Portable Ladder Safety

Portable ladders are one of the few tools that we use in our industry that cross departmental lines. They allow us to work quickly and easily at heights and are very convenient.  However, we tend to forget that, like all tools, when used unsafely they can be dangerous. Consider that according to OSHA, in the final three months of 2016, 15 employees died from falling off of ladders at work. Most of these employees died from head trauma and several of the deaths occurred at heights that many of us would typically not associate as a risk; one of the falls was from only 6 feet high! So, this month we are going to look at the hazards associated with using portable ladders and how to avoid them.
Ladder Selection
Ladder Type
The first step in safely using a portable ladder is to choose the proper ladder type. In our industry, we tend to primarily use two types of ladders; step ladders and extension ladders.  These are type distinct types of ladders and are not to be used interchangeably. Step ladders are designed to be used unsupported, which means that they are not designed to be leaned against a wall, piece of scenery, or another surface, but should be used as freestanding ladders. Extension ladders, however, are designed to be supported by other surfaces such as walls, scenery and other surfaces. Select the ladder type that best suits your needs.
Ladder Material
If you are going to be working around exposed live electrical conductors make sure that you choose a ladder made out of a non-conductive material like fiberglass. Metal ladders should not be used when working with exposed live electrical conductors!
Ladder Rating
Many stagehands don’t realize that ladders have a weight rating and the ladder you choose should be appropriate for the weight of the user as well as any other equipment and tools they will need to use while on the ladder.
There are five categories of ladder ratings:
Type IAA (Extra Heavy Duty)  375 pounds
Type IA (Extra Heavy Duty) 300 pounds
Type I (Heavy Duty) 250 pounds
Type II (Medium Duty) 225 pounds
Type III (Light Duty) 200 pounds
For example, if a stagehand who weighs 225lbs needs to work on a ladder and possibly rest a 25lb speaker on top of the ladder as they prepare to hang it, and bring any other sort of tools or cables with them, they will need to use a Type 1A or Type 1AA ladder in order to ensure that they are not going above the weight rating.
This information is located on the side of the ladder and should not be covered with tape or stickers in order for everyone to be able to read it.
Ladder Height
If you are going to use a ladder to work at a height, it’s important to make sure that the ladder gets you to that height safely. Most ladders will have the safe working height listed on the same sticker where the weight rating is listed.
  • When selecting a step ladder’s height, it is important to never include the top two steps when determining the height. YOU SHOULD NEVER STAND ON THE TOP TWO STEPS OF A STEP LADDER!!!! By doing so you extend your body above the center of gravity of the ladder which can cause the ladder to tip over and also make it impossible to maintain three points of contact when climbing up and down. 
  • When selecting the height of an extension ladder add 3’ to the height of the ladder to allow for the ladder to extend beyond the top of the work surface. This provides a safe point to hold onto when getting on and off the top of the ladder.
Ladder Hazards
Now that we have covered what attributes to consider during ladder selection, let’s take a moment to look at some of the hazards that we face when working ladders.
  • Slips – Ladders should be kept clean and free of excess paint buildup, oil, or other substances that might cause someone to slip and fall while on the ladder.
  • Three points of contact – When climbing a ladder it’s important to maintain three points of contact between your body and the ladder. It should either be two hands and one foot or two feet and one hand making contact with the ladder as you climb. This means that you should not be carrying anything in your hands as you ascend and descend the ladder including lights, speakers, pieces of lumber, or anything else you might be tempted to carry up or down with you. Instead of carrying these things either have a coworker hand them to you or use a rope to haul them up or down.
  • Overextending – Keep your body centered on the ladder, ideally with your body within the two rails of the ladder. This prevents the ladder from sliding or tipping over.
  • Only use on level surfaces –  If you have to use a ladder on an un-level surface use pieces of lumber to level out the floor under the ladder. 
  • Don’t move the ladder with someone on it (including yourself) –  Take the time to come down off the ladder before moving it. We all have either seen someone do the ladder hop to move it over a couple of inches or maybe even done it ourselves; the time it takes to climb down and move the ladder is much shorter than being injured and losing work or possibly dying.
  • Only one person on a ladder at a time – Besides the likely problem that this causes for weight ratings, ladders are only designed for one person at a time. If one person slips or falls they could seriously injure not only themselves but their brother or sister who is also on the ladder.
  • Face the ladder while climbing – It might feel faster or more daring, but take the time to turn around. Going up or down ladders while facing out upsets the balance of the ladder and can lead to it tipping over on top of you.
  • Have someone foot the ladder and/or ground for you – When possible have someone foot the ladder for you to help keep it stable. If you will be making frequent trips up and down the ladder or need to get materials up or down from the ladder it helps to have someone pass you things.
  • Don’t leave tools and materials on top of ladders  If you forget tools or materials or someone doesn’t know they are there it can cause serious injuries when they go to strike or move the ladder.
Ladders are great tools when used safely. Taking the time to choose the correct ladder and following these rules can help keep you safe. Remember Union Safe is Union Strong

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