Ladder safety is improving, step by step
Compared to power saws and drills, electrical wiring, and other potentially dangerous tools and materials construction professionals train to use properly, ladders look simple and non-threatening. Unfortunately, the opposite is true as ladders are involved in many workplace injuries and deaths each year.
By Jim Cook
Construction managers and workers often underestimate the dangers posed by improper use of ladders, leading to tragic results. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, ladder-related incidents resulted in more than 150 workplace deaths and more than 20,000 nonfatal injuries in 2015. Although great strides have been made in ladder safety in recent years, much room for improvement remains.
“Ladders can be one of the most effective and economical means to access work at an elevation,” says Dean McKenzie, OSHA Directorate of Construction director. “However, history has shown them to be one of the most misused tools in construction. Employers should plan for the areas they need to access, provide the right ladder for the job and train the employees who will be using
Ladder-related violations were the seventh most commonly cited OSHA violation for 2016. In 2016, OSHA recorded 2,625 violations involving ladders. The most frequently cited reasons for ladder safety violations involved portable ladder access, improper use of ladders, using the top step of step ladders, structural defects and employees carrying objects or loads they shouldn’t be carrying on a ladder.
The 2016 numbers for ladder violations are far better than they were in 2010, when ladder-related violations were the No. 4 most commonly cited OSHA violation.
“The numbers are coming down,” says Rob Swelgin, product manager for Werner Co. “They’re still up there on the top 10 list, but the trend is good.”
Part of the decrease in ladder violations may be attributed to increased fines for violations. In August 2016, fines for violations increased by 80 percent over those levied in 2015 because of a rule change that allowed OSHA to adjust its fines to account for inflation since 1990. As of Jan. 13, 2017, OSHA penalties for serious and other-than-serious violations increased to $12,675 per violation. Failure to abate fines rose to $12,675 per day past the abatement date. Willful or repeated violation penalties rose to $126,749 per violation.
Swelgin advises users of ladders to thoroughly inspect their ladders before each use. He says users should check for signs of damage or weakness in the ladder and avoid using ladders that appear unsafe. OSHA does have a recommendation for the maximum age of a ladder, and with proper care, ladders can safely serve their owners for many years. Ladder owners need to take care to keep their ladders clean and avoid damaging them when transporting them from site to site.
Swelgin says avoiding complacency is also key to preventing ladder injuries. Most ladder-related injuries occur at a height of 15 feet or less, according to the Occupation Injury and Illness Classification System.
“People think they’re already there when they’re two steps from the ground,” Swelgin says.
Keeping abreast of the latest rules and standards is also important. According to the American Ladder Institute, ANSI A14 standards are updated every five to 10 years to incorporate new technology being used in ladder manufacturing, as well as to address new dangers or concerns. An institute representative says that many of the standards will have revisions within the next 12 months, and jobsite managers should take the time to familiarize themselves with the new standards after they are published.
Innovations in ladder safety
Although the concept of the ladder is thousands of years old, manufacturers of ladders continually seek new ways to make ladders safer. Some of these efforts focus on training and awareness for the industry’s consumers. Others involve new designs and innovations.
Swelgin says one of the more important innovations the industry has made in recent years has been the introduction of podium step ladders. Podium ladders have a platform at the top that provides a wider area for footing. The platform is surrounded by a guardrail, which includes attachments for holding tools the user may have carried up the ladder.
The platform reduces fatigue and discomfort workers may experience from spending long periods on the ladder because it provides more support for their feet. Podium ladders also allow workers to safely work in multiple directions while on the platform, reducing the need to reposition.
With traditional step ladders, there’s always a temptation to stand on the top rung of the ladder, a highly unsafe action that has led to many injuries and deaths. The configuration of the platform ladder discourages this temptation, as the distance from the platform to the top of the guardrail is too great to conveniently climb.
“That has helped a lot of people because it takes away the opportunity to misuse the ladder,” Swelgin says.
Werner pioneered the podium ladder about three years ago and has enjoyed great success with the new products. The company also has been in the forefront of developing more lightweight ladders. Swelgin says Werner’s lighter ladders are just as rugged and durable as older models, but have the benefit of reducing the likelihood of injuries related to carrying ladders.
Even with the latest innovations in ladder safety, much of the burden of reducing the number of ladder-related injuries and deaths falls on the shoulders of their users.
“Being hyperaware of ladder safety, being properly trained and using the right tool for the job is important,” Swelgin says. “Don’t use a six-foot ladder for a 10-foot ladder job.”
Mindfulness is critical to staying safe on ladders. The American Ladder Institute provides a series of concise, but thorough, ladder safety training videos (AmericanLadderInstitute.org) that workers and managers can watch to learn better safety practices.
A Bureau of Labor Statistics study of 1,400 accidents found these statistics concerning ladder falls and injuries:
- 57 percent of fall victims were holding objects in one or both hands while climbing or descending the ladder.
- 30 percent had wet, greasy or oily shoes.
- 53 percent of straight ladders had not been secured or braced at the bottom and 61 percent had not been secured at the top.
- 66 percent of accident victims had never been trained in how to inspect ladders for defects before using them.
- 73 percent had not been provided with nor consulted written instructions on the safe use of ladders.