Brien said.

ALI offers complimentary ladder safety training at www.laddersafetytraining.org. The website hosts four modules, each focused on a different ladder type. Users can view each module and then take an exam. Users who pass all four module exams qualify for a ladder safety certificate.

Little Giant King Kombo ladder  3-in-1 ladder
Little Giant King Kombo ladder 3-in-1 ladder

The training tools also offer a way for managers to track employee progress. Companies can become “safety ambassadors” when 10 or more employees earn a valid ladder safety certificate. ALI encourages companies to implement this program to help change company culture.

Brian Kagen, Werner senior vice president of marketing and product development, said electricians’ ladders must be nonconductive fiberglass to minimize the possibility of electrical shocks. Regarding overall safety, Kagen said there are infinite ways ladders can be used in an unsafe manner, but basic safety steps reduce the risk of accidents.

“It’s important to know the details of the job site and job requirements when choosing a ladder to use,” Kagen said. “While correctly deciding between ladder materials is a must—fiberglass for electrical contractors—users also need to know the necessary reach height of their ladder. Utilizing a step ladder that is too short for the job could tempt the user into climbing too high or balancing precariously, posing safety risks. Users should consider which style of ladder will best suit their tasks. For example, reaching a wide range of heights may require an adjustable, telescoping extension ladder.”

Workers should follow the basic rules for proper usage.

“Never set up the ladder on uneven ground without an approved leveler, and ensure that each of the ladder’s feet is resting solidly on the ground before ascending,” Kagen said. “Ladders never should be balanced on other objects to reach a greater height. Once climbing, users should maintain at least three points of contact with the ladder—either one hand and two feet or two hands and one foot—to ensure stability. Users should not stand on the top two rungs of a step ladder or the top three of an extension ladder and should not sit at the top of the ladder. Finally, users always should face toward the ladder when climbing and descending, not turned away from it.”

Kagen said ladder designs today are becoming more multifunctional with adjustable, telescoping designs that have combined multiple types of ladders into one unit.    

“Dual-purpose and five-in-one multiposition ladders are becoming job-site musts because they easily can be converted from positions such as two scaffold bases to a twin stairway ladder,” he said. “The most common ladder accessories ordered for electrical jobs are lock-in accessories that can hold anything—from a utility hook that holds fish tape to a caddy that has spaces for screwdrivers, pliers and other hand tools. Depending on the difficulty of the electrical project, many professionals need a place on their ladder where they can store these items for easy accessibility. We also have developed ladders with extra-wide platforms and guard rails to provide users with both a greater range of motion and a point of secure contact when standing at or near the top of the ladder.”

David Francis, Little Giant Ladders national safety director, said, even when precautions are taken to deactivate power, electrical professionals should always use fiberglass ladders.

“Planning for human nature and imperfection protects against unforeseen circumstances,” he said.

Little Giant data show 6- and 8-foot models are the most popular sizes of step ladders. The company offers tool caddies and standing platform accessories. For extension ladders, 24- and 28-foot fiberglass models are most common.

Francis said Little Giant’s proprietary Hi-Viz Green fiberglass composite is up to 40 percent lighter than comparable extension ladders and tests up to 20 percent more rigid, providing nonconductive ladders that are lighter and highly visible, which helps prevent collision accidents.

“I travel all over the country consulting safety professionals and training working professionals about ladder safety, and the number one complaint of ladder-related injuries on the job is the extreme weight of ordinary extension ladders,” he said. “The HyperLite is the lightest fiberglass industrial-grade extension ladder in the world.”

Francis said ANSI standards that apply to portable ladders have not changed significantly but that many industries have implemented tie-off rules that require workers to be secured by a 5,000-pound-rated lifeline when working above 6 feet.

“These rules are often very hard to keep and force professionals to improvise or to invest in expensive and time-consuming scaffolding solutions or powered lifts,” he said. “Many electrical and other professionals have started to adopt mobile-enclosed platforms, which feature a 42-inch guardrail, a midspan and toe board to comply with new tie-off rules. These platforms are proving to be a much faster, less expensive and safe alternative to scaffolding or lifelines.”

Louisville Ladder CrossXStep model
Louisville Ladder CrossXStep model

Louisville Ladder director of product safety and engineering Mike Van Bree said safe use of ladders begins with education.

“It all starts with selecting the right ladder for the job,” he said. “Fiberglass is the only type that should be used around electricity. Linemen use more of the extension ladder series, typically 24 to 28 feet in length and with the pole grip and cable hook accessories attached. We see step, cross-step, and pinnacle platform ladders also are very popular among electrical contractors, and they range in heights from 4 to 12 feet, depending on the job.

“There are warnings and instructions provided on ladders explaining how they are to be set up and used safely. For example, on step ladders, all four feet are to be supported on a firm, level surface, and the climber is not to stand on the top step or top cap or overreach. And it is important to inspect the ladder before each use to be sure there is no damage,” Van Bree said.

According to Van Bree, technology plays a big part in ladder product offerings, enabling manufacturers to enhance products and make stronger ladder components.

“Examples are our Maxlock rung lock with its QuickLatch updated rung lock made with an innovative material is lighter and stronger than rung locks made in the past,” he said. “We have developed and applied our Shox step bracing to provide impact absorption to protect fiberglass rails against damage. Raptor boots are great for contractors who deal with expanded metal and grated flooring.”

Van Bree said many Louisville Ladder features are especially suited to electricians. For example, cross step ladders’ leaning capability gets users closer to their work, reducing overreaching and the necessity to turn sideways. The V-top is suited for power poles and light posts. Furthermore, the tripod ladder is designed to fit in tight areas and allows the rear leg to be positioned between studs, bringing them right up to the wall.

“Popular accessories include a pole grip and cable hook for the extension ladders used by linemen,” Van Bree said. “Our Raptor Top, included on most step ladders, is a functional piece that is valued by electrical contractors and has many tool slots, including a space for wire nuts. The patented ProTop has a V groove designed for holding round objects, such as conduit. The space keeps material secured and prevents it from being knocked off the top. There also is space for hand tools, screw drivers, wire cutters and crimpers.”

All companies contributing to this report are ALI members and have active safety training programs.

About the Author

Jeff Griffin

Freelance Writer

Jeff Griffin, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at up-front@cox.net.

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