Proper Use of Ladders on Jobsites Can Help Workers to Mitigate Personal Risk
Jobsites are a hazardous place on their own accord. That is before we start adding people, and their associated decision making, into the equation, which has the potential to make the jobsite even more dangerous. Add in working on or around electricity and the risks can compound even more. With so many things that can be out of our control on jobsites, such as someone making a decision that puts another person in harm’s way, we would be foolish to not mitigate risk by controlling the things that we can control. One thing that we can control individually on the job is ladder usage. Ladders are typically handled by a single person, which makes him/her solely responsible for how safely they use one. Aside from maintaining personal safety, proper ladder use is also necessary to avoid any potential citations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which may result in financial penalties.
Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that by far the two highest categories of nonfatal ladder injuries in 2020 were “Installation, maintenance, and repair” and “Construction and extraction.” Combined, these two categories totaled more than 11,000 injuries, resulting in at least one day away from work, which was over 49 percent of the total number of nonfatal ladder injuries in 2020. It is important to note that this data is based on the recorded injuries and does not incorporate any other ladder injuries that may have gone as undocumented. While it could be argued that construction and maintenance workers use ladders more than other occupations, making injury a higher probability, a counterpoint could also be made that individuals working in construction and maintenance should also have a better understanding of how to use ladders based on their experience and training. While the user is responsible for their own safety while using the ladder, employers have the responsibility of making sure that the employee is properly trained to do so. There are several key areas that should be considered when using a ladder on the jobsite, to help mitigate any associated safety risks.
The most common ladders used on the jobsite are typically stepladders and extension ladders. Each ladder should be utilized in the capacity that it was designed for. As an example, it can be common for workers to lean a stepladder against a wall to perform their work however stepladders were not designed for this use, as they are required to have the metal spreaders built into the ladder in the fully extended, locked position prior to using the ladder. If a stepladder is leaned against a wall, essentially being used as a single ladder, it is not possible to have the metal arms extended as required. This is an example of where it is necessary to choose the proper ladder for the specific task and then use it correctly. Another common misuse of ladders on the job is standing on the top of a ladder that is not designed for the purpose. Ladder manufacturers put clear labels on ladders that specifically tell you not to stand above a certain point on the ladder, which should be strictly adhered to. Ladders are also rated for specific loads, that should not be exceeded, due to the potential for the ladder buckling because of overloading. When considering the load that will be imposed on the ladder, users should consider both their personal bodyweight but also the weight of any additional tools or materials that the will be carrying up the ladder. Another key consideration for selecting the proper ladder is the material that the ladder is made from. The sheer nature of an electrician working with electricity while using a ladder makes it clear that a conductive aluminum ladder is not a good choice for their line of work. But what about a painter that is working near a power line? A metal ladder is not a good choice in that application either. Choosing the proper ladder for the proper task and environment, and using it properly, is a key first step in ladder injury prevention.
Ladders should always be visually checked before each use. Due to improper usage, ladders that were visually checked and okay for use this morning, may not be okay in the afternoon. For example, if someone were to stand on one of the supports of a ladder that does fully rated steps on the backside, the supports could become damaging making the ladder unsafe for use. When performing visual inspections on ladders, some key areas to check are:
- Structural damage
- Split or bent side rails
- Missing or damaged steps and spreaders
- Grease, dirt, or other contaminants that could cause a slip or fall
While climbing or descending a ladder, it is also critical to maintain 3-points of contact at all times. This can be accomplished by maintaining two hands and one foot or by one hand and two feet. Ensuring that 3-points of contact are maintained at all times will limit any potential imbalance on the ladder that could result in a devastating fall injury. Falls from ladders are likely to have attributed to many of the 161 fatal ladder injuries that were reported in 2020. Even a fall from a relatively low height can prove to be deadly if an individual were to hit their head or fall on a sharp object below. Continuing to maintain 3-points of contact whenever climbing or descending a ladder will help workers to remain safe and avoid becoming a statistic.
Personal safety is just that – personal. Deciding to use a ladder, or not to use a ladder, along with the how the ladder is utilized while working, is a personal decision. For those of us who work on construction jobsites every day, the activities by others on the job that we cannot control already puts our wellbeing and lives at risk. So, why wouldn’t we want to control the things we can to help mitigate any additional risk, such as utilizing ladders safely? It is a sure guarantee that the BLS will produce a ladder injury report next year and every year that follows, but we can all play a key role in whether those numbers are climbing up the ladder or down the ladder. I hope to see you all safely at ground level.
For more information on how NFPA can help electrical professionals to stay safe on the jobsite, please visit our Electrical Safety Solutions page.