Following a tragic accident on site, Roger Bisby assesses the importance of ladder safety.
A few weeks ago I was working on a site where somebody died by falling off a ladder. I had gone to collect some thermal boards and he told me he would give me a hand to unload when I got back.
When I eventually did get back, after stopping off for some breakfast, he was already in intensive care and, shortly after that, he was dead – the victim of a massive brain haemorrhage.
The fall was from just over 2 metres and there wasn’t even any sign of blood where he hit his head. It was a senseless stupid accident – the kind that just shouldn’t happen.
The ladder was set against a plastic gutter on a single storey building. We all know that nobody should ever put a ladder against a plastic gutter but on a single storey extension many of us do it because the perceived risk is low. I could easily get side tracked here talking about the nature of risk, but the bottom line is that we are often in the most danger when we think we are perfectly safe.
If you have to climb up three storeys on a rope operated extension ladder you take every precaution in the book, but the little hops we ignore. If there is ever a risk of falling don’t just leave it to chance do something, anything, to mitigate the risk. That could be something as simple as tying a ladder or it could even be not using a ladder at all. It is up to you to assess the risks and use your judgement.
It is a common misconception that you are not allowed to work from ladders. It is certainly true that you should only do limited, short duration jobs from a ladder and you should have at least three points of contact with the ladder so that probably means only doing jobs which can be completed with one hand. Obviously the idea is that you should be able to hang on tightly to the ladder but there is not much point hanging onto a ladder if it is able to move.
Stopping a ladder moving can be done in many different ways. You can get a big bloke on minimum wage to stand on the bottom rung. Personally, I have never had much faith in these ladder footers – they tend to get bored and start texting, or looking at passing members of the opposite sex, or perhaps the same sex.
I can well remember having a casual labourer who was given to smoking a joint while making phone calls when he should have been looking after the bottom of my ladder. If the choice is between him and a bag of sand, give me a bag of sand any day. Better still give me a ladder stabiliser such as the one from Ladder Safety Devices.
Some years ago I made a short video showing how easy it is to fall off a ladder when over-reaching.
I put on a fall arrest harness and climbed the ladder and then reached out. I didn’t have to reach far before the ladder flipped. That’s right ‘flipped’ not ‘slipped’. Prior to making that video I thought the big problem was sideways slipping but very often it is simply that the ladder flips through 180 degrees so you end up with your back to the wall, except, of course, you don’t because you let go.
It happens so quickly that the majority of people who survive such an incident don’t even know what happened. “One minute I was up the ladder and the next I was on the ground,” says the guy from his hospital bed. That little bit in between is lost to the memory.
I repeated the experiment with a pair of ladder stabilisers and reached as far as I could. No matter how hard I tried, and believe me I tried, I could not flip the ladder or induce sideways slippage.
In fact, I put such a lot of force into that experiment that I bent the ladder and it had to be scrapped.
You can fit those stabilisers to any trade ladder, but my favoured approach is to buy a ladder with them already fitted. The ladder I use is called a Hunter Ladder after the man that invented the device. These are sold by Ladder Safety Devices. The company also makes a number of other clever gadgets and systems to improve your chances of survival.
They could end up saving your life, but if all they do is save you having to have a month off work with your leg in plaster that would seem to me to be value for money. If you haven’t made a New Year’s resolution yet how about giving up taking risks on ladders?