Respect Your Ladder when Working at Heights
It’s Not the Fall, It’s the Sudden Stop
By Matt Weber
If you want to see acrobatic feats of bravery from death-defying heights, just watch a roofing crew when there is no safety inspector around. Fall restraint ropes? What a nuisance. Safety harnesses? Those things chafe!
A roof ridge becomes a balance beam, and ladders are treated as stilts or even vaults. I’m not condoning this behavior. It only takes a single misstep to end in tragedy, and that reckless confidence suddenly looks like a stupid idea. The trouble is that with years of experience many people get too comfortable working off the ground and lose respect for that stubborn force called gravity.
Never make that mistake. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) annually reports that over 100,000 people are treated in hospital rooms and doctors’ offices as a result of falls from ladders. Most of the injuries are cuts, bruises and fractures, but more than 300 annual fatalities occur from ladder-related injuries.
It should go without saying that a rickety ladder which sways or leans should be avoided. Are parts loose or missing? That’s probably a red flag, too. And of course you should avoid ladder work if you’re feeling tired or dizzy (or, let’s be frank, hung over). However, even the most seasoned ladder veteran can overlook some simple safety issues that may pose a problem.
Ladder use in high winds or rainstorms should be avoided. A common mistake of storm-wary homeowners is that as soon as a downpour slacks up, they run for a ladder to check for roof damage. Not only does rain make the ladder rungs slippery, and working atop one may tempt fate as a human lightning rod, but homeowners often overestimate a ladder’s stability in the face of straight-line winds that can topple them to the ground.
According to the American Ladder Institute (ALI), when climbing a ladder, it is safest to use Three Points-of-Contact because it minimizes the chances of slipping and falling from the ladder.
At all times during ascent or descent, the climber should face the ladder and have two hands and one foot, or two feet and one hand, in contact with the ladder cleats and/or side rails. In this way, the climber will remain stable even if one limb slips during the climb.
When working, rather than reaching of leaning too far to one side, a good rule of thumb is to keep the center of your belt buckle between the ladder side rails (or within the width of the cleats). It’s also smart to use towlines, a tool belt or an assistant to convey materials and so you’re hands stay free when climbing.
ALI also stresses the importance of proper footwear. Wear only slip-resistant shoes preferably with heals and heavy soles to prevent foot fatigue. Clean the soles to maximize traction and avoid leather soles since they’re not considered sufficiently slip-resistant.
Choosing a Ladder
Ladders are built from one of three basic materials; wood, fiberglass and metal (aluminum). If you’re working near a source of electricity, a metal ladder should be rejected since aluminum conducts electricity. Your body can complete an electrical circuit between the electrical power supply, the ladder, and then to the ground in the event that you contact a live wire. An electrical shock on a ladder can trigger a fall or cause your heart to stop. However, if there are no electrical power sources in your work area, then aluminum has a significant portability advantage: It’s the lightest weight material when compared to fiberglass or wood.