OHS Canada Magazine

Stepping Up

July 13, 2018
By Jean Lian

A ladder is one of the most widely used equipment. Regardless of whether one is replacing a light bulb at home, giving the office a fresh coat of paint or working in an industrial setting like a warehouse or a retail store, a ladder always comes in handy.

But ladders have been associated with many fall accidents, most of which involve strains and sprains, according to Lauren McFarlane, president of Act First Safety, a company in Scarborough, Ontario that provides workplace-safety training. “Seventy-five per cent of accidents from working at any height happen at between six and 10 feet,” McFarlane says. “A lot of people just grab the first piece of equipment they see, and it is a ladder.”

There are different types of ladders. “No one ladder is suitable for all purposes. There is a variety of different styles, materials and grades to choose from, depending on the application,” says Mike Dunlop, sales and marketing manager (Canada) with Louisville Ladder Corp. in Aurora, Ontario. Users should select ladders according to the style, size, grade and material based on the task at hand, Dunlop adds.

There are essentially two types of ladders: self-supporting ladders like step and platform ladders can stand on their own, while non-self-supporting ones need to lean against something, an extension ladder being one example. Self-supporting ladders are good for working at low and medium heights, while those that are not self-supporting are typically used to access greater heights, explains James Norris, president of Allright Ladder and Scaffold Company in Vancouver.

“You need to know the working heights of the individual to determine what size of ladder you require. On top of that, you need to know what is it you are working around or near,” advises Norris, pointing to conductive ladders made of aluminum and those that are non-conductive, such as wood or fibreglass. “If there are elements that conduct electricity, you don’t want to be working around electrical wiring near aluminum ladders,” he cautions.

Another hazard associated with ladder use is tripping. McFarlane recommends keeping debris away from the bottom of a ladder as it is not uncommon for users to get up a ladder safety, but trip over a hammer after descending from a ladder.

Ladders come in five duty ratings, which indicate the maximum safe-load capacity a ladder can bear, including the weight of a fully-clothed person and any tools and materials carried up the ladder: light-duty ladders with a load capacity of not more than 200 lbs (typically used in households); medium-duty for 225 lbs (used by tradesman and on farms); and heavy-duty ladders for loads up to 250 lbs for construction and industrial use. Heavy-duty ladders are further subdivided into Grade 1A and 1AA: the former has a load capacity of up to 300 lbs while the latter can withstand up to 375 lbs.

It is important to check a ladder’s duty rating to ascertain that it can support the weight of workers and ensure that it meets CSA Group’s standards, McFarlane stresses. The type of ladder and the job tasks and height at which a ladder will be used must also be taken into consideration. “We see that is a big mistake in a lot of workplaces — not getting the right height,” McFarlane says of ladder selection.

A risk assessment of the work area for surrounding hazards like electrical wires, tools lying on the floor, ground conditions like the presence of rain or gravel, slope and mud is also key, as these conditions can influence the safety dynamic of the job site.

Ladders may look simple and straightforward to use, but many safety misunderstandings surround this piece of equipment. “The biggest misconception is they are safe, anyone can use them and nothing can go wrong, because we use them so often,” McFarlane says. She adds choosing the wrong ladder for the type of work at hand and the perception that ladder use does not require training into the list.

Another common misconception is that users can stand on the first two rungs of a stepladder. “Lots of people think that they can go up to the top of the ladder,” Norris says, pointing out that the highest step one can go is the second step down. “Even though that step is there, it has a label on it that says don’t stand on or above this point.”

So why put that step there if users are not supposed to stand on or above the top two rungs of a stepladder? “It is the way the ladder has been constructed and engineered,” Norris says. “We are looking at how we can re-engineer a few products to take that step out of there, so there is not even the thought on anyone’s mind they should be climbing up higher than the second step down from the top.”

When scaling a ladder, always keep a person’s centre of gravity between the side rails as the probability of the ladder tipping over increases in tandem with every shift in the centre of gravity. “The moment you start leaning, the higher you go, the more impact that is going to have,” Norris says of a fall caused by leaning.

A ladder should always be inspected prior to each use, and parts should be maintained in good working order, Dunlop advises. If the ladder is bent or damaged, it should be replaced.

Planning ahead is always a good practice. “Ask questions about what is the job or tasks I have to do, what is my best way to access the area and which ladder should I use,” McFarlane says.

When a person is on a ladder, maintain three points of contact and secure the ladder at the top and bottom. If a ladder is fixed to a building, make sure that it is fixed securely as the cement around the connection points can wear and fall out over time, causing the ladder to be unstable.

“Make sure you are wearing personal protective equipment if working 10 feet or more, or when three points of contact is not achievable,” McFarlane adds. Cordon off the space around a ladder if it is used in areas with high vehicular or pedestrian traffic. “Follow the rules of the worksite you are working on.”

Norris observes that consumers are moving towards ladders made of fibreglass. “Fibreglass used to be very expensive, but the cost of fibreglass has come down significantly,” Norris says. Advances in product development have also seen this heavy material become significantly lighter.

McFarlane observes that people are increasingly looking at alternatives to ladders. “We are seeing less and less ladder use,” she says. “More workers are using scaffolding and elevating work platforms, and that is definitely a trend.”

In some circumstances, alternative access equipment enable users to perform a job more safely than ladders. “If you are going to be working at a height and be there for some time, the recommendation is to build a scaffolding around the area,” she says. If workers who use ladders need to be mobile, a telescopic boom lift or an aerial lift could provide that mobility and keep workers safe. “The problem with that equipment is it adds to the cost of the project, because they are not inexpensive to operate and train people,” McFarlane suggests.

Given the wide array of jobs that require workers to access different heights, a ladder will always come in useful. Louisville Ladder Corp. offers the Cross-Step FXS1500 series, which is designed and built to take on tough jobs. In the secured shelf position, the V-shaped Pro Top and slip-resistant grip allows the ladder to lean against poles, corners or walls. The top features multiple tool slots and a heat-stamped duty rating. Its unique step-ladder design also allows a user to get six inches closer to the working area.

Another Louisville product is the Pinnacle FXP1700 line, which boasts a significantly more spacious platform and a load capacity that can handle heavy lifting, in addition to extended handrails that come up to belt height for added comfort.

For people whose jobs require them to use ladders frequently, it is important to understand how manners of use can lead to accidents, Norris says. Allright Ladder’s F490 series platform ladder is designed with a couple of new features, such as the three-foot high guardrail that replaces the industry standard two-foot guardrail, which enhances safety by raising the guardrail just above the knee to the hip level. It also features non-conductive fibreglass rails, a moulded plastic guardrail, double-rivet construction and heavy-duty moulded plastic feet.

”It reduces fatigue compared to working on a traditional stepladder, and allows the worker to use both hands to complete the task,” Norris adds. “In this particular model, we have lengthened the guardrail so that it provides support at about hip level versus traditional work platforms that have guardrails closer to the knee.”

Misusing ladders can lead to falls and musculoskeletal disorders, but with training and an understanding of proper use, safety does not need to be compromised when scaling heights.

Jean Lian is editor of OHS Canada.