According to statistics released in 2009 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, falls from ladders in all industries accounted for over 16 percent of fatalities and upwards of 100,000 non-fatal incidents overall. Other research reveals that over 15 percent of fatal accidents occurred from relatively short heights of 10 feet or less, with 53 percent occurred from 11- to 30-foot heights.
Clearly, ladders can be a major source of workplace accidents. Although striving to reduce ladder usage is commendable, implementing and reaching that goal is another story. Ladders frequently are used by maintenance and manufacturing personnel to reach overhead areas, so eliminating them requires an entirely new solution.
The safety benefits of reducing ladder usage didn't escape the notice of management at Chattanooga, Tenn.-based Heatec Inc., a manufacturer of heaters and liquid storage tanks. Because of the large size and customized nature of the products Heatec manufactures, ladders are used throughout the manufacturing facilities to reach overhead areas. Wesley Jones, the Heatec human resources director responsible for environmental health and safety, set out to reduce ladder usage and therefore improve safety within the facilities.
A SAFER ALTERNATIVE
Jones began his search for a suitable replacement to ladders first by holding a series of meetings with plant safety and supervisory personnel, engineering department personnel and others to review how and where ladders were being used and to discuss ways to reduce their usage. Although everyone recognized the potential dangers of using ladders, no one in those meetings could offer a suggestion as to how to achieve that goal.
It wasn't until Jones attended an expo and watched a demonstration of a new aerial work platform that he found what he was looking for. The particular aerial work platform was a LiftPod from JLG Industries, a portable device consisting of a 22- by 24-inch, rail-enclosed basket that moves up and down on an aluminum mast mounted on a stable metal base. As Jones watched a person in an enclosed basket being safely lifted to an overhead work area, he saw that an aerial work platform might offer a viable solution to his ladder reduction goal at last.
When he returned to Chattanooga, Jones arranged for one of the aerial work platforms to be delivered to Heatec for thorough evaluation and testing by plant workers who used ladders. The results were positive: Worker fatigue was reduced considerably because employees no longer had to climb up and down a ladder. In addition, safety improved because workers didn't have to use their hands to hold onto a ladder while climbing or risk having their feet slip off a rung while stepping up to a higher or lower rung.
Other safety features that contributed to these results include an aluminum basket with guard rails that provide fall protection; a spring-operated, inward-opening gate that automatically closes upon entry; aluminum toeboards to help prevent tools or other objects from falling from the basket floor; and a built-in tray with 35-pound capacity that attaches to the basket and keeps tools and accessories within reach.
As a result of this change, the Heatec factory has reduced ladder usage. In fact, workers are finding new ways to use the aerial work platform on an almost daily basis. Where applicable, it has become the preferred method of accessing overhead areas and workers often wait to perform non-critical jobs until it the lift is available for their use.
Companies striving to improve safety within their own organizations might be well served by reducing their employees' ladder usage. Aerial work platforms could be part of the solution by creating a safer, more secure ascent.
Bill Hindman has been president of Industrial Marketing Systems of Des Plaines, Ill., for over 30 years. He has been involved with aerial work platforms since the early 1980s and currently works with JLG Industries and Bronto Skylift. He also handles marketing communications for Aerial Work Platform Training, the North American subsidiary of the International Powered Access Federation. He has written numerous articles on the application and safe use of aerial devices for trade publications in the utility, construction, rental and manufacturing industries. He also has served as master of ceremonies for aerial platform safety conferences in both North America and in Europe.