Ladders – be careful how you use them

Safety diagram how to use a ladder

A significant number of injuries and deaths have been attributed to the improper use/failure of ladders and Origen has been involved in a number of investigations/ legal cases related to their failure. These failures occur in both the work and home environments and in some cases involve relatively new ladders. In order to mitigate, there are a number of factors that should be considered when using ladders.

Select the correct ladder
There are different grades of ladders defined in various standards, each with different cost, relative mass and load bearing capacities, and a ladder best suited to the duty should be selected. These grades are typically specified for household, commercial, industrial and extra heavy duty use. The load capacity of the ladder should not be exceeded by the weight of the person using the ladder, any safety gear, and equipment being used. It should be noted that the load capacity of the lighter grades of ladder may not be sufficient to support larger individuals. For example, the load capacity of a domestic ladder defined in SANS 1304-2 is 100kg which is less than the weight of many South Africans. Don’t be tempted to use a cheaper lighter ladder not suited for its duty – the risk of failure is not worth the relatively small cost saving.

Ladders are made of different materials typically including wood, composites (fibre glass) and metal (aluminium) and should be selected to suit the particular duty. Although aluminium ladders are light and versatile they are susceptible to mechanical damage, which can lead to buckling failure, and are obviously not well suited in situations where contact with electricity is likely. For electrical work non-conductive fibre glass ladders are most suitable.

It is also critically important that the ladder be the correct length to undertake the planned work. Work should generally not be carried out from the top of the ladder. Although some specifications allow the load to be applied up to the second tread from the top, a good rule of thumb to improve one’s stability on the ladder is for the ladder to extend beyond the rung supporting one’s weight by at least three rungs. When using a ladder to access a platform ensure the ladder extends past the platform to facilitate moving between the ladder and the platform (a distance of at least 1100mm is recommended).

Inspect the ladder before use
Ladders are frequently damaged during transportation or due to their harsh operating environments and their awkward size and shape. It is therefore important to inspect a ladder before use (including first use). Even small dents or areas of slight deformation can significantly reduce the load carrying capacity of the ladder by increasing the propensity for buckling failures (i.e. reduce the critical buckling load). This may well cause the damaged component to collapse with little warning and for the ladder to become unstable. If ‘pre-use’ inspections highlight any damage that could be of concern, the ladder should be withdrawn from service and be marked in a manner that clearly indicates it is defective and prevents inadvertent use until it can be repaired or is scrapped (in a manner that prevents the ladder reuse).

Correct use of a ladder
Training as to the correct use of ladders is often provided by ladder manufacturers/distributors and attendance of this training is highly recommended to ensure the limitations of the particular ladder are understood and the ladder is used correctly (especially where long ladders or in cases where the user is not familiar with the particular ladder configuration). Injuries can occur during erection of the ladder, by falling from the ladder, toppling of the ladder or failure/collapse of the ladder itself. Some points to consider when using a ladder include:

  • Assess the job to be done – sometimes a ladder is not the correct tool to use and other forms of support (scaffolding, cherry pickers etc) should be used instead.
  • Always maintain 3 point contact with the ladder (one hand two feet, or two hands one foot).
  • Place the ladder on a firm, flat, non-slip surface. Where ladders are placed on an angled/uneven surface they are more likely to slide/topple especially when the load is near the top of the ladder. Uneven/sloped ground can result in the ladder twisting or one of the legs carrying a disproportionate amount of load. Low friction (smooth/wet/oily) support surfaces increase the stresses in the ladder for a given mass.
  • Ensure the base of the ladder is at the correct distance from the structure supporting the ladder (a distance one quarter of the distance to its support point is typically recommended). Increasing the distance of the foot of the ladder from the upper support increases both the bending load on the ladder and the chances of the bottom of the ladder slipping out. Decreasing this distance increases the risk of the ladder toppling backward.
  • Consider additional means to secure the ladder. Use an assistant or stakes in the ground to secure the base of the ladder to ensure it does not slip and/or secure the top of the ladder by lashing it to the supporting structure.
  • Do not place a ladder in front of a doorway unless the door is held closed, locked or guarded.
  • Never apply lateral loads to the ladder or lean out from a ladder – take the time to get down and reposition the ladder rather than leaning out over the stiles (side supports) or trying to ‘walk’ the ladder sideways.
  • Make sure the spreader bars of step and ‘A’ frame ladders are fully extended and locked before ascending the ladder. Similarly, the rung locks on an extension ladder should be checked to ensure they are properly engaged and locked before erection/use.
  • Do not allow more than one person to climb the ladder at any time (unless the ladder is specifically designed for use in this manner).
  • Make sure people do not try to work or pass below the ladder.
  • Make sure the climbing gripping surfaces are clean and free of oil and grease.

The message is simple – although we all think we know how to use a ladder we are often over confident or become complacent and simple rules are overlooked or simply ignored (because they are inconvenient). This will inevitably lead to unnecessary accidents and injuries that can be very serious and have life changing consequences.

Sharing knowledge gained from investigating the fundamental causes of failure.