Falls From Ladders: What You Should Know

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Falls are a leading cause of workplace injuries and fatalities, especially within the construction industry.  In particular, falls from ladders tend to be the most ubiquitous. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 81% of fall injuries amongst construction workers involve a ladder.

As reported by the Harvard School of Public Health[1], the average height of falls among injured workers is 7.5 feet with approximately 5% of falls from ladders occurring at a height greater than 20 feet. Falls are most likely to occur when workers are using step or trestle ladders, although extension ladders and straight ladders also account for a large percentage of falls.

Injuries from ladder falls are widespread, ranging from minor abrasions to death; although, the most common injuries are fractures, sprains, contusions and abrasions. These injuries are most likely to occur on the arm, elbow or shoulder, followed closely by the head, neck and face.

There are a multitude of reasons that a worker may fall from a ladder, some of which are preventable and some of which are not. A 2010 study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health found that 40% of ladder falls were the result of the ladder moving. Other frequent causes include foot misstep or slip and loss of balance, while factors such as the ladder breaking, the surface moving, and the worker being struck by an object or losing his grip on the ladder were less common.

One way to avoid ladder movement and other sources of falls from ladders is to follow the OSHA guidelines regarding safe ladder usage. The following guidelines are selections from OSHA’s quick card of portable ladder safety tips[2] and OSHA’s fact sheet for preventing falls[3] (for the full set of guidelines, follow the links provided at the end of this post):

  • Read and follow the labels/markings on the ladder.
  • Avoid electrical hazards!
  • Always inspect the ladder for cracked, broken, or defective parts before using it. Do not use a ladder if there is any damage.
  • Make sure that the weight on the ladder will not cause it to slip off its support.
  • Always maintain a 3-point (two hands and a foot, or two feet and a hand) contact on the ladder and keep your body facing the ladder when climbing.
  • Only use ladders for their designed purposes.
  • Use a ladder only on a stable and level surface, unless it has been secured (top or bottom) to prevent displacement.
  • Do not move or shift a ladder while a person or equipment is on the ladder.
  • An extension or straight ladder used to access an elevated surface must extend at least 3 feet above the point of support.
  • Do not apply more weight on the ladder than it is designed to support.

The Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR) also offers steps to ensure ladder safety, such as not attempting to carry tools or anything else with you as you climb a ladder. For a graphic illustration of the CPWR’s ladder safety tips, click here.

In many situations and environments, there are procedures in place to ensure safety. However, guidelines can only go so far, so it is up to ladder users to abide by these procedures. The ramifications of the improper use of equipment can be deadly. We urge you to keep this, as well as the safety measures we’ve reviewed, in mind the next time a ladder is used.

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[1] Preventing Falls from Ladders in Construction: A Guide to Training Site Supervisors http://elcosh.org/document/2079/d001094/preventing-falls-from-ladders-in-construction%253A-a-guide-to-training-site-supervisors.html

[2] OSHA Quick Card: Portable Ladder Safety Tips  http://elcosh.org/record/document/174/d000998.pdf

[3]  OSHA Preventing Falls fact sheet  https://www.osha.gov/OshDoc/data_Hurricane_Facts/fall.pdf