It cannot be overstated: Slips trips and falls are the number one leading cause of death in the workplace, by a longshot. In the construction industry particularly, they account for 33% of work-related deaths, and many of these occur when employees are working at heights with a ladder.
As such, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) puts a heavy emphasis on fall protection to prevent these EHS incidents from occurring. OSHA Standard 1926.1053 covers the requirements for ladder safety in the construction industry, but these rules can be applied to all types of workplaces.
Below are the top three most important rules to always follow to maximize ladder safety.
One of the golden rules of ladder safety, no matter the type of ladder, is to maintain 3-points of contact at all times. What this means is either at least two hands and one foot, or two feet and one hand should always be on the ladder rungs. Leaning one’s body or torso on the ladder does not count as a point of contact!
Having 3 points of contact specifically designed to be the best way to maximize balance. Anything less than three points creates a great risk of losing your balance, as the third point is to catch yourself should the other two fail.
The three point of contact rule makes up for the lack of a safety harness required in other equipment such as aerial lifts. This is also why you should never stand on the top step of a ladder, as there might not be anything for you to catch yourself on.
While the 3 Points of Contact rule helps you maintain balance on the ladder, the 4 to 1 rule helps the ladder maintain its balance. It only applies to straight or extension ladders, as step ladders (also known as supporting ladders) have their own measures to maintain balance.
The 4 to 1 Ratio states when a ladder is leaning against a surface, for every 4 feet of height, move the base 1 foot away from the wall. This puts it at an angle so that the ladder is capable of supporting the weight of the person while minimizing the risk of it slipping or toppling over.
For example, if you have to reach a height of 12 feet, the base of the ladder should be 3 feet away from the wall. If you’re unable to reach the required height while following this rule, you need a different ladder or tool.
Probably the most common use of a ladder to gain access to an upper landing surface, such as climbing onto a roof or scaffolding. However, this poses an extra threat of falling as moving from the ladder to the landing (or the reverse) can often be awkward. Without enough space to mount and dismount the ladder, it is far too easy to slip and fall.
This is why it is important to always make sure the ladder’s slide rails extend at least 3 feet above the surface you are climbing onto. This should give you enough space to carefully climb on and off the ladder without losing your balance. It's this type of fall prevention measures that is often overlooked and leads to unnecessary injuries.
When the ladder is not long enough to afford 3 feet above the landing surface, its top should be tied or fastened to a rigid supporting structure. Additionally, a grab rail must be provided to assist getting on or off the ladder.
These rules were laid out by OSHA to greatly reduce the most common ways workers hurt themselves when working on ladders. While there are many more regulations in OSHA’s ladder safety standard, the best way to maintain ladder safety is to use common sense.
Always face the ladder when climbing or descending, conduct a quick safety inspection of the ladder to make sure it is in good condition, and don’t use a ladder if there is a more appropriate tool for the job.
Too often these common sense rules aren’t common enough, even when brought up in construction safety meetings. It’s important to track how often (or how rarely) safety procedures are being followed. This can be accomplished by using a safety management software to record and analyze all your safety efforts. Such software will make it easier to see where your safety program needs improvement, and where employees are using ladders safely.