Sometimes, what goes up comes down the hard way. Following ladder safety rules is the best way to reduce injuries.
Ladders are essential tools that seem simple to use. Yet every year, far too many construction workers suffer injury or death due to falls from ladders. Reminding crews about basic ladder safety tips can help keep them out of the hospital.
Ladder injury statistics 2019
In 2019 alone, within the construction and extraction industry, ladders caused 7,890 injuries requiring days away from work. In addition, 93 workers died from ladder-related injuries.
What are the factors contributing to falls involving ladder usage? In a study from the Harvard School of Public Health on the safety of portable ladders used in construction, the main causes of falls were:
- 40%: The ladder moved
- 24%: A foot missed a step or slipped
- 18%: The worker lost balance
In 4% of cases, the ladder broke, and in another 4%, the person was struck by an object.
To reduce the risk of injuries, provide proper training and encourage workers to follow ladder safety rules.
Choose the right ladder
The ladder you choose matters. Make sure to use the right ladder for the job.
Ladders are classified as fixed or portable. A fixed ladder is attached to a structure. An example is a ladder that provides long-term access to rooftop mechanical systems for maintenance crews.
A portable ladder can be carried from place to place. Choices include stepladders, straight ladders, extension ladders, platform ladders (for two-handed tasks) and tripod ladders (for work in corners and next to stationary objects).
Another consideration is the ladder material. Metal ladders don’t mix well with electrical work or power lines. But when there are no electrical hazards nearby, metal ladders may be preferable in areas of high moisture, where wood ladders can decay. Fiberglass ladders, which are resistant to both weather and electricity, are also a great choice, though their heavier weight makes them difficult for one person to handle alone.
Weight capacity/duty rating
Maximum weight capacity, aka duty rating, is another important factor. Ladders are manufactured with certain end uses in mind. To use a platform ladder for ceiling repairs, for example, make sure the duty rating is adequate for the worker’s weight plus any tools, supplies or equipment.
The five most common duty ratings and their weight limits are:
- Type III (light duty). These are common household ladders ranging in length from 3 to 6 feet and capable of supporting up to 200 pounds.
- Type II (medium duty). Medium duty ladders are designed for commercial use (painters/electricians) and range in length from 3 to 20 feet. They can support up to 225 pounds.
- Type I (heavy duty). Heavy duty ladders are used for professional services (construction/public utilities), range in length from 3 feet to 20 feet and can support up to 250 pounds.
- Type IA (extra heavy duty). These are similar to heavy duty ladders but they support up to 300 pounds.
- Type IAA (extra heavy duty). These support up to 375 pounds.
Inspect for damage before use
Any ladders that are not in good working condition should be removed from service until they can be repaired. Some inspection pointers:
- Check for loose or missing rungs, bolts, nails or screws.
- Make sure the non-skid feet are intact and not worn.
- Check stepladders for wobble and damage to hinges.
- Check wood ladders for signs of rot and metal ladders for rust or corrosion.
Review the OSHA ladder safety standard
Here’s a sampling of OSHA ladder safety requirements that dictate how workers must use ladders:
- Place a ladder one-quarter of its working length away from the supporting wall.
- Do not place the ladder on unstable ground or atop materials or debris.
- When using a ladder for roof access, the ladder must extend at least 3 feet above the roof's surface.
- Maintain three points of contact — two hands and a foot or two feet and a hand. Always keep at least one hand on the ladder.
- Never climb higher than the third rung from the top of an extension/straight ladder or higher than the second tread from the top of a stepladder.
- Do not use a metal ladder within 10 feet of electricity.
- Never try to “walk” a ladder into a new position while on it.
Remember the ladder safety 4-to-1 rule: The base of the ladder should be placed so that it’s 1 foot away from the building for every 4 feet of height to where the ladder rests against the building. If the ladder is 12 feet high where it touches the building, it should be a minimum of 3 feet away from the base of the building.
Why are violations so common?
Ladder rules are straightforward, so why are ladder violations number five on OSHA's 2020 list of the most common safety violations?
Workers often don't understand the reasons for the rules. Unless the company devotes time to training and driving home the ramifications of unsafe practices, employees are unlikely to follow them.
In addition, production pressure can lead employees and supervisors to ignore the rules for the sake of speed. As long as no one gets hurt, the thinking goes, it's “no harm no foul.”
But people do get hurt, as ladder fall statistics show. The solution? Vigilance, accountability, training and a workplace culture that emphasizes worker well-being are all steps to a higher plane of safety.