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David Stumbo: Ladder work is one of the most dangerous activities — at home or at work

(David Stumbo is filling in for Keven Moore this week; Moore will be back next week with his regular ‘riskologist’ column.)

I’ve noticed scores of homeowners cleaning out gutters and contractors putting fresh shingles jobs in my neighborhood lately all using one of the most universal tools in existence: the ladder. Most everyone knows what most ladders are used for: reaching higher (and sometimes lower) locations. But let me point out that ladder work is one of the most dangerous activities at home or work.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated that nearly 270,000 injuries associated with ladders occurred in 2017. On the job site, findings from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the most common source of fatal falls was ladders.

Electrocution is also a recognized hazard associated with ladder work as well. Below you’ll find some essential information about ladders and guidance to help keep you safe working with them.

Ladders can be thought of being one of two categories: general use or specialty. General use ladders are those typically used around the home, such as folding and extension ladders. Specialty ladders are often used for workplace applications and include trestle ladders and fixed ladders. Most ladder types are offered in a range of heights: four, eight, and ten-foot among taller.

Preventing ladder falls requires using the right ladder for job tasks, so the user needs a basic understanding of the materials, types, and limitations for his or her ladder. These aspects are discussed next, along with care and maintenance. Finally, how to safely use ladders is review. I can’t emphasize this last point enough: your safety greatly depends on using the ladder the right way.

Common materials used in ladder construction include wood, aluminum, and fiberglass. Also, steel is used for heavy duty fixed ladders like those mounted to the side of a building for roof access and in utility ladders that access manholes. You can select the material that your prefer but you should be aware that although metal ladders aren’t as heavy as fiberglass, these must not be used near exposed electrical wiring.

The duty rating tells you the relative strength of a ladder. Your ladder’s duty rating should be found on a label sticker on the ladder itself as well as the manufacturer’s documentation. When considering the weight load put on a ladder you have to include your body weight in addition to the weight of your clothing, any protective equipment, and any tools and materials you’re carrying or have stored on the ladder.

The Ladder Safety Institute gives give each rating and maximum weight load (5) as follows:

Rating Maximum weight
Type IAA (Extra Heavy Duty) 375 pounds
Type IA (Extra Heavy Duty) 300 pounds
Type I (Heavy Duty) 250 pounds
Type II (Medium Duty) 225 pounds
Type III (Light Duty) 200 pounds

Proper care and maintenance of your ladder will extend its working life, but more importantly will help ensure that it can be used safely.

The big rule here is to follow the manufacturer’s instructions. If you don’t have the ladder’s user manual you may be able to find a copy on the manufacturer’s website.

Some ladder types must be protected from exposure to the elements. Don’t store fiberglass ladders where they’re exposed to the sun, as plastic will degrade and weaken over time. Wooden ladders will also degrade when left unsheltered and may need to be protected with a clear coating such as polyurethane. Paint shouldn’t be used as it could conceal damage and obscure the manufacturer’s labels.

To be sure your ladder will safely support you, conduct a visual inspection before each use. Again, follow the manufacturer’s guidance regarding inspection. A basic inspection checklist developed by Indiana University includes these items:

 Are the joints between the steps/rungs and side rails tight?
 Are all hardware and fittings secure (nails, screws, bolts, rivets, hinges, etc.)?
 Are there any cracked, split, dented, decayed or broken rails, steps or rungs?
 Are any steps, rungs, endcaps or shoes damaged or missing?
 Are the slip-resistant ladder surfaces (rails, steps and rungs) clean and free of debris?
 Do all movable parts operate freely without binding or undue play?

Ladders that are damaged or have defective parts should not be used until repaired as directed by the manufacturer. If repairs aren’t possible then the ladder must be thrown away. One particularly wise safety professional I know actually destroys all damaged ladders before he tosses it in his dumpster. This is to prevent someone from pulling it out and trying to use a damaged and unsafe ladder.

Safe ladder use puts the responsibility for safety on the ladder user. It is up to you, the user, to understand how to use your ladder safely and actually do that without exception. The manufacturer’s directions should be followed as to how to operate and use that specific type of ladder. However, almost all ladders have standard safe work practices that should be followed.

Graphic from the American Ladder Institute

One of the absolute essentials is the 3 point rule: when climbing up and down a ladder, you should always have 3 points of contact on the ladder at all times. The 3 points are either, a.) one hand and two feet, or b.) two hands and one foot. That means that you shouldn’t carry tools or materials by hand when climbing up or down.

Guidance from the National Safety Council on safe ladder use includes:

 Make certain the ladder is free of grease, oil, mud and other sticky or slippery materials.
 Face the ladder and always grip the rungs, not the side rails.
 Extension ladders should extend 3 feet above the roof or platform you’re trying to reach.
 Do not stand higher than the step indicated on the label marking the highest standing level.
 Don’t lean or overreach; reposition the ladder instead.
 Do not move the ladder while in use.

Another major hazard associated with ladder use is electricity. The most significant source of exposure is the overhead service line coming to the building from the electric pole. Avoid coming near to these lines; they are typically only 12 feet in height. Even if you’re not near power lines you should still be cognizant of other sources of electricity. If you’re performing electrical work while on a ladder, it is imperative that you first de-energize the circuit and then verify before starting work. Even a slight shock can cause you to lose footing and fall.

I recommend that everyone follow OSHA’s lock-out/tag-out standard at 1910.147 to be fully protected.

Working safely on ladders requires knowledge and skill on the part of the user. This article only provides a limited amount of information, so users must follow the ladder manufacturer’s guidance. Also, keeping safety in mind while you’re working is essential. It can be easy to get distracted, but following safe work practices can prevent a serious accident. Don’t forget that your safety is the most important aspect of every job.

Dr. David Stumbo, OHST, is an Associate Professor in Eastern Kentucky University’s Department of Safety, Security, and Emergency Management. He has worked in occupational safety & health for over 20 years, including various positions with the Kentucky OSH Program. He is the owner/operator of Stumbo Safety Solutions, LLC, which specializes in providing onsite safety and health consultation and training services to small and midsized companies. He lives in Frankfort.

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