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February 12, 2018
That simple, familiar ladder is a potentially deadly piece of equipment

A 23-year-old animal caretaker was climbing down an extension ladder after gathering hay when the ladder collapsed and slid away from the wall it was leaning on. Neither the locking device for the rungs nor the top of the ladder was secure. The employee had not inspected the ladder because it was previously set up by a coworker. 

A 44-year-old carpenter and another laborer were both climbing 8-foot fiberglass stepladders to install a wooden beam, holding the ladders with one hand and resting it on their shoulders. The carpenter fell, struck his head on concrete, and later died. An investigation revealed that the ladders were overloaded beyond the manufacturer’s rate capacity and that the employees were standing on the top steps of the ladders.

The stories, and the sorrow, go on and on. More than 500,000 people in the United States are treated each year, and more than 300 die from ladder-related injuries, about a third of them work-related. In 2017, ladder incidents figured prominently, as usual, on OSHA’s list of top 10 violations.

This Compliance Report reviews risks, standards, and best practices. We detail efforts to design and build safer ladders. And we cover National Ladder Safety Month coming up in March and tell you how to get involved.

Situational analysis

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), “There is a pressing need to address the serious problem of ladder-related falls and to reduce the resulting injury and death.” Ladder injuries in the United States cost approximately $24 billion annually. That includes work loss, as well as medical, legal, liability, and pain and suffering-related expenses.

Ladder incidents cause more than 15,000 nonfatal injuries involving days away from work and about 34,000 nonfatal injuries treated in emergency departments. NIOSH says workers who are male, Hispanic, older, self-employed, work in smaller establishments, and involved in construction, maintenance, and repair experience more ladder-fall injuries than other workers.

NIOSH points to five major causes of ladder-fall incidents:

  • Incorrect extension ladder setup angle. In about 40 percent of cases, the leading cause of injury is a ladder sliding out at the base due to incorrect setup. Ladder users tend to set extension ladders at shallower angles than the optimal angle of 75 degrees.
  • Inappropriate ladder selection. Choosing a ladder with the proper duty rating is key to avoiding structural failure. However, NIOSH says, users often lack knowledge about selection.
  • Insufficient inspection. As the unfortunate example above illustrates, the likelihood of an incident can be reduced through regular inspection and maintenance.
  • Improper use. Actions like overreaching, carrying objects, applying excessive force, slips, and missteps are frequent causes of injury.
  • Lack of access to information. Workers at smaller businesses, like most of the construction companies in the United States, and individual ladder users do not typically receive required training. These users can be difficult to reach, may not have access to safety information, and generally lack the resources to develop or follow a ladder-safety program. 

OSHA covers ladder use in a variety of standards, including in the stairways and ladders subpart of the agency’s construction standards and in the general industry standards for walking and working surfaces. The following are among rules that apply to all ladders:

  • Maintain ladders free of oil, grease, and other slip hazards.
  • Do not load ladders beyond their maximum intended load or beyond the manufacturer’s rated capacity.
  • Do not user ladders on slippery surfaces unless they are secured or provided with slip-resistant feet.
  • Take steps to secure ladders in areas where they can be displaced by work activities.
  • Keep areas clear around the top and bottom of ladders.
  • Do not move, shift, or extend ladders while in use.
  • Use ladders equipped with nonconductive side rails if the worker or the ladder could contact exposed, energized electrical equipment.
  • Face the ladder when moving up or down.
  • Use at least one hand to grasp the ladder when climbing.
  • Do not carry objects or loads that could cause loss of balance and falling.

Other OSHA requirements address specific ladder types:

  • Do not use single-rail ladders.
  • Use wooden ladders built at the jobsite with spliced side rails at an angle where the horizontal distance is one-eighth the working length of the ladder.
  • The top of a non-self-supporting ladder must be placed with two rails supported equally unless it is equipped with a single-support attachment.
  • Do not use the top step of a stepladder as a step.
  • Do not use cross bracing on the rear section of stepladders for climbing unless the ladders are designed and provided with steps for climbing on both front and rear sections.
  • Metal spreader or loading devices must be provided on stepladders to hold the front and back sections in an open position when ladders are being used.
  • If the total length of the climb on a fixed ladder equals or exceeds 24 feet (ft), the ladder must be equipped with ladder safety devices or self-retracting lifelines and rest platforms at specified intervals.

OSHA also has specific rules around defective ladders.

  • Portable ladders with structural defects like broken or missing rungs, broken rails, or other defects must immediately be marked defective or tagged “do not use” and withdrawn from service until they are repaired.
  • Fixed ladders with structural defects must be withdrawn from service until repaired.
  • Defective fixed ladders are considered withdrawn from use when they are immediately tagged “do not use” or marked in a way that identifies them as defective.
  • Repairs must restore the ladder to a condition meeting its original design criteria before the ladder is returned to use.

Get in step using this ladder safety checklist

To prevent falls from ladders, make sure the following controls are in place:

  • Use only ladders that are in good condition and designed to handle the climbing job that needs to be done.
  • Train employees on proper ladder use.
  • Make proper ladder use a performance requirement for the job.
  • Require employees to complete a ladder inspection before each use.

Criteria for ladder purchase and care:

  • Check OSHA standards for the type of ladder you are using.
  • Use only Underwriters Laboratories-approved ladders (they will have the UL seal).
  • Protect wood ladders with a clear sealer, such as varnish, shellac, linseed oil, or wood preservative, not paint, because paint can hide defects.

User practices:

  • Be sure stepladders are fully open and locked before climbing.
  • Place ladder on a flat, secure, hard surface, as it could sink into a soft surface.
  • Place ladder on a nonmovable base.
  • Lean ladder against a secure surface, not boxes or barrels.
  • Do not place ladder in front of a door.
  • Position base of ladder 1 ft away for every 4 ft of height to where it rests (1:4 ratio).
  • Ladder rails should extend at least 3 ft above top landing.
  • Check shoes to ensure they are free of grease or mud.
  • Mount the ladder from the center, not from the side.
  • Face ladders when ascending or descending, and hold on with both hands.
  • Carry tools in pockets, in a bag attached to a belt, or raised and lowered by rope.
  • Don’t climb higher than the third rung from the top.
  • Work facing the ladder.
  • Do not overreach; always keep your torso between the ladder rails. 
  • When using a ladder for high places, securely lash or fasten the ladder to prevent slipping.
  • Avoid outdoor ladder use on windy days.
  • Avoid aluminum ladders for work around electrical wires or power lines.

Are these best practices your best practices?

One of the most familiar safe-ladder practices is the “three points of contact” rule. The experts say that maintaining three points of contact minimizes the chances of slipping and falling from the ladder. At all times—whether going up, going down, or working from a ladder—the user should face the ladder and have two hands and one foot, or two feet and one hand in contact with the ladder’s steps, rungs, and/or side rails. This reduces the chances of becoming unstable. Never carry anything that could interfere with getting and keeping a good grip on the ladder.

The American Ladder Institute (ALI) says a number of factors contribute to falls from ladders. These include haste, sudden movement, lack of attention, worn or damaged ladder, user’s age or physical condition, and footwear. You can reduce the chance of falling during a climb by:

  • Wearing slip-resistant shoes with heavy soles.
  • Cleaning the soles to maximize traction.
  • Using towlines, a tool belt, or an assistant to convey materials so that hands are free when climbing.
  • Climbing slowly, deliberately, and avoiding sudden movements.
  • Never attempting to move a ladder while standing on it.

March is Ladder Safety Month

ALI has designated March as National Ladder Safety Month, an opportunity to raise awareness and provide resources to decrease the number of ladder-related incidents. Kat Seiffert, marketing manager of the Chicago-based association, says the observance is in its second year and has garnered growing support from businesses and sponsors.

One of the key messages of the month is the availability of free ladder safety training resources on ALI’s safety site, http://www.laddersafetytraining.org. The organization also offers a free ladder safety certificate program, which is growing in popularity and is mandated by a number of companies. The training follows the latest American National Standards Institute (ANSI) A14 standards.

‘Really simple rules’

ALI’s most recent research studies reveal that many injuries and resulting citations are more likely caused by human error than by faulty equipment. Seiffert explains, “The top three reasons are almost always the same: missing the last step, overreaching, and not using three points of contact. It comes down to repeatedly reinforcing that those aspects need to be kept in mind every time you’re using a ladder.”

That’s the message Seiffert hopes employers will take away from National Ladder Safety Month: “The injuries your employees are sustaining are caused by things that can be mitigated and decreased through ongoing reinforcement of some really simple rules.” And while using complex ladders in high-hazard environments requires specialized training, “most injuries can be simply avoided.”

Asked if she can envision a time when ladder incidents will no longer be on OSHA’s list of most frequently cited standards, Seiffert is hopeful. “Our goal, more than anything, is to decrease injuries, but secondarily to decrease citations, because that means people are paying attention to proper use.” Seiffert says that while ladders remain on the OSHA top-10 list, the number of citations has decreased over the past several years, which she calls a positive sign. Learn more at http://www.laddersafetymonth.com.

Safer by design

Ladder manufacturers are taking steps to reduce the chance of falls and injuries by engineering safety into their designs. Bauer Ladders in Wooster, Ohio, is a 100-year-old maker of equipment used primarily in the utility and cable industries. Director of Sales Eric Medley explains that these are typically ladders with unique accessories on top, such as cable hooks or a pole grip that permits a ladder to safely lean against a utility pole.

Medley is a firm believer in the combined effect of awareness, training, and design to enhance safety. He points to innovations at Bauer, such as a strand grabber, an accessory that permits the top of the ladder to be secured to the strand, which is the cable between two utility poles. The device will replace cable hooks and produce a more secure, lightweight ladder. Another safety feature is Bauer’s center point marking system on extension ladders. This is a simple indication painted onto the center point of the ladder’s weight. “This permits a user to know where to safely grab a ladder to transport it. It promotes safe lifting techniques and helps avoid lower back strains or sprains,” Medley adds.

This is significant because most workers’ compensation claims involving ladders are not due to falls, he says, but instead result from strains related to transporting and handling ladders. “Bauer is a huge proponent of light-weight cable and utility ladders. Depending on the model, this can mean a difference of 8 to 10 pounds in a ladder.” That difference is appreciated by workers who pick up and reposition a ladder many times per day. Another simple safety technique used at Bauer is painting any rung above the highest standing level bright red as a safety reminder.

While many companies instruct their new hires on ladder safety, they mistakenly believe that one exposure is sufficient, notes Medley. Reminders are crucial. Unlike some workplace equipment, ladders are familiar to everyone. Unfortunately, he adds, familiarity can breed overconfidence and complacency among users.

Customized safety

Ron Schwartz is vice president of Tri-Arc Manufacturing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The company has produced mobile and fixed steel and aluminum ladders and platforms for industrial use for 70 years. Schwartz is also immediate past president of the American Ladder Institute.

He acknowledges that there tends to be fewer design changes in ladders used in industry (heavy manufacturing, aviation, retail, warehousing, etc.) than in those targeted for the consumer market. “That being said, Tri-Arc is constantly talking to the marketplace to determine what we can do to ensure that workers are safe performing the job and can return home safely to their families,” he notes.

Over the past 7 years, Tri Arc has launched a product line of configurable ladders and platforms customized to user needs and based on available components. “The net result is that they’re using the right product for the job.” And that, says Schwartz, improves safety.

Customers use a free configurator design tool to create solutions for needs such as accessing equipment, performing maintenance, or getting workers up and over an obstruction in the work area. Adds Schwartz, “It’s all about safety and productivity—making sure the customer is able to use the product at the right height, that it has the right tread and the right fall protection guarding so it fits exactly as they need it to.”

An example is a configurable crossover ladder. It lets the user climb up a ladder with side rails, cross over an obstruction via a bridge section, then descend on the other side. Tri-Arc helped a client in the candymaking business create a customized setup that let employees avoid long walks around the perimeter of the work space, bypassing multiple conveyors with a crossover ladder and bridge system. The improvements in productivity and efficiency also had a safety benefit with employees no longer climbing across equipment but, instead, having a safe means of moving around the production area.

Most Tri-Arc products feature an oversized last step, a response to the fact that ladder injuries are frequently a result of missing the last step. Schwartz is encouraged by efforts to build safety into product designs on the part of Tri-Arc and other manufacturers. While design changes, attention by employers, and training have contributed to improvements in safety over the past several years, “It’s still not enough.” Schwartz emphasizes that it’s also up to employees to make the daily decision to follow practices that will keep them safe.

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