Whether you’re a plumber, painter, electrician, maintenance worker or any other number of trade professionals, the portable ladder is a go-to solution for difficult-to-reach work tasks. Whether it’s an A-Frame or an extension ladder, we take for granted that they’re the safest way to do our jobs. That may not be the case. Ladders could be unstable, especially if they’re not being used properly. In many cases, the Easi-Dec Portable Work Platform offers a much safer solution, but companies won’t invest the time or money needed to have them available. Other times, companies are simply not aware there is another solution, so ladders continue to permeate our job sites. Therefore, it is important workers know how to properly and safely use portable ladders.
Extension and straight ladders must be set at the proper angle in order to keep them from tipping back. This angle is a 4:1 ratio. In other words, for every 4 feet in height from the ground to the point the ladder makes contact with the structure, the base must be a foot away from the structure. Now, most of the time, nobody is busting out a measuring tape. There are two easy ways to tell if you’re at the proper angle. 1) Stand at the base of the ladder so that your toes are touching it. Extend your arm at a 90 degree angle from your body. If your hand touches a rung or a side-rail, you are approximately at a 4:1 angle. 2) Download the NIOSH ladder app. Simply lean your phone along the rail of the ladder to see what angle you’ve set the ladder at.
Securing the Ladder
Most people are concerned about a ladder tipping backwards, but it’s much more likely it will actually shift laterally. Therefore, it is important that you secure the ladder – near the top – to the structure to prevent it from shifting. Do not use the ladder’s adjustment rope to secure it to the structure. Ensure that somebody is holding the ladder in place during the initial setup.
Your ladder must extend 3’ above the level to which you are climbing, or there must be a grab rail that extends 3’ up. While this is important when dismounting the ladder, it is even more important when mounting the ladder from the top. The last thing you want is somebody walking to the edge of a building or platform and having to lean down to grab the ladder. One moment of light-headedness could end in disaster. To see if your ladder is properly extended, count the rungs. There is approximately one foot between rungs.
The ladder will never be a safe tool if it’s not set up in a safe location to begin with. Make sure your ladder is on firm, level ground and that the safety feet are in place. If you need to kick the feet up to dig into the surface material, that’s what they’re there for. For an A-Frame ladder, ensure you’ve fully opened the ladder and locked it into place. No A-Frame should ever be used while folded or partially closed. This is not what the ladder is designed for and not how it’s tested.
Your A-Frame ladder has a maximum working height. You’ll notice a label that says “Do Not Work On or Above This Step.” Pay special attention to the “On or Above” part. Most people look at that and think that they can step on that step but not above it. This is not the case. And definitely, don’t ever straddle the ladder or sit on top of it. In addition, the label on the side of the ladder contains a maximum working height in case you’re unsure. If you can’t read the labels, that’s a whole different problem and you need new ladders.
Labels and Paint
Labels on the ladder must be legible. If they are worn off or painted over, then you cannot use the ladder. (NOTE: You do not need to destroy or throw away ladders because the label is illegible. Instead, call the manufacturer to get a new label shipped to you.) In addition, you must be able to inspect your ladder for cracks, defects, and damage. Painting ladders with an opaque paint may prevent you from doing so, therefore do not paint your ladders.
You can set up a ladder as safely as you want. If you don’t use it safely, you can still get hurt. Always maintain three points of contact when climbing a ladder. This means two feet and a hand, or two hands and a foot. Doing this precludes you from carrying tools or materials in your hands – which is a good thing. While working aloft, your tools should be at the very least in a tool belt or tool vest. At best, they should be tethered to you. Also, maintain your center of gravity between the side rails – no leaning off to one side or another. Keep your eyes out for other hazards or unsafe conditions. Many ladder accidents, for instance, occur when employees mount the ladder at the top by swinging around it. Perhaps you can purchase ladder toppers to eliminate this hazard. These toppers attach to the top of the ladder and extend the necessary 3’ above the surface you’re climbing to while allowing the worker to step THROUGH them instead of around. Finally, only use ladders as intended. Do not separate parts if they’re not intended to be separated. Do not lash sections together. Do not climb both sides of an A-Frame unless it is specifically designed for that.
Ladders are a tool, so you need to treat them like one. Just with any other tool, you need to inspect your ladder prior to use and remove it from service if anything is wrong with it. Do not take chances. A new ladder is much more inexpensive than a broken bone or a lost life.
Don’t believe that just because we use ladders at home that your employees know how to use them safely. People use ladders wrong ALL THE TIME. It is your responsibility as an employer to ensure that your employees are properly trained in the safe use of ladders and that you are designating a Competent Person(s) regarding ladders. That Competent Person, according to OSHA, must be knowledgeable enough to recognize a hazard and must have the authority to correct it.
Ladders are a very familiar and very useful tool, but as such, people tend to become complacent when working with them. Unfortunately, complacency can be safety’s mortal enemy. Make sure that if you are going to choose ladders as the proper means for your workers to complete their work tasks that they are fully aware how to use them safely. Ladders are cheap. People are not.
Whether you work at heights every day or just once in a while, your focus on safety during those times is of utmost importance. It takes one mistake to turn a routine work task into a fatality. Falls are debilitating. Falls are deadly. You must be prepared to protect your employees each and every time they could be exposed. Here are ten tips to consider if your employees work at heights.
1. Use Rails
When you can, use rails. Passive protection is the easiest way to keep your workers safe and achieve compliance because there is nothing that they need to actually do to keep themselves safe (other than stay within the rails…and if your employees are climbing outside of protective rails, you’ve got bigger problems to address!). Rails can be built by jobsite carpenters (as long as they meet the requirements set forth by OSHA) or pre-fabricated from a manufacturer and installed. Pre-fabricated railings can be permanently affixed or portable to suit your needs. Regardless of which type you use, once in place, you’ll find rails are the easiest fall protection system to use.
2. Select the Proper PPE
If you’re going to use Personal Fall Arrest Systems (PFAS), you need to ensure you’re choosing the proper equipment. All full-body harnesses that meet ANSI standards will perform the same, despite their cost, however, that price differential is getting you something. Sure, sometimes it’s just a name, but other times it’s functionality that you’re getting or sacrificing, such as extra D-rings, fireproof material, or arc-safe design. Sometimes, a more expensive harness is more expensive simply because it’s been made to be more comfortable. Do your research and decide what it is you need. If you have workers welding at heights, then a standard nylon harness is probably not going to be what you need. Perhaps Kevlar is the way to go. And, don’t forget your workforce. Perhaps comfort isn’t your main concern (though it’s certainly much easier to get cooperation from your workers if they are comfortable wearing the equipment), but that’s not the only consideration you need to make. Harnesses are not one-size-fits-all. Make sure your workers can properly adjust their harnesses so that they fit correctly.
Lanyards need to be properly selected as well. Depending on the height at which you are working, a 6’ lanyard with a deceleration device will not protect your worker. Instead, a retractable lanyard may be necessary. Each situation is different, so you need to evaluate your working conditions and the task to be performed in order to give your employees something that will actually protect them.
3. Inspect Your PPE
Employees can use all the equipment they want, if they’re not inspecting it, it could fail at any time. When it comes to harnesses and lanyards, while they need to be periodically inspected by a Competent Person (one with the knowledge to recognize the hazard AND the authority to correct it), they should also be inspected by the user prior to every use. In order for this to happen, your users need to understand what it is they’re looking for, what is acceptable and what is not, and what to do when they find a problem. The inspection should be thorough, but does not need to take a lot of time. Even so, this brief pre-work check could save a life.
4. Ensure You Understand Fall Distance
You can wear all the fall protection equipment in the world, but if it allows you to hit the lower level before it engages, it’s pointless. This may sound like a “common sense” statement, but you’d be surprised at how many people don’t seem to have “common sense”. It is not unusual to go onto a construction site or observe a maintenance crew in a plant and see a worker at 10-12’ off the ground wearing a 6’ lanyard with a deceleration device. While at first glance you might think that it should work, there are a number of reasons why it won’t. First, you have to add 3.5’ of distance to account for the deployment of your deceleration device. Already that means the lanyard itself is 9.5’ long. Unless you are a 6” tall person, this is some pretty bad news. Your actual fall distance needs to not only include the length of your lanyard when deployed, but also your body length below the D-ring and any sag in your harness and anchor system. Count on a good 18.5’ minimum before you’re able to use a 6’ lanyard with deceleration device.
5. Ensure the Selection of Acceptable Anchor Point
As Grandpa said in The Lost Boys, “We’ve got rules!” Sure, he was referring to drinking his root beer and not peeling the label back on the TV Guide, but he might as well have been talking about anchor points. If you were to pick a construction site at random right now and see what they’re using as anchor points, you might assume there were no rules. PVC pipe? Not an anchor. Decorative steel? Not an anchor. In fact, many more things will NOT be an acceptable anchor point than WILL be an acceptable anchor point. Why? Because the anchor point must support not just the weight of the person attached, but 5000 lbs. per person attached (or a factor of 2 if you’re having an engineer determine your anchor). Many fixtures are not going to withstand those forces. Structural steel using a proper beam clamp? Sure. A manufactured roofing cart or other manufactured anchor? Sure, if installed properly. Short of that, you’re going to need some documentation and/or an engineer’s approval to use something as an anchor point.
6. Ensure You Select the Best Means of Working at Heights (Scaffold vs Lift vs Ladder)
Just as harnesses are not one-size-fits-all, neither are fall protection solutions. In some situations, a scaffold is going to be your best solution to work at heights. If so, you’ll probably be able to equip them with rails, making your fall protection much easier to address. Other times, scaffolds will be infeasible and you’ll find yourself on a lift. Depending on the type of lift, you may or may not need to wear a harness and a lanyard (and properly tie off). Still other times, you’ll need to use a ladder, at which point the requirements for fall protection become trickier. In the end, thinking that a ladder is going to suffice no matter what situation you’re in (or a lift, or a scaffold, or any other means of elevation) is only asking for problems. Evaluate your situation carefully and determine what the right piece of equipment is for that task in that location.
7. Use Ladders Properly
Don’t assume that just because you have a ladder at home, you know what you’re doing. In fact, the safest way to live on this planet is to always assume you don’t know what you’re doing. In most cases, you’re going to be right! Ladders lie at the source of many industrial and workplace accidents simply because we take their use for granted. Ladders are familiar. You use them to hang your Christmas lights, paint the living room, change that annoying hard to reach high-hat bulb, and clean your gutters. We use them so often that we must know what we’re doing because we’ve never gotten hurt before! Well, except for that one time you closed the A-frame on your hand. Or that time, the ladder slipped out from under you. Or that time you had a tool on top of that ladder that fell onto you. Or that time….well, never mind. Ladders are dangerous. When improperly used, they’re REALLY dangerous. First, make sure that ladders are the best way to do what you’re doing, then make sure your employees know how to properly use them. 3’ extension, 4:1 ratio, 3 points of contact, and secured. If you don’t know what that refers to, you may not know how to use an extension ladder properly. You know that sticker on a step ladder that says, “Don’t stand on this step or above.”? If you think that means you can step there but no higher, you might not know how to use a step-ladder. Provide proper training to your employees so that they use the tools they are being given the right way.
8. Know Your Roofing Regulations
Roofing regulations are some of the most misunderstood requirements. Not only do roofers not know exactly what is required of them much of the time, but many other contractors working on roofs who are not roofers believe that certain methods of fall protection are available to them when, in reality, they’re not. Warning lines at 6’ with a monitor are only allowed for roofers performing roofing work (and 10’ back from the edge if there is mechanical equipment traveling in that direction). Notice the phrase “with a monitor” in the previous statement. There is NO situation in which a warning line is an acceptable means of fall protection that does not also include a dedicated monitor being present. There are a few that allow for a monitor with no warning line (low-slope roofs less than 50’ in width for instance), but none that allow a warning line with no monitor. Also, notice the phrase “dedicated monitor” in that previous statement. Monitors must have no duties that would distract them from performing as a monitor. You see where I’m going with this? There are many nuances to the rules for roofers. If you are one, make sure you are familiar with the regulations and your requirements or speak to somebody who is.
9. Ensure Proper Use of Lifts
There are many ways in which a lift operator can do something wrong, so I won’t get into the actual operation of lifts here, but we do need to discuss fall protection in regards to lifts. One thing that gets missed quite often is that any person in a boom lift, at any time, at any height, must be properly tied-off. “Properly tied-off” not only means that they need to be secured to the engineered anchor point designed with the lift, but it means that they can’t wrap their lanyard around the rails and they need to have a lanyard that is actually going to protect them at the height at which they are working (see fall distance above). With scissor lifts, things are a little different. While the site you are working on or the owner of the facility/project may require you to tie-off in a scissor lift, there is no regulatory requirement to do so. However, the moment you forget to close your gate or secure your chain, you are no longer protected by the rails and are now in a fall protection violation. It’s that simple. Also, keep your feet planted firmly on the platform. Both of them.
10. Train, Train, Train
It’s been mentioned in various paragraphs above, but it can’t be stressed enough. If you want your employees to work safely at heights, they must be properly trained. Period. The end. Not only is training required by law, there is just too much room for error and confusion when it comes to a person without the proper knowledge trying to protect themselves at heights. Falls are the leading killer in construction year after year. Many people in other industries die from falls as well. They are deadly. Most of the time, there are no do-overs. Arm your employees with the knowledge they need to keep themselves safe.
Working safely at heights does not come by chance. It is not something you luck your way into. Working safely at heights takes preparation, education, and determination. Take this brief list and dive into some of the more in-depth articles it links to. When it comes to fall protection, you can’t have too much information.