The Future of Fall Prevention

March 8, 2017
Every ladder accident is preventable, but without better training and continuous innovation in safety planning and product design, fatalities will continue.

Every year, over 300 people die in ladder-related accidents, and thousands suffer disabling injuries. The impact from sprains and strains, broken bones and other more serious disabling conditions resulting from falls from ladders reaches far beyond the injured worker's suffering.

The direct compensation and medical treatments associated with falls from elevation cost American businesses $4.6 billion, according to a report from Liberty Mutual published several years ago. That report found that indirect costs associated with increased absenteeism, worker replacement and productivity loss can cost up to two times as much.

How can you help prevent ladder falls?

First, you need to understand why they are happening. There are many potential causes. Workers can their lose footing while carrying tools or materials up the ladder. Grease, ice, mud, snow or water on the rungs can cause slips and falls. Old, poorly maintained ladders can break during use. Ladders can slip out of position if workers are overreaching or the ladder is placed on an uneven surface.

There are many aspects to ladder safety, and addressing them can help you reduce or even eliminate ladder accidents.

Choosing the Correct Ladder

Every ladder safety class should start with a discussion about proper ladder selection. Using the wrong ladder for the job is one of the leading causes of ladder accidents. Choosing the right ladder for the job can be divided into four categories:

Weight rating – Make sure that the weight rating of the ladder is greater than the weight of the employee and the weight of any tools or materials the employee will be carrying.

I recommend using ladders with a Type I, 250-pound rating. Here's why: I have people ask me, "If I weigh 170 pounds, why can't I use a Type III ladder rated for 200 pounds?" Type III ladders are classified as homeowner ladders, but these workers are using them on the job.

Ladders aren't classified as industrial until you get to the Type I, 250-pound rating. Another reason to use a ladder with a higher weight rating is that ladders tend to be borrowed by whomever needs one in the moment, including a coworker who might weigh more than 300 pounds.

Material – Most job sites require fiberglass ladders because they are non-conductive. People ask me: "If I'm not working around any electricity, why can't I use an aluminum ladder?" My answer is because the ladder is going to disappear the minute he turns around and the next guy might be working on the lights. The best practice is just to have fiberglass on the job.

Length or height – The shortest ladder also is the lightest and often the one the average person would rather carry. Unfortunately, workers rarely come back for the right-sized ladder. Instead, they try to make the short ladder work by climbing on the top step or top cap. Make sure the ladder is tall enough to safely reach the work without climbing on the top rung or top cap of a stepladder or the top three rungs of an extension ladder.

Style – Workers should use the correct style of ladder for the job (stepladder, extension, staircase), and employees should never lean a stepladder against a wall and climb it like an extension ladder. If they need to work on staircase, they should not get creative. Instead, remind them to get an articulating or multipurpose ladder that will adjust to the stairs.

Ladder Inspections Are Important

Ladders should be inspected at three different times: first, when it is received, to make sure it is in good condition and has no freight damage; second, every time it is used and third, on a regular or periodic basis by a competent ladder inspector. A competent ladder inspector is someone who, either by training or by experience, knows what to look for in an inspection and has authority to remove the ladder if he or she finds a problem.

This inspection should be more thorough and detailed than the before-every-use inspection. Both, however, should focus on a few key areas:

Feet – The feet on a ladder are like the tires on your vehicle. They are made of a soft rubber so they will grip the ground, which is good. But soft rubber wears out and becomes slick, which is not good. If the tread is worn on your ladder feet, they need to be replaced. If your company uses a lot of ladders, it's a good idea to have replacement feet on hand.

Side rails – If the side rails are cracked, bent or split, the ladder needs to be replaced. There is no glue or duct tape that will repair broken fiberglass. People often ask if fiberglass is worn out once the fiberglass has faded. Fiberglass breaks down in UV radiation from sunlight and will fade faster if stored on the top of the ladder rack or the sunny side of a building. Fading does not mean the ladder is bad, but excessive fading will cause the surface to split or crack.

Rungs and steps – Again, if they are bent or broken, they are bad and need to be replaced. Also, make sure they are free from any dirt, grease or oil.

Latches, locks, rivets, bolts and ropes – Over time, all the connection points become loose and worn. Make sure that these connections are tight and the ladder doesn't "walk." Latches should move freely and the springs should be in good condition.

Stickers – Labels and stickers should be legible and in good condition; this is easier said than done. Warning labels are on the outside of the rail and often are worn off, faded or gone. In the past, replacement labels have been hard to get because ladder companies didn't know what condition the ladder was in that you wanted to put new labels on. This opinion is changing and companies now are selling replacement label kits on their websites.

Ladder Set Up

Now that you or your employees have picked the right ladder for the job and inspected it, it's time to set it up. Surprisingly, a high percentage of ladder injuries are from handling and set up.

Ladders are heavy and awkward because of their size. Remind employees to always use caution when removing a ladder from a ladder rack. They should find the balance point and carry the ladder with the front slightly elevated.

When setting up, always look up first; know what's above you. Set up on a flat, dry spot. Stake off and tie off whenever possible. Never set up in front of a door that opens outward unless the door is blocked off. If the ladder must set up near a corner or blind spot, make sure the area is properly marked with cones or tape. You don't want someone driving around the corner and taking the ladder out from under the employee using it.

Extension ladders should be set up at 75.5 degrees or a 4-to-1 ratio. For every four feet the ladder goes up, it should come out from the wall one foot. When climbing onto a roof or raised platform, the ladder should be three feet above the roofline.

Never level a ladder by shimming with bricks or boards. The correct way to level a ladder is to dig out the high side instead of building up the low side. This also can be accomplished with leg levelers that can be added to the sides of the ladder.

Safe Climbing

Once the appropriate ladder is chosen and inspected, then it's time to climb the ladder. Here are some ladder use and climbing tips to remember:

  • The three-point rule: When climbing a ladder, always maintain three points of contact when ascending and descending a ladder (two feet, one hand or two hands, one foot) but what do you do when you stop climbing and start working? Most safety people say you should still maintain three points of contact. Most workers will say that it's hard to get the job done using just one hand.
  • The OSHA standard does not include portable ladders in the six-foot tie-off requirements, but that has not stopped a lot of companies from including it in their best practices. In fact, some companies require tying off when as low as four feet off the ground.
  • Never climb a ladder while carrying tools or equipment. Use a rope to raise and lower tools after you have climbed to the desired height.
  • Lashing: If one ladder is good, then two is not better. Lashing is when two ladders are tied together to reach greater heights. Please never do it!
  • Belt buckle rule: Never overextend. Workers always should keep the center of their bodies (belt buckle) between the side rails of the ladder. If they can't safely reach something, they need to climb down, move the ladder and climb back up.
  • Face the ladder: Always climb facing the ladder, wear proper foot wear and make sure all spreader bars and latches are fully locked.

Over the last 10 or 20 years, we have greatly increased the amount of ladder safety training available. The problem is that ladder-related accidents are increasing, not decreasing, so safety training alone is not enough. Ladder design needs to change as well, particularly since engineering out a hazard is at the top of the hierarchy of controls.

Hierarchy of Control

When designing a product or process, it is best to design out all dangers. This process is outlined in the hierarchies of control. Simply put, engineer the danger out. If that is not possible, guard against the danger. If you are unable to adequately guard, then warn, train and provide personal protective equipment.

Unfortunately, long ago, someone decided that ladders couldn't be improved, so they just put a lot of warning labels on them and had countless training meetings where employees were told not to do the things we know they do. Everything else has improved with technology, and I think it's time we start improving ladders.

Understanding how people use ladders and, more importantly, how they get injured using ladders, is key to designing new, safer climbing products. Studying the statistics, we can divide ladder accidents into three categories:

Strains and sprains from unloading, carrying and setting up the ladder. Almost half of the reported injuries involving ladders are caused by the awkward size and weight of the ladder. The easy solution to this problem is to make the ladder lighter.

Using the wrong type or size of ladder for the job. A lot of times, this issue is caused by the first problem. The correct ladder is too heavy, so employees grab the smaller one and try to make it work by climbing too high on the ladder.

Falls from height due to overreaching or improper setup. All three types of injuries are painful and costly, but a higher percentage of disabilities and fatalities come from catastrophic falls from height, so let's concentrate on that.

"I was just trying to reach that last thing" is the start to a lot of ladder accident stories. We are trained to keep our bodies between the side rails to prevent us from overreaching. Too often, we stretch to reach instead of climbing down and moving the ladder. No matter how much we train workers, it's human nature.

Another factor in side-tip accidents is how level the ground is in the setup. When working outside, the ground is almost never level. A lot of time, the floor isn't level indoors. To give you an idea of how much level ground can affect tipping, here's an example: If a 28-foot extension ladder is one inch off at the base, the top of the ladder will be 19 inches off of the center of gravity. That puts the top of the ladder completely out of the footprint of the ladder. Even if you are keeping your body between the side rails, your ladder will tip.

When asked what they do to compensate when the ground is not level, most people will say that they use a brick or a board to build up the low side of the ladder. Spending time on a scavenger hunt looking for the right-sized board to level a ladder doesn't sound very productive or safe.

OSHA recommends that workers dig out the high side of the ladder instead of building up the low side. Because this approach is more time-consuming, most people don't do it. After-market leg levelers can be added to the base of ladders, but they have two major problems. First, they add extra weight to an already heavy ladder (remember problem number one) and second, they do not provide any extra stability to the ladder.

Manufacturers have begun adding outriggers to extension ladders. This can increase the side-tip stability by over 600 percent. Because level ground is such a big factor in most side-tip accidents, designing the outriggers to adapt to unlevel surfaces greatly will reduce the possibility of a tip due to overreaching. Another design improvement to help reduce tips on extension ladders is a self-locking attachment at the top of the ladder that secures the ladder in place.

New Innovations for Ladders

Some new innovations coming from ladder manufacturers combine the platform and handrail system of an enclosed scaffold system with an adjustable fiberglass ladder. These new adjustable safety cages or adjustable enclosed platforms allow workers to move freely with both hands in any direction, rather than forcing them to maintain three points of contact. Handrail systems on the adjustable safety cages removes the need to tie off from above, allowing workers to get the job done quickly and safely, even when there is no way to tie off. Adding an adjustable base allows the ladder to be used safely on uneven ground and stairs.

David Francis is national safety director for Little Giant Ladder Systems. He has worked in the ladder industry for over 30 years and travels all over the country performing ladder safety training. He can be contacted via email at [email protected] or

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