Ladder lies

Robert Green is lucky to be alive after he had a terrible ladder accident in 2007.

Working in the maintenance department of a large company, he was climbing a brand new, eight-step portable ladder.

“I didn’t even get half way up and the ladder completely collapsed,” Green recalls. “I came crashing down.”

The fall caused a serious right-shoulder injury that restricted his movement substantially. Three of the tendons had been torn from the bone.

Unable to work, he was placed on modified duty until his surgery, which involved transferring a muscle from his back to his shoulder. After the operation, he could move his shoulder more, but not as far as he used to.

His employer wasn’t able to accommodate him, so, at the age of 54, Green had to retrain for a new career.

Even so, Green considers himself lucky. Had he fallen slightly differently, he would have broken his neck, doctors told him.

Green’s situation illustrates just how easy it is for ladder accidents to happen, and the potentially disastrous results. But now that he runs Progressive Workplace Safety — a St. Catharines, Ont., company offering health and safety program evaluations, training and risk assessments — Green has learned that ladder safety is a low priority for too many organizations. It’s as if managers simply fail to see the risks, perhaps because people tend to think ladders aren’t especially dangerous.

“I often hear, ‘I climb a ladder like this all the time at home. What’s the problem?’” Green says.

But there may be any number of problems, largely stemming from the various assumptions people seem to have about how to use these devices.

Lie #1: There’s no real need to inspect a ladder before use

Few workers think twice before they step on a ladder, yet alone take the time to conduct an inspection — but that’s not acceptable, says Green.

“I can’t stress enough the importance of inspecting ladders before anyone climbs them,” he says.

Allright Ladder and Scaffolding in Vancouver — Canada’s oldest ladder manufacturer — says inspections should cover the following:

• Rungs and steps: Make sure they are secure, whole and in place.

• Labels: They contain details such as the maximum weight the ladder can bear. If they’re missing or illegible, workers will miss out on this important safety information.

• Feet: Ensure they have slip resistant pads. On extension ladders, check to see that they rotate smoothly.

• Ropes and pulleys: Watch for fraying, tangles and other problems.

• Gravity locks: Ensure they work smoothly and lock properly.

Lie #2: Ladder users don’t need fall protection

Some people think fall protection only matters when a worker is much higher than a ladder can reach, but that isn’t true. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) says a worker climbing a portable ladder should tie off with a safety harness when working 10 feet (3 metres) or more off the ground.

This is not to say falls from lower than 10 feet aren’t dangerous. For instance, WorkSafeNB in New Brunswick notes an incident in which a retail worker was knocked unconscious when he fell about 5 feet (1.5 metres) from a stepladder. Green points out that, in the case of his own fall, he was only on the third step of the ladder when it collapsed. He hit the floor with a force he likens to “being hit in the arm by a major league baseball player.”

Lie #3: Footwear doesn’t really matter

Many ladders have steps or rungs with slip resistant treads or bumps. But those traction features aren’t effective if the user’s shoes or boots have snow, grease or other slippery substances. CCOHS recommends wearing protective footwear with slip resistant soles and heels.

Lie #4: It’s OK to stand on the second-to-top step

Many people know it’s unsafe to stand on the very top step of a ladder. But some may be surprised to learn that it’s also dangerous to stand on the second-to-top step. What’s more, on extension ladders, it’s generally good practice to avoid standing on the third-to-top step.

The higher you stand, the more downward pressure you put on the ladder, explains Catherine Jevic, training manager at KG Safety Services, an Edmonton safety training firm.

 “The risk that the ladder will fall increases greatly,” she says.

See the safety sticker on the ladder for the maximum standing level to ensure safe use.

Lie #5: Add-on safety features always make ladders safer

A range of ladder safety accessories are available, such as spurs designed to provide stability and leg levellers for use on uneven ground. These products may well make a ladder safer but, to be sure, always check with the ladder manufacturer before attaching anything; the safety of the ladder might be compromised rather than improved.

“As a manufacturer, if we haven’t tested the ladder with that accessory on it, I cannot say categorically that the ladder will be safe,” says Allright president James Norris.

Develop a ladder safety program

Now that those myths are laid to rest, safety professionals should pull the truths together to form an effective ladder safety program.

Situational assessment: Before they reach for a ladder, employees should be expected to assess whether a ladder is the best tool for the job. Will the worker be drilling, hammering or performing other tasks from the ladder?

“You’re not supposed to work from the ladder,” says Green. “The ladder is only designed to get you to the work area.”

Use scaffolding or a scissor lift to work at heights, he recommends.

Ladder selection: Workers need to know which type of ladder makes the most sense for the job. There are five ladder-duty categories:

• Special duty (type 1AA) for demanding construction and industrial work, maximum 375 pounds (170 kg).

• Extra heavy duty (type 1A) for frequent maintenance, construction and industrial work, maximum 300 pounds (136 kg).

• Heavy duty industrial (type 1) for maintenance, construction and industrial work, maximum 250 pounds (113 kg).

• Medium duty commercial (type 2) for moderate use by homeowners and handymen, maximum 225 pounds (102 kg).

• Light duty household (type 3) for household chores, maximum 200 pounds (91 kg).

Proper set-up: A ladder safety program should include information to help workers set up ladders safely, such as where to place them (never in front of a closed door that someone could open) and how to secure them (step ladders should only be used when all four feet are on level ground).

Proper use: The program should outline how to properly use the ladder, such as maintaining three-point contact by keeping two hands and one foot, or two feet and one hand, on the ladder at all times. Workers should grasp the rungs when climbing a ladder, not the side rails, says CCOHS.

For extension ladders, it’s important for users to know how to set the devices at the proper angle, which is about 75 degrees. A new mobile app for smartphones might help. Software developers working with the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) in the United States have created free software to help workers identify the safest ladder angle. The user simply holds the smartphone at the same angle as the ladder. The app tells the user whether the angle is too steep or too shallow, and the smartphone “bings” once the optimal angle is achieved.

With software like this, it’s easier than ever for health and safety managers to arm employees with the tools they need to work with ladders safely. But for now, “ladders are one of the most overlooked pieces of equipment in many workplaces,” Green says. He would like to see the day when ladder safety is a common concern for organizations across the country.

Stefan Dubowski is a freelance writer based in Ottawa. He can be reached at [email protected].

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2015 issue of COS.