You’d be hard-pressed to find a business that doesn’t keep at least one ladder on hand. From warehouses with hard to reach shelves to office buildings with light bulbs that need changing, most workplaces have a reason to keep a ladder or two (or more) on hand. For such simple contraptions, OSHA and other organizations have put a lot of thought and writing into the safe operation of ladders. Unfortunately, ladders still account for tens of thousands of on the job accidents and over 100 fatalities every year. Luckily, the simplicity of most ladders plays to your favor, making it fairly easy to follow upkeep and usage guidelines to reduce accidents. Ladder safety basically comes down to two main sections: User training and behavior, and ladder upkeep/appropriateness. Both of these factors are multifaceted and work together, so let’s “break down” ladders by taking a look at each in detail.
Ladder Maintenance and Appropriateness
OSHA guidelines state that all ladders need to be inspected at intervals based upon the frequency and intensity of use. While this leaves OSHA covered, it leaves business owners and managers with an extremely vague description of their responsibilities with regards to ladder maintenance. What I find best, rather than trying to gauge the perfect interval for your business, is that you start out with inspections either once per month or once per week. At each inspection, take quick snapshots on a phone or digital camera of all of the joints and welded stress points on each ladder. While this may seem tedious, it can actually make things easier down the road. At your next inspection, take pictures of the same parts and compare wear and tear and any damage you can see. If not much has changed after a few inspections, you can start lengthening your inspection intervals a little bit at a time. It’s hard to remember exactly what something looked like a month ago, so the pictures can help take the guesswork out of your evaluations. Any ladders showing excess strain or any kind of defect or break should be taken out of circulation and replaced or repaired immediately. Do not expect workers to simply not use a certain rung or avoid a step because it is damaged; don’t take risks.
When it comes to the appropriateness of a ladder for its function, you need to take two factors into consideration.
- Load Strength: According to OSHA, the strength requirements vary depending on the type of ladder, with the main factor being whether the ladder is free-standing or self-supported. Depending on this, your ladder will need to be able support three to four times the maximum load you plan to put on it. This is to ensure that variable worker weight and any employee risk taking that could possibly overload the ladder are more than accounted for.
- Height: All ladders have maximum “top steps,” or those which are structural and are not meant to be stood on. In order to avoid employees overstepping, quite literally, their boundaries on a ladder, you should ensure that they can easily reach everything they need to from the appropriate steps. Preferably, workers will never need to climb above the middle steps to complete a task. If a ladder isn’t tall enough for the job, workers might try to stand on steps not meant to support body weight, or even on the top of the ladder itself, leading to much higher falling and injury risk.
Additionally, ladders need to have adequate traction on their steps in order to avoid slippage. This can come in the form of corrugation, “dimples” in the metal, anti-slip tape, or any other number of modifications to the rungs. Basically, employees need to have more than a flat, smooth piece of metal to place their feet on as they climb.
Training and Employee Behavior
The other side of the ladder safety coin is less concerned with the equipment itself and has more to do with who is going to be using it. All employees should be trained on the proper usage of any ladders available to them to use. There are some great training tools available, one tool I recommend is training DVD’s. While it may seem a bit ridiculous (workers may tell you, “I’ve been on ladders since I was 8 years old!”), it is important, both for your liability and for employee safety. This is especially true when going back to the fact that ladders have maximum rungs meant for stepping on. A worker may try to get some extra height and place their feet unsafely, which should be discouraged during training.
Additionally, workers should be trained to have a “spotter,” or someone stabilizing the ladder from below or at least keeping an eye on it. While workers shouldn’t be using ladders on uneven ground, slight slopes can be okay as long as a second worker is holding and balancing out the ladder from the non-climbing side. Here are a few bullet points of considerations from the American Ladder Association’s website that you can relay to your employees during training, some of which we’ve touched on already and some which may be new to you:
- Do not use ladders in high winds or storms.
- Wear clean slip-resistant shoes. Shoes with leather soles are not appropriate for ladder use since they are not considered sufficiently slip-resistant.
- Before using a ladder, inspect it to confirm it is in good working condition.
- Ladders with loose or missing parts must be rejected.
- Rickety ladders that sway or lean to the side must be rejected.
Ultimately, as is probably apparent from that list, safe ladder usage is dictated mostly by common sense principles. The danger in a seemingly simple tool, however, is that workers are likely to skip steps or cut corners simply because the use of ladders is such a seemingly automatic, and familiar process. Your biggest task as a safety manager is to remind workers constantly to stick to their training, rather than just rushing through jobs or going with their “gut feeling” about what will or won’t be safe once they’re up on a ladder. Make use of safety labels/laminates on the sides of ladders, refresher training sessions, and face to face talks with employees to reinforce this. Best of luck!
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