A ladder is a very simple and convenient piece of equipment for numerous industries, but ladders can also be very dangerous. Most of the danger comes not from the ladders themselves, but from how workers use them.
“Every day, a person dies in a ladder accident,” says Ryan Moss, chief executive officer of Little Giant Ladder (LGL), a ladder manufacturer based in Springville, Utah. “Every single day, there are 1,000 people that are injured in ladder accidents, and every single day, 100 of those people are permanently disabled.”
He calls these statistics “staggering numbers.” In the United States alone, ladder misuse and vehicle accidents (in either order) are typically the two top causes of lost work time, Moss adds. And that’s why LGL makes it its mission to design safer ladders that help protect users from themselves.
Overreaching is one of the most common mistakes, one that tends to result in falls. Often, a worker on a ladder will stretch to grab or touch an object or surface that is out of his or her reach, and the resulting change in the centre of gravity can cause the ladder to tip over. It makes more sense to descend the ladder and then move it closer to the required object or surface, but it also takes more time, and that may discourage workers who are in a hurry. Another frequent mistake people make is to stand on the top rung, or top cap, of an A-frame ladder. Without higher rungs or rails to grasp, it is too easy to lose balance and topple over
“Manufacturers put a warning label on it that says, ‘Don’t stand here,’ but it’s really designed exactly like all the rest of the rungs,” says Moss. “It’s like putting the cookies in the cupboard and putting a note that’s saying, ‘Don’t eat these,’ and you know kids are going to do it. That’s kind of what happens with the ladders that are out there.”
Sometimes, Moss adds, the real problem is that the worker is simply using the wrong-sized ladder for the task at hand. “If you had a taller ladder, you wouldn’t need to stand on the top rung,” he notes. “Most often, we’re going to take the lightest, easiest-to-carry product with us.”
For example, an overconfident worker may bring a six-foot stepladder for work that requires an eight-footer, just to carry a lighter load, but this forces him or her to reach the task area by standing on the top cap. “And those types of accidents can be fairly catastrophic.”
One surprisingly frequent cause of accidents is when a worker descends a ladder and steps off a rung too early. “You’ve probably done this, I know I have,” says Moss, “go up and down a set of stairs that you have a thousand times, and for whatever reason, sometimes you don’t hit the bottom stair. You think you’re at the bottom, and you’re not. We’ve kind of all done that.” This odd yet common habit accounts for as much as one-fifth of all employee accidents for some companies, Moss says.
So the vast majority of ladder-based injuries and fatalities can be traced to common human behavioural patterns rather than to ladders themselves. Fortunately, it is possible to manufacture special safety ladders that take these behaviours into consideration.
To discourage users from standing on the top caps of their ladders, LGL offers a product called the SafeFrame, which is designed much like a traditional A-frame ladder or stepladder, except that it has no top cap. “You can’t stand on something that isn’t there,” says Moss. “There’s no sticker there that says, ‘Don’t stand on this,’ because there’s no rung there altogether. So the gateway to the top cap is gone.”
The SafeFrame has another unique innovation that aims to reduce the number of accidents caused by workers who skip the bottom rungs when they come down. The Ground Cue on both bottom rungs provides a special tactile indicator and audible sound when a worker’s foot lands on it.
“When you step on it, it makes a clicking noise teaching you that’s the bottom rung,” explains Moss. “So as you climb up, you hear the click, you go up, you do your work; as you come down, you hear the click, you know, ‘I’m on the bottom; it’s safe to step off the ladder.’”
To confront the issue of workers using the wrong sizes of ladders for their tasks, LGL has developed Select Step, a ladder that one can adjust to different heights. Moss refers to it as “a six-foot, seven-foot, eight-foot, nine-foot, 10-foot ladder all in one.” This way, a worker can bring one ladder to a worksite without having to run back to get another size or to risk his or her life by overreaching.
“He needs a six-footer, he has a six-footer; he needs an eight-footer, in less than 15 seconds, he adjusts it to an eight-footer. He needs a 10-footer, same thing, adjusts it to a 10-footer. So you have the right-sized ladder for the job.” Like SafeFrame, Select Step also has no top cap.
Lastly, LGL tackles the problem of tipping ladders through a solution called SumoStance, which has retractable outriggers not unlike those often found on other construction equipment, including cranes. These outriggers level and stabilize the ladder, increasing its stability by as much as 600 per cent. SumoStance “just completely changes the extension-ladder experience,” Moss claims.
Although LGL offers ladders in various designs that promote safety, it is ultimately up to the worker to use common sense and avoid habits that could injure or even kill. “There may be warnings on a ladder not to do certain things,” says Moss, “but we’ve learned that people do, even with good training.”
Jeff Cottrill was formerly an editorial assistant of OHS Canada.