A safe climb

20 steps for portable ladder use

March 1, 2012

Workers at jobsites across the country travel up and down ladders – some as tall as 60 feet – every day. Among OSHA’s top 10 most frequently cited standards in fiscal year 2011, ladder violations ranked eighth, with a total of 3,244.

The AFL-CIO-affiliated Center for Construction Research and Training estimates that falls from ladders are responsible for 16 percent of all fatal injuries in the construction industry and 24 percent of non-fatal injuries involving days away from work. Bureau of Labor Statistics preliminary figures for 2010 show that, overall, 129 workers were killed after falling from ladders.

The following 20 steps can help keep workers safe on and around ladders: 


Make sure workers are trained
Ensuring employees are properly trained for work assignments is an important aspect of any job, and on-the-job training for ladder safety is no exception, said Janet Rapp, executive director for the American Ladder Institute in Chicago. “It’s extremely important,” she said. “We find that people that have been using ladders for years don’t always follow the best practices. Not only novices, but experienced [ladder users], should take a step back as well and make sure they understand what type of tool they are using.”


Select the proper ladder
Selecting the appropriate ladder for the job is essential, Rapp said. “Oftentimes, accidents are the result of not using the right ladder,” she noted. Important factors to consider are the type of ladder (straight, step, extension, etc.), length and the material from which the ladder is made. (For more on choosing the right type of ladder, visit www.laddersafety.org.)


Determine the duty rating
Duty ratings are given to ladders by their manufacturers based on the maximum weight that can be safely supported. The weight of the worker and the weight of any tools or materials carried onto the ladder must be less than the duty rating, according to Oregon OSHA. Before purchasing and using a ladder, the maximum weight it can support must be considered. Duty ratings for portable ladders include:

Special duty (IAA) 375 pounds
Extra heavy duty (IA) 300 pounds
Heavy duty (I) 250 pounds
Medium duty (II) 225 pounds
Light duty (III) 200 pounds

Inspect each ladder before climbing
According to the American Ladder Institute, a thorough ladder inspection should be made when the ladder is purchased or received or before it is put into service. Grease, dirt and other contaminants that could cause slips or falls, along with excess paint or stickers, could hide possible defects in the ladder. ALI recommends cleaning the climbing and gripping surfaces if they have been subjected to slippery materials. The ladder should be checked for loose steps, rungs, nails, screws, bolts, or other metal parts; broken uprights or braces; and damaged or worn nonslip bases. Also, look for warning labels that are not attached or are unreadable.


Identify defective ladders
Workers who inspect a ladder and discover a defect, or that the ladder needs additional maintenance, should clearly identify the defective ladder to ensure it will not be used until it is properly repaired, said David F. Matthes, corporate safety director for Framingham, MA-based J.F. White Contracting Co. “When you take it out of service, make sure it is destroyed,” Matthes said. “Make sure someone doesn’t leave it in a dumpster for someone else to use. If it doesn’t look right, change it out of service – get it out of use.”


Transport ladders with care
When carrying a ladder, the front should be elevated, specifically around blind corners, in aisles and through doorways, according to Oregon OSHA. If this is too difficult for one worker, multiple employees can be assigned to carry the ladder safely, Oregon OSHA said. While transporting a ladder on a truck or in a trailer, it must be properly supported parallel to the bed, and the support points should be padded with a soft and non-abrasive material.


Look for nearby hazards
Boxes, files and various items piled in walkways can create tripping hazards, according to OSHA. Be certain that all materials are safely stored in their proper location to prevent buildup of clutter in walkways. Further, in addition to posing an electrical hazard, stretching cords across walkways or under rugs creates a tripping hazard, so ensure all cords are properly secured and covered.


Safe setup
The base of the ladder should only be placed on level surfaces, and a ladder should never be placed on an unstable or moveable item for additional height, said Dr. J. Nigel Ellis, president of Wilmington, DE-based Ellis Fall Safety Solutions. “Two people erecting the ladder is the best and most convenient” solution, he said. “Put the bottom of the ladder into the crevice or the corner of the ground then raise the top part. Then you walk it up [until it is] vertical – now it’s easier to lift and move.”


4-to-1 ratio
To prevent sliding, portable non- self-supporting ladders should be set up at an angle of 75.5 degrees, according to the American National Standards Institute. This gives the most amount of resistance to sliding and will provide additional balance to the climber. The length of the side rails from the base of the ladder to the top support points should be about 4 times the distance from the base of the ladder to the structure. If the base of the ladder is too far out, the ladder may break or slip, and if the base is too close to the wall, the ladder can tip backward.


Ascending and descending
When going up and down a ladder, a worker should face the ladder and hold onto the side rails, Ellis said. “They’re a great guide, so hold onto the side rails. And workers must take the process one step at a time with no sliding to expedite the process – it’s not recommended on an industry work location,” Ellis said, adding that workers should “always step carefully.”


Maintain three points of contact
While climbing up or down a ladder, the worker should maintain three points of contact: two hands and one foot or two feet and one hand in contact with the ladder, cleats or side rails. “Use three points of contact at all times, and don’t carry anything. You need to have your hands and feet [free] for doing what they are meant for,” Matthes said. When using this method, “you’re only moving one of your appendages at a time – even if it is quite rapid,” he said.


Use ladders for their intended purpose
Single and extension ladders are designed to be used vertically. Sometimes, though, workers may try to lay a ladder horizontally for use as a runway, brace, skid, lever, platform or a scaffold to travel between two points. “It was not designed for that,” Matthes said. “You can get bed ladders that are used for that purpose, but that’s not the intent of an extension ladder or a step ladder. It’s absolutely the wrong application.”


Do not use metal ladders near electrical work
The material of the ladder is an important factor to consider, said Ellis, who recommends using fiberglass ladders for work near electrical sources. He warns that metal ladders are highly conductive, and not only is electrical shock dangerous, but a subsequent fall off the ladder may prove fatal. “Every corner of a home has electrical wiring coming through it, unless it is underground,” he said.


Never overextend
It is not wise for workers to overextend themselves on a ladder, as doing so can cause them to lose their balance, according to Ronald Haverkost, technical specialist at Oregon OSHA. “If your center of gravity goes beyond the side rails of a ladder, you invite problems,” Haverkost said. “Once you go beyond the outside of the side rail, you are putting yourself in jeopardy.” Instead, an employee may move the ladder to where the work can be done without overreaching on either side. While climbing and working, a worker should make a mental note to keep the center of his or her belt buckle between the side rails to prevent falling sideways off the ladder.


Avoid “lashing”
Ladders are designed to be used for a specific length, and multiple ladders must not be tied or fastened together to create longer sections – a technique called “lashing,” Haverkost said. “You can’t lash them together. You can’t do anything outside of what the manufacturer intended. And you can’t lash them together just to get one job done.”


Access to upper landing surfaces
According to Rapp, when portable ladders are used for access to an upper landing surface, the side rails should extend at least 3 feet above the upper landing surface to ensure proper safety. “Make sure the ladder is 3 feet from extending beyond the roofline. It avoids tipping or causing the ladder base to slide out. It gives them much more safety to access or to exit to get back on the ladder,” Rapp said. If this is not possible, the ladder may be secured to a rigid support at its top, and a grab rail may be made available to help employees descend. 


Avoid unsafe weather conditions
Using a ladder during strong winds, storms, heavy rain, sleet, snow or hail can place a climber in a dangerous situation that may result in a loss of balance or cause a ladder to slide. “In regards to all those adverse [weather] conditions you have to take the commonsense approach, even though there is not a rule that says, ‘Don’t use this ladder in adverse conditions,’” Haverkost said.


Consider possible alternatives
Always consider alternatives before scaling up a two-story ladder, Matthes said. “Once you keep going up, you are much less stable,” he said. “I’ve seen some awfully big ladders used. I’d much prefer to see articulating manlifts or hydraulic lifts that were designed for that [height]. You can get much better work and production out of them. You can do the job so much easier and so much better and so much faster, it just [seems] practical to me to use the best tool for the job.” 


Proper storage
The National Safety Council advises storing ladders in areas with good ventilation and where they will not be exposed to harsh weather conditions. Avoid storing ladders near radiators, stoves or steam pipes – excessive heat or dampness may cause wear and tear. To prevent warping, the council also recommends hanging ladders horizontally on brackets against a wall with more than two supports. To keep the ladder accessible at all times, other materials should not be placed on the ladder while it is in storage.


Step it up
“Ladders are inherently dangerous, but they are one of the best tools that we have to use,” Haverkost said, adding that OSHA standards set safety and health requirements for ladder safety to prevent injuries and fatalities, but employers are encouraged to adopt more stringent guidelines. “The OSHA practices are a minimum – at least meet those – but follow the best practices and make [the workplace] safer because it’s recognized that ladders are one of the leading causes of falls,” Haverkost said.


J. Nigel Ellis, who served as a source for this article, later said he was misquoted: “In Step 10, the major correction is that all ladders must be held by rounded horizontal rungs. Side rails of vertical ladders should never be held because while they provide a continuous handhold (static), the hand will slide if a fall occurs (dynamic). … The exception: a sloped ship’s ladder such as a the LePeyre Ladder.”