Ladder Safety

Many accidents have resulted from people doing things they basically knew were wrong but went ahead and did anyway.  This is certainly true of many—perhaps even most—of the accidents that involve ladders, scaffolds, and other climbing devices and work platforms.  These objects, if properly constructed and maintained, do not cause injuries; people who use them—or, rather, misuse them—cause injuries.  The physical and structural specifications are well documented in many different sources, such as building codes, and federal, state, and local safety standards.  All of these specifications are helpful when designing and purchasing ladders, scaffolds, and railings.

However, when people start to use them, human judgment comes into play.  An untrained person can make a judgment error due to lack of knowledge.  Trained persons can commit judgment errors due to a failure to apply what they know, perhaps for reasons such as hurrying, forgetting, preoccupation, distraction, and laziness.  But just to be sure the knowledge factor isn't lacking, let's go over some of the basics about the safe use of ladders.

Safe Ladder Usage

Both single and extension ladders should be equipped with nonskid safety feet and should be placed on a firm, level surface.  The distance from the ladder's base to the wall should equal one-fourth the distance from the base to the point of support.  Never set ladders on boxes or other objects to make the ladder reach higher areas.  Lock or barricade any doors that may open toward ladders.

Approximately three feet of a straight ladder should extend above the topmost spot to be reached.  Never stand above the third rung from the top of a straight ladder or above the second highest step of a stepladder.  Never use stepladders as straight ladders.  Open stepladders fully and make sure that the spreader is locked securely.  Only one person should be on a ladder at a time and should always face the ladder when going up or down.  While on a straight ladder, hold on with one hand and don't overreach.  It's safer to climb down and move the ladder.  Use a safety belt if both hands have to be occupied.  If you use a metal ladder, make sure that it—or you—doesn't come into contact with electric wires or equipment.  Never carry large objects while ascending or descending a ladder.  To carry tools and accessories, use shoulder straps, bags, or hand lines.

Inspect all ladders at regular intervals.  Defective ladders should be tagged "dangerous—do not use," and removed from service without delay.  Ladder steps and rungs should be kept free from oil and other foreign matter.  Ladders should not be painted because paint may conceal defects.  When not in use, ladders should be kept on racks having sufficient supporting points to prevent sagging.

A Simple and Safe Device

Ladders are a simple device for safe climbing, and that may be their biggest fault.  Workers using them tend to mistake simplicity for harmlessness, forget-ting precautions or rules of proper use.  That kind of mistake causes thousands of accidents and disabling injuries every year.  Most accidents with straight ladders are caused by the ladder's skidding or slipping.  This is easy enough to prevent.  Equip the ladder with a non-slip base like safety feet, for example, or block the base of the ladder.  Lashing the ladder is another precaution against its moving or slipping.  To make sure the lashing is there when it's needed, permanently attach a short length of rope to a side rail.  Also, make sure the ladder is placed at a safe angle so that the distance from the wall to the base of the ladder is about one-fourth the distance from the base to the ladder's top support.

When you are setting up a ladder, make sure the footing is level and that the ladder rests on a firm platform.  Lean the ladder against something solid and unmovable, not against a window sash or glass surface.  Also make sure the ladder top juts well above a roof edge, beam, plank, or scaffold so that the climber has plenty of side rail to hold onto when stepping off.  Three feet is the recommend safe amount.  Once the ladder is properly in place, step onto it facing the rungs and grasping the rails with both hands.  Do not hurry up the rungs, but climb one at a time.  Never try to carry tools or anything else up a ladder, because hands should be free for climbing.  Instead, hang tools in a sack or from a strap placed over the shoulder, or use a bucket or line to haul them up later.

While working on a ladder, don't try to reach out too far, but move the ladder as work requires.  Never go higher than the third rung from the top on a straight ladder.  If those precautions are followed, and if the ladder is in good condition and is the right one for the job, then a simple device for climbing is a safe one, too.

Staying Safe with Portable Ladders

Portable ladders are a simple and effective means for safe climbing except for one major problem.  Workers sometimes find portable ladders so easy to use that they neglect normal precautions and safety rules.  The result, too often, is an accident.  Almost all ladder accidents can be avoided by following the three basic rules of ladder safety:

  1. No ladder is safe unless it is the right type and right size for the job.

  2. No ladder is safe if it is missing rungs, if its rungs or rails are defective, if it is poorly built, or if it is in a weakened condition.

  3. No ladder is safe unless the person using it takes commonsense precautions.

Using the right type of ladder makes the job safer.  For example, don't use a stepladder to do the job of a straight ladder by leaning it against a support.  Heavy construction jobs call for heavy ladders, not light household types.  Metal ladders must not be used in the vicinity of exposed electrical circuits or power lines, where they may come in contact.

The right length is important, too—neither too long nor too short.  Stepladders are safest if they're 10 feet or less in length, and they should never be longer than 20 feet.  In construction work, extension ladders can be used to reach up to 44 feet, but for greater heights scaffolds should be used.  Splicing two ladders together is never safe.

A ladder should always be examined before it is used to be sure there are no defects that make it unsafe to use.  (The reason a ladder should never be painted is that the paint could conceal significant defects.)   A ladder is unsafe to use if side rails are cracked or split or if there are sharp edges or splinters on cleats, rungs, or side rails.  Check also for missing, broken, or weakened cleats, rungs, or treads by placing the ladder flat on the ground and walking on it.  If a defective ladder cannot be repaired, it should be disposed of permanently.

Once the ladder has been checked and found safe, set it at an angle of about 75° with the floor or ground.  The distance from the wall to the foot of the ladder should be about equal to 1/4 of the ladder's total length.  After setting the ladder in place, check it for firm and level footing.  To prevent slipping, non-slip points or safety shoes are recommended.  But, if this is not practical, the ladder should be secured firmly by lashing it with rope or some other suitable line.

The ordinary straight ladder is not built to support more than one person at a time.  In going up or down, always face the ladder and grasp the side rails with both hands.  Never carry tools or materials in your hands when going up or down the ladder.  Instead, put them in a sack that hangs from a strap over your shoulder or use a bucket and rope to raise and lower them.

Don't lean a ladder against an object that might move, and never lean it against a window sash.  If you must work near or on a window, fasten a board securely across the top of the ladder to give a bearing on each side of the window. Always stay below the top three rungs unless you have a firm handhold or a safety belt.  Even then, you should hold on with one hand while working.  Be sure you keep moving the ladder as needed to reach new areas to be worked.  Never overreach, push, or pull the ladder while working on it.  Never straddle the space between the ladder and another object or try to work in a high wind.  Any of these actions could upset you and the ladder.

If you're working in front of a door that opens toward the ladder, the door must be blocked open, locked, or guarded.  In any other situation in which a person or vehicle may bump into the ladder, get a helper to stand guard.  If you can't, then be sure to rope off the space around the ladder.

Some points to remember:

Climbing Fixed Ladders

Most of the falls from high ladders are suffered by people who don't do much ladder climbing.  They don't use enough care.  First of all, no one who is bothered by heights should climb a high ladder.  That will only create nervousness and lack of self-confidence.  A person needs steady nerves and a clear head on a high ladder.

Lots of people won't admit that they're afraid of height though, because they've been brought up to think that fear is something to be ashamed of.  Actually, that's the wrong attitude.  Fear is a perfectly natural reaction to a dangerous situation or one that seems dangerous.  It gives a person the extra strength and energy needed to meet an emergency.  A person who isn't capable of fear is abnormal.

Look the ladder over well before you start up.  See anything wrong?  Bent or missing rungs?  Grease or heavy rust on rungs or rails?  Any places where there isn't plenty of clearance?  How is the toe clearance behind the rungs?  It should be enough to keep the toe of your shoe from touching the structure when your heel is snug against the rung.

If a pipeline or anything else cuts the clearance anywhere, don't forget to watch out for it when you get to that place.  Lack of clearance has finished off many a man and thrown scares into a lot more because, if you don't allow for it, you're likely to miss a rung.  Be especially careful of wooden ladders.  Wooden rungs have a way of rotting and coming loose.  Take no chances with them.

Electric wires, unless in pipe conduit, are very dangerous to have within reach of a metal ladder because of the danger of shock involved.  The insulation on the wire may not be very good, since it's exposed to all kinds of weather.  In fact, the air around the wires may be all that's keeping the juice in them.  Getting any part of you against or even close to a wire may give the electric current the chance it's always looking for to escape to the ground.  If the current goes through you, you'll regain consciousness on the ground, if at all.

In below-freezing weather, check for ice. Some-times people don't take into account the drip from an overhead platform or an iced-up eaves trough when they are deciding where to place a ladder.  It's best not to even try to climb an icy ladder.  If you must, use a safety belt, be sure to keep it hooked while you work, and knock the ice off as you climb.

After you've checked the ladder, you're ready to start up.  Give it a good shake to make sure it's well secured, and look out for any looseness at each point of support as you come to it.  In climbing, set your foot on the rung so that your head is snug against the ladder and close to the rail, unless the ladder is too wide for that much spread to be comfortable.  Grasp the rails.  If you hold onto the rungs and a loose rung pulls out, you're probably a goner.  Even if it turns a little, you may miss your grip.  But if you have a good hold on a rail, a rung can let go under your foot and still not throw you.  Always be sure you have a good grip with one hand and are solid with one foot before you take a new hold for the next rung.  That goes for climbing either up or down.

Finally, when you hit the top, be sure of your footing when you step across from the ladder to the roof.  Unless the setup is right, that's the high point. If the ladder rails aren't run up at least 42 inches above the roof or platform edge, ask for a higher ladder.  The rails should be spread apart above the roof and curved over with the ends made fast—rungs out, of course—so that the climber steps off the ladder between them.  In climbing down, be sure you have your foot placed securely on the rung below before you change your handhold.  Never hurry on a ladder.

OSHA Regulations and Frequent Violations

OSHA is quite specific about ladder design, inspection, and use, and has separate regulations for portable wooden, portable metal and fixed ladders (29 CFR 1910.25, 1910.26, and 1910.27).  These regulations describe everything from how far apart ladder rungs should be (1 foot) to specific "do's and don'ts" when you're working on a ladder.  You don't have to be concerned about ladder design, but you should know what to look for to determine if a ladder is safe to use.  Ladders are not a major factor in OSHA violations.  However, in a recent year, there were 80 violations of the standard that requires inspection of ladders, and their withdrawal from use, if they are unsafe.

Use the Correct Ladder

Select the right ladder for the job.  Ladders are rated by how much weight they can safely hold.  The weight limits include both you and any equipment you're carrying.

You should also be aware that there are limits on ladder length.

Being safe in ladder use is simple. Know the rules and then follow them.