The Danger of Falls and How to Prevent Them
Falling from one foot or five feet does not seem to be a big deal to many people but the impact is greater than you think. Falls do not just cause scrapes and bruises; people can become permanently disabled or even killed, resulting in millions of dollars lost each year to these avoidable accidents.
According to the National Safety Council, falls are the leading cause of occupational traumatic deaths and account for 8 percent of trauma fatalities. Falling from a distance as low as a person’s height can be fatal. One report shows falls as one of the top causes of workplace fatalities among all industries, second only to vehicle collisions. Despite this knowledge, too many people continue to work without ladders when appropriate or use them incorrectly.
One frequent reason for falls from elevation is using something other than a ladder for climbing. Directing and training employees to use ladders is a good first step but that is not enough. Proper selection and recommendations for safe usage are just as important. Regardless of how commonplace ladders are to us, we must always take extra care when reaching for elevated items, since the results of a fall can linger long after the plunge.
When designing a safety process, the first step is to evaluate the task and find ways to eliminate the associated hazards. In this context, we should ask if there are any ways to perform the task without having the employee leave the ground. Many tools are available that can do simple jobs such as changing a light bulb or cleaning elevated areas. Relatively inexpensive devices such as light bulb changers and cleaning extenders are available and should be considered.
For those tasks that need ladders, start by selecting the correct ladder for the job. There are many types and sizes of ladders and selecting the best one will make sure the job is done right the first time. For example, a ladder with plain metal steps may become too slick to use safely outside during rain.
As with any tool, not inspecting ladders before use may lead to disastrous consequences. Check to make sure that all hardware is in working condition. There should be no visible damage to steps, support brackets, or securing mechanisms. Set up the ladder on a flat even surface to make sure it does not lean in any direction when you begin climbing. The worst time to find out the ladder is not properly set up or is in poor condition is when you are on the ladder.
Always maintain three points of contact while climbing. In other words, only move one hand or one foot up the ladder at a time. This also means that you should not carry items when climbing. Use a tool belt, a rope to pull up items, or have a helper assist in performing the elevated task. In fact, someone holding the ladder steady is always a good idea.
Make sure you use the belt buckle rule when reaching from a ladder. Your belt buckle should not go over the side edge of the ladder, or else it may tip over. Also, you should never use the top two steps of a stepladder or place a ladder in front of a door without locking or propping the door open. Otherwise, someone unaware that the doorway is blocked may try to use the door and knock the ladder over.
When on a roof, tie the ladder to something to prevent it from falling and trapping you. You should also make sure you have at least three feet of ladder extended above the height of the roof. This allows you to have something to hold on to when climbing on and off.
When setting up an extension ladder against a wall or building, make sure that you use the ¼ rule: for every four feet in ladder height, the ladder’s base should be one foot away from the wall or building. For example, the bottom of a 16-foot ladder leaned against a building should be four feet away from the building. If it is too close, climbing is more difficult and the ladder may tip backwards on you. If it is too far, the ladder may collapse inward or the bottom of the ladder may slide outward. Either situation can result in a devastating fall.
There are other options, such as man lifts or cherry pickers, to help with elevated tasks. Whatever you decide, safety should always be a consideration when working on any task. If you have questions or need additional information on this topic, contact your risk solutions consultant for assistance.
National Institue for Occupational Health & Safety
National Safety Council
Editor's note: This article was originally published in June 2010 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.