Every year, over 300 people die in ladder-related accidents, and thousands suffer disabling injuries. The impact from sprains and strains, broken bones and other more serious disabling conditions resulting from falls from ladders reaches far beyond the injured worker's suffering.

The direct compensation and medical treatments associated with falls from elevation cost American businesses $4.6 billion, according to a report from Liberty Mutual published several years ago. That report found that indirect costs associated with increased absenteeism, worker replacement and productivity loss can cost up to two times as much.

How can you help prevent ladder falls?

First, you need to understand why they are happening. There are many potential causes. Workers can their lose footing while carrying tools or materials up the ladder. Grease, ice, mud, snow or water on the rungs can cause slips and falls. Old, poorly maintained ladders can break during use. Ladders can slip out of position if workers are overreaching or the ladder is placed on an uneven surface.

There are many aspects to ladder safety, and addressing them can help you reduce or even eliminate ladder accidents.

Choosing the Correct Ladder

Every ladder safety class should start with a discussion about proper ladder selection. Using the wrong ladder for the job is one of the leading causes of ladder accidents. Choosing the right ladder for the job can be divided into four categories:

Weight rating – Make sure that the weight rating of the ladder is greater than the weight of the employee and the weight of any tools or materials the employee will be carrying.

I recommend using ladders with a Type I, 250-pound rating. Here's why: I have people ask me, "If I weigh 170 pounds, why can't I use a Type III ladder rated for 200 pounds?" Type III ladders are classified as homeowner ladders, but these workers are using them on the job.

Ladders aren't classified as industrial until you get to the Type I, 250-pound rating. Another reason to use a ladder with a higher weight rating is that ladders tend to be borrowed by whomever needs one in the moment, including a coworker who might weigh more than 300 pounds.

Material – Most job sites require fiberglass ladders because they are non-conductive. People ask me: "If I'm not working around any electricity, why can't I use an aluminum ladder?" My answer is because the ladder is going to disappear the minute he turns around and the next guy might be working on the lights. The best practice is just to have fiberglass on the job.

Length or height – The shortest ladder also is the lightest and often the one the average person would rather carry. Unfortunately, workers rarely come back for the right-sized ladder. Instead, they try to make the short ladder work by climbing on the top step or top cap. Make sure the ladder is tall enough to safely reach the work without climbing on the top rung or top cap of a stepladder or the top three rungs of an extension ladder.

Style – Workers should use the correct style of ladder for the job (stepladder, extension, staircase), and employees should never lean a stepladder against a wall and climb it like an extension ladder. If they need to work on staircase, they should not get creative. Instead, remind them to get an articulating or multipurpose ladder that will adjust to the stairs.

Ladder Inspections Are Important

Ladders should be inspected at three different times: first, when it is received, to make sure it is in good condition and has no freight damage; second, every time it is used and third, on a regular or periodic basis by a competent ladder inspector. A competent ladder inspector is someone who, either by training or by experience, knows what to look for in an inspection and has authority to remove the ladder if he or she finds a problem.

This inspection should be more thorough and detailed than the before-every-use inspection. Both, however, should focus on a few key areas:

Feet – The feet on a ladder are like the tires on your vehicle. They are made of a soft rubber so they will grip the ground, which is good. But soft rubber wears out and becomes slick, which is not good. If the tread is worn on your ladder feet, they need to be replaced. If your company uses a lot of ladders, it's a good idea to have replacement feet on hand.

Side rails – If the side rails are cracked, bent or split, the ladder needs to be replaced. There is no glue or duct tape that will repair broken fiberglass. People often ask if fiberglass is worn out once the fiberglass has faded. Fiberglass breaks down in UV radiation from sunlight and will fade faster if stored on the top of the ladder rack or the sunny side of a building. Fading does not mean the ladder is bad, but excessive fading will cause the surface to split or crack.

Rungs and steps – Again, if they are bent or broken, they are bad and need to be replaced. Also, make sure they are free from any dirt, grease or oil.

Latches, locks, rivets, bolts and ropes – Over time, all the connection points become loose and worn. Make sure that these connections are tight and the ladder doesn't "walk." Latches should move freely and the springs should be in good condition.

Stickers – Labels and stickers should be legible and in good condition; this is easier said than done. Warning labels are on the outside of the rail and often are worn off, faded or gone. In the past, replacement labels have been hard to get because ladder companies didn't know what condition the ladder was in that you wanted to put new labels on. This opinion is changing and companies now are selling replacement label kits on their websites.

Ladder Set Up

Now that you or your employees have picked the right ladder for the job and inspected it, it's time to set it up. Surprisingly, a high percentage of ladder injuries are from handling and set up.

Ladders are heavy and awkward because of their size. Remind employees to always use caution when removing a ladder from a ladder rack. They should find the balance point and carry the ladder with the front slightly elevated.

When setting up, always look up first; know what's above you. Set up on a flat, dry spot. Stake off and tie off whenever possible. Never set up in front of a door that opens outward unless the door is blocked off. If the ladder must set up near a corner or blind spot, make sure the area is properly marked with cones or tape. You don't want someone driving around the corner and taking the ladder out from under the employee using it.

Extension ladders should be set up at 75.5 degrees or a 4-to-1 ratio. For every four feet the ladder goes up, it should come out from the wall one foot. When climbing onto a roof or raised platform, the ladder should be three feet above the roofline.

Never level a ladder by shimming with bricks or boards. The correct way to level a ladder is to dig out the high side instead of building up the low side. This also can be accomplished with leg levelers that can be added to the sides of the ladder.