Ladders Are Inherently Dangerous

Climb up, climb down. It seems simple enough. Then why are so many construction workers injured or killed while using ladders? It always amazes me how many construction workers do not know how to safely use a ladder. Anyone can climb a ladder, including my three-year-old grandson, but there is more to it than just climbing up or down, which is why OSHA included the training requirements (1926.1060) when they updated Subpart X — Stairways and Ladders standard.

In 2011, there were 721 fatal construction incidents. Approximately 21 percent were due to falls from elevations less than 10 ft; 14 percent occurred from elevations between 10 and 15 ft. The causes of these incidents vary. Some were caused by the worker slipping off a step, some were because the ladder was not set up correctly. The improper setup caused the ladder to kick out, flip backward or slip to the side. Others occurred because the ladder was damaged or placed in the wrong place (e.g., near a power line).

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What bothers me the most is these incidents are preventable and, in most cases, all it takes is a little training to ensure all workers, experienced and inexperienced alike, know ladder safety requirements.

The OSHA ladder training standards require employers to ensure that all employees have been trained by a competent person in the nature of the hazards, correct procedures for setup, the proper use and setup, load carrying capacities and the ladder standard. Simple enough. But I often wonder how many construction companies actually take the time to provide this training because construction managers, foremen and safety directors often take for granted that employees know how to use ladders safely.

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Common Ladder Use

Although utility and excavation contractors use step ladders, this article will focus on the use of straight ladders and extension ladders, and I intend to provide more than just the stuff anyone can download from the web.

Underground utility and excavation contractor employees, like most contractors, use ladders on a regular basis — but they are generally used in trenches and excavations or confined spaces. Of course, some employees use them to access overhead power or telephone lines, reach tree limbs that must be cut down and many other outdoor uses. The common denominator for utility and excavation contractors is they are almost always used outside and are often used on unstable ground, such as dirt.

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Ladder Safety

Using a ladder on unstable ground starts with selecting a ladder that is in good condition and has been inspected prior to use. Straight/extension ladders must have slip resistant feet to prevent ladder displacement while in use. The ladder must be placed on a firm level surface. This is often a problem in a trench and the ladder may need some adjustment to ensure the ladder does not sink into the dirt floor or fall to the side while a worker is accessing the trench.

Ladder outriggers can be attached to the ladder to provide additional stability. Extension ladders should not be separated into two halves. Manufacturers frown upon it and it violates the warranty. Extension ladders are not designed to function in two pieces, and at best, only one half will have slip resistant feet. If you want a ladder that can function in many ways and is easy to transport, consider a multipurpose ladder, such as the Little Giant Ladder. Multipurpose ladders come in various sizes, can be used as a step ladder or straight ladder, are completely adjustable and, as an added bonus, they have extra wide-flared bases to improve stability. Many are now available in fiberglass so they can be used by electrical contractors or near power lines. However, always ensure employees use extra caution and maintain at least a 10-ft clearance when handling ladders around overhead power lines.

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Whenever possible, ladders should be set up at a 75.5-degree angle with the ground. That equates to a 1H:4V slope, or in layman’s terms, if the average worker stands in front of the ladder with his toes against the feet of the ladder and then extends his arms straight out and grabs the ladder, the ladder will be at approximately the right angle. We all know that maintaining a proper slope is not always possible in a trench or confined space. When that happens, the ladder should be physically secured at the top — which is always a good practice — so it does not flip backwards or slide sideways at the top. A secure ladder is a safe ladder.

Ladders should always extend a minimum of 3 ft above the point of access at the top, which is the point where the worker climbs on and off the ladder. There are also grab bar attachments available for portable ladders that slip over the ends of most commonly used ladders and provide a walk through configuration, which makes it easier and safer to get on and off the ladder.

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For many years, safety experts have recommended using three-point contact for climbing. Recently, however, J. Nigel Ellis, one of the leading authorities on fall protection, has recommended using a three-point control method. The primary difference is in the requirement for a horizontal handgrip to ensure support while climbing a ladder. His method is based on studies that show that a worker cannot support his weight if a vertical grip on the side rail of the ladder is used and he slips off a rung. In fact, using a horizontal power grip on a rung of a ladder is far more efficient than gripping a vertical rail.

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The three-point control method works like this. A worker must always have at least one foot firmly on a rung and two hands grabbing a rung or one hand securely grabbing a rung and one foot firmly resting on a rung while climbing. Only one limb may not be securely in contact with a rung at any time while climbing. The key is three limbs in control at all times. The same concept applies when climbing on or off vehicles or equipment.

Some will argue that sliding the hands up the rails while climbing helps to ensure three points are in contact with the ladder. But the studies clearly demonstrate that if a slip and fall occurs, the worker cannot support the dynamic forces of falling using a vertical grip.


Ladders are safe when used properly, but the best way to ensure that all workers know how to use and climb a ladder safely is to provide some training. It is also important to ensure workers have the best ladders, maintained in good condition and they are using them properly. Most importantly, remind employees that ladders are inherently dangerous and should never be taken for granted.

George Kennedy is NUCA Vice President of Safety.

Check Out These Useful Ladder Resources Online

NUCA Ladder Tool-BoxTalk:

Ladder Safety Checklist:

OSHA Portable Ladder Safety Quick Card: