Don't risk the fall

Dec. 18, 2007, is a day that has been etched into my memory — a day that I will never forget. My day started off as usual, saying goodbye to my wife and children and wishing them all a good day. I was the maintenance lead hand for a large company operating in southern Ontario. I had over 30 years of maintenance, engineering and health and safety experience. In addition, I had been an industrial plant fire chief and taught fire safety and rescue to two industrial fire brigades and two emergency response teams.

Little did I know on this day that my life was about to change drastically as a result of an industrial accident involving a fall from a ladder. I set up a brand new eight-foot step ladder on level ground and proceeded to climb the ladder to gain access to the ceiling above around 8:35 a.m. While standing on the third step of the ladder and maintaining three point contact, I removed a ceiling tile from directly overhead with my left hand to gain access into the ceiling area.

Suddenly, without warning, the step ladder shifted and caused me to lose my balance and fall striking the base of the ladder with my right shoulder. By 9 a.m., I was receiving emergency medical attention at a local hospital for a severe injury to my right shoulder. An X-ray revealed that there were no broken bones; however, there was massive soft tissue damage to the right shoulder. The pain was unbearable and the shoulder was noticeably marked with restricted mobility. Doctors later confirmed that I had received a massive rotator cuff injury which involved the complete tearing of the supraspinatus, infraspinatus and subscapularis tendons and was determined to be a type II slap tear of the shoulder joint.

This meant that three of the four operating tendons in the shoulder joint were completely torn away from the shoulder joint. Doctors told me that just a few more inches and I would have suffered a broken neck. I was told that the damage was severe and not reparable, that my only chance to gain more mobility of my right shoulder was to undergo surgery to have a latissumusdorsi tendon transfer to my right shoulder. The operation would take four hours to complete and there were no guarantees that the surgery would be successful.

A muscle from my lower right back was transplanted through the damaged shoulder joint in effort to increase the use of my right shoulder. I had a forward flexion of the right shoulder of 10 degrees, the normal operating range for a shoulder joint is 180 degrees, and surgery was my only option. Two years of physiotherapy has afforded me a forward flexion movement of my right shoulder to 60 degrees, however I have been afflicted by restrictions of use and therefore I have a permanent impairment of the shoulder which will be with me for the rest of my life.

The ladder that I fell from was a brand new step ladder that I had purchased on behalf of the company where I worked. It was the first time the ladder was used after it was received from a local industrial supplier. The accident investigation revealed that the ladder had a manufacturer's defect in the back support beam and consisted of a crack in the fibre glass material behind the riveted joint for the ladder stay bars. It appeared that a manufacturer quality control inspector had seen the defect and marked the area with a green dot. I did not inspect the ladder prior to use because I was thinking “It was brand new, it has never been used” therefore I did not see the defect area. My days are filled with pain and the memory of this accident and there is not a day that goes by that I wish I had inspected this ladder before I decided to climb it.

I was placed on light duty by my employer, and one of my tasks was to inspect all ladders at the company and design a ladder safety inspection program. This company did not have a previous ladder safety program nor had they ever conducted a risk assessment for the workers who must use ladders in their daily job functions. While implementing the program I found it necessary to condemn 50 per cent of the ladders and replace them with new ladders before the ladder safety program could move forward. The defects ranged anywhere from damaged ladder steps, rungs and beams, to missing parts, and overall unsatisfactory condition of the ladders.

I was informed that I would not be able to return to work because they felt they could not accommodate the impairment to my shoulder as the result of the accident. At age 54, and a victim of a workplace injury, now unemployed, my life was turned upside down. A successful career of 30 years suddenly came to an end.

After graduating from Mohawk College with honours in occupational health and safety management in April 2011, I was still unable to secure a health and safety position where I could dedicate my efforts, skills and training in eliminating workplace accidents.

In January 2012 I decided to start a health and safety training company of my own, in which I named Progressive Workplace Safety. I have dedicated the company to eliminating similar fall accidents from ladders by other workers. The company name comes from the idea of progressively moving forward and making changes which allow for improvement.

Workers who are required to use ladders should receive training on the proper use, care and maintenance and especially how to perform a pre-use ladder inspection. Out of a bad situation, good things can prevail and I now help eliminate injuries involving ladder use through worker education and training.