Once the appropriate ladder is chosen and inspected, then it's time to climb the ladder. Here are some ladder use and climbing tips to remember:

  • The three-point rule: When climbing a ladder, always maintain three points of contact when ascending and descending a ladder (two feet, one hand or two hands, one foot) but what do you do when you stop climbing and start working? Most safety people say you should still maintain three points of contact. Most workers will say that it's hard to get the job done using just one hand.
  • The OSHA standard does not include portable ladders in the six-foot tie-off requirements, but that has not stopped a lot of companies from including it in their best practices. In fact, some companies require tying off when as low as four feet off the ground.
  • Never climb a ladder while carrying tools or equipment. Use a rope to raise and lower tools after you have climbed to the desired height.
  • Lashing: If one ladder is good, then two is not better. Lashing is when two ladders are tied together to reach greater heights. Please never do it!
  • Belt buckle rule: Never overextend. Workers always should keep the center of their bodies (belt buckle) between the side rails of the ladder. If they can't safely reach something, they need to climb down, move the ladder and climb back up.
  • Face the ladder: Always climb facing the ladder, wear proper foot wear and make sure all spreader bars and latches are fully locked.

Over the last 10 or 20 years, we have greatly increased the amount of ladder safety training available. The problem is that ladder-related accidents are increasing, not decreasing, so safety training alone is not enough. Ladder design needs to change as well, particularly since engineering out a hazard is at the top of the hierarchy of controls.

Hierarchy of Control

When designing a product or process, it is best to design out all dangers. This process is outlined in the hierarchies of control. Simply put, engineer the danger out. If that is not possible, guard against the danger. If you are unable to adequately guard, then warn, train and provide personal protective equipment.

Unfortunately, long ago, someone decided that ladders couldn't be improved, so they just put a lot of warning labels on them and had countless training meetings where employees were told not to do the things we know they do. Everything else has improved with technology, and I think it's time we start improving ladders.

Understanding how people use ladders and, more importantly, how they get injured using ladders, is key to designing new, safer climbing products. Studying the statistics, we can divide ladder accidents into three categories:

Strains and sprains from unloading, carrying and setting up the ladder. Almost half of the reported injuries involving ladders are caused by the awkward size and weight of the ladder. The easy solution to this problem is to make the ladder lighter.

Using the wrong type or size of ladder for the job. A lot of times, this issue is caused by the first problem. The correct ladder is too heavy, so employees grab the smaller one and try to make it work by climbing too high on the ladder.

Falls from height due to overreaching or improper setup. All three types of injuries are painful and costly, but a higher percentage of disabilities and fatalities come from catastrophic falls from height, so let's concentrate on that.

"I was just trying to reach that last thing" is the start to a lot of ladder accident stories. We are trained to keep our bodies between the side rails to prevent us from overreaching. Too often, we stretch to reach instead of climbing down and moving the ladder. No matter how much we train workers, it's human nature.

Another factor in side-tip accidents is how level the ground is in the setup. When working outside, the ground is almost never level. A lot of time, the floor isn't level indoors. To give you an idea of how much level ground can affect tipping, here's an example: If a 28-foot extension ladder is one inch off at the base, the top of the ladder will be 19 inches off of the center of gravity. That puts the top of the ladder completely out of the footprint of the ladder. Even if you are keeping your body between the side rails, your ladder will tip.

When asked what they do to compensate when the ground is not level, most people will say that they use a brick or a board to build up the low side of the ladder. Spending time on a scavenger hunt looking for the right-sized board to level a ladder doesn't sound very productive or safe.

OSHA recommends that workers dig out the high side of the ladder instead of building up the low side. Because this approach is more time-consuming, most people don't do it. After-market leg levelers can be added to the base of ladders, but they have two major problems. First, they add extra weight to an already heavy ladder (remember problem number one) and second, they do not provide any extra stability to the ladder.

Manufacturers have begun adding outriggers to extension ladders. This can increase the side-tip stability by over 600 percent. Because level ground is such a big factor in most side-tip accidents, designing the outriggers to adapt to unlevel surfaces greatly will reduce the possibility of a tip due to overreaching. Another design improvement to help reduce tips on extension ladders is a self-locking attachment at the top of the ladder that secures the ladder in place.

New Innovations for Ladders

Some new innovations coming from ladder manufacturers combine the platform and handrail system of an enclosed scaffold system with an adjustable fiberglass ladder. These new adjustable safety cages or adjustable enclosed platforms allow workers to move freely with both hands in any direction, rather than forcing them to maintain three points of contact. Handrail systems on the adjustable safety cages removes the need to tie off from above, allowing workers to get the job done quickly and safely, even when there is no way to tie off. Adding an adjustable base allows the ladder to be used safely on uneven ground and stairs.

David Francis is national safety director for Little Giant Ladder Systems. He has worked in the ladder industry for over 30 years and travels all over the country performing ladder safety training. He can be contacted via email at dave@ladders.com or www.laddersafetyhub.com.