Ladder Safety – 10 Questions
Dave Francis, National Safety Director of Little Giant Ladder Systems
The big battle in ladder safety is “3 points of contact” vs. “3 points of control.” Listen to ladder expert Dave Francis discuss this “3 points” debate. Dave answers 10 questions on fall protection vs. fall prevention, fiberglass ladders destroyed by the sun, and more.
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Dave describes “grandpa’s ladder,” and how it should be avoided in many instances.
Dave says almost all ladder accidents can be prevented if workers follow training, and if they don’t get creative and try to invent something to get to those hard-to-reach places that grandpa’s ladder won’t get to safely.
Dave Francis is National Safety Director of Little Giant Ladder Systems.
Brandon Nys: Welcome to Safety Experts Talk. Visit our website at CreativeSafetySupply.com/podcast.
Dave Francis: I think almost all ladder accidents can be prevented.
Dan Clark: I have sad news. Today, someone will die falling from a ladder. Every work day, one person is killed in a ladder-related accident. Let’s try to change that.
Hi, I’m Dan Clark, and we’re talking with Dave Francis, National Safety Director of Little Giant Ladder Systems. Dave started with Little Giant assembling ladders, and for over three decades he’s been dedicated to ladder design and safety. Hi, Dave.
Dave Francis: Good morning. How are you?
Dan: I’m doing okay. But 2000 workers are injured per day, 100 permanent disabilities per day, and one fatal per day just because of ladder accidents. Those are pretty daunting statistics.
Dave: Yeah, they’re terrible, especially if you’re a ladder manufacturer. And we want to do everything we can to change those numbers and make them better. We find that training is a big part of it, but also, we feel like we need to change ladder design as well to, maybe, prevent people from getting hurt when they do the things that we know they do, even though they’ve been trained not to.
Dan: Well, I know ladders really haven’t changed that much, until recently. And, I know your company’s been part of that. Ah, you refer to these old ladders as “your grandpa’s ladder”
Dave: Well, when I say “grandpa’s ladders,” I think everybody gets a visual. They know exactly what I’m talking about.
Dave: You mentioned ladders haven’t changed much in design, and it’s really been hundreds of years. All other products have improved with technology.
We know how people get hurt. They’re carrying too heavy of a ladder. They’re, ah, using the wrong ladder. They’re overreaching on their ladder. And, so, we feel like if we design products with better stability, lighter weight, easier mobility and versatility, we’ll be able to give them the right ladder for the job and help them prevent that “creative moment” when they have to figure out how to get to those hard places without breaking the rules.
Dan: So, grandpa’s ladder usually was wood. Do they even make wood ladders anymore?
Dave: Ah, there’s still some companies regionally that make wood ladders. Used to be, all ladders were wood. There’s some inconsistencies with wood. Wood is nonconductive, but wood that’s wet becomes conductive and, so, it was difficult to maintain the integrity of the side rails and steps, and also to know whether it was conductive or nonconductive at the moment, because of the moisture.
We switched to aluminum but then quickly switched from aluminum to fiberglass because fiberglass is nonconductive. And, so, most job sites will require a fiberglass ladder be used on the job, even if you’re not working on electricity. Ladders tend to be communal in nature and if you’re not using it, somebody else will. You never know who’s going grab your ladder and use it on an electrical application. So, it’s standard practice to just have fiberglass ladders on jobsites.
Dan: Mm-hm. Well, Dave, lets go on to something called 10 ladder questions.
Dan: I’ve drawn these from some of our clients, and some of the folks around here. Some people in the construction industry. 10 ladder questions, rapid-fire. Here we go, number one. If the ladder is not level, is it okay to put a 2 x 4 under one leg?
Dave: By the standard, no. OSHA says “do not build up the low side,” that you should dig out the high side. Another alternative is a leveling device. Many companies make aftermarket leg levelers that can be attached to the side of the leg. And we provide some ladders with those levelers built right in.
Dan: Okay. Next question. When climbing, are leather-soled shoes okay to wear?
Dave: No. I always tell people the feet on your ladder are the most important part of the setup, because that’s your contact with the ground. But YOUR feet are the second, because they’re your contact to the ladder. So you want to make sure that you have good work shoes with tread. You know, if you’re wearing dress shoes with that slick leather bottom sole, and its wet or moist at all, or there’s anything to slip on, it will make your foot slip. So, you want to avoid your ladder feet from slipping out, and you want to avoid your feet from slipping off.
Dan: No dress shoes or high heels.
Dave: That’s correct. Or flip-flops.
Dave: We want to avoid wearing any kind of sandals. You want to wear close-toed work shoes where you’re climbing a ladder.
Dan: So, this works out for weekend warriors too. Ah, if you’re painting the house on a summer day and you’re in your flip-flops, you’re in danger.
Dave: That’s a great point. A lot of times we train for safety at work and then we come home and we throw that all away and we break those rules when we’re at home and we’re trying to get the job done fast so we can get off to that barbecue. But same rules apply.
Dan: Next question. Fiberglass ladders. Are they really damaged by the sun?
Dave: Fiberglass ladders are damaged by the sun. It takes a long time. We’re trying to find a coating or a resin that does not break down in UV radiation. But, if you’ve ever seen, ah, pool equipment, diving boards benches, slides, in the past, after they’ve sat in the sun for a long time, they start to become brittle and crack. That same thing happens with fiberglass ladders.
Other industries have moved to coatings that protect fiberglass, but they’re conductive coatings. So, in a pool industry situation, they’re not worried about conductivity. But, in ladders, it doesn’t make any sense to put a conductive coating on a nonconductive fiberglass ladder. The best thing to do is keep your ladders out of the sun as much as possible.
Dave: If it’s faded, that doesn’t mean that it’s bad. But once the outer surface starts to break down and you start to feel the fibers inside the resin, then it’s time to get another fiberglass ladder.
Dave: On A-frame ladders, you’ll notice that the top step on a traditional A-frame ladder has a sticker on it that says “This is not a step don’t stand here.” There’s little pictures on the internet, all over the place, of people making fun of that sticker because it’s on a rung saying it’s not a rung.
Dave: We’ve just said “If a problem in the workplace is people climbing up on that rung, ignoring that sticker, why don’t we just remove it altogether?” That allows the climber to center themselves better in the ladder, prevents them from using that step to climb up even further and stand up on that top cap. And we see people on job sites all the time, on that top rung or that top cap because they’re using the wrong ladder for the job. So we want to do anything that we can to prevent them from using it incorrectly.
Dan: But where do people put their beer?
Dan: Okay, I’m kidding. No, we don’t encourage people to drink beer while they’re on a ladder.
Dave: No, one of the warnings on the label is not to do that.
Dan: Okay. OSHA rules are vague on inspections. How often should ladders be inspected?
Dave: The OSHA standard is quite vague when it comes to ladder inspections, and so there’s a lot of confusion in the industry about ladders. The standard actually says “Ladders should be inspected before every use.” But that inspection is just a quick visual that there’s no broken parts or rungs, and that your feet are in good condition. And so, that’s not a big, long inspection. It’s just a quick visual to make sure it’s not broken.
It does state that ladders should be inspected by a competent person. Somebody who has, through experience or training, the necessary information to see if everything is okay with the ladder and that it’s in good condition. And that they have the authority to do something about it.
Dan: I see.
Dave: They state that that should be done on a “regular basis” or a “periodic basis.” And they leave that up to the end user to decide, based on the climbing conditions, the environment, and whether or not there’s been any kind of incident that might compromise the integrity of the ladder. I’ve been involved with companies that have very strict ladder inspection programs where they do it semiannually. Most people have decided on annually.
A lot of companies have just said “Our safety officer is going to inspect them as part of every jobsite visit.” Some companies have a paper trail on each ladder with documentation. Others put stickers on sides of the ladders. And others just include it in there safety program that it will be done, but they don’t keep documentation. So, there’s several different levels of inspections, but it is important to inspect your ladders before you use it to make sure that isn’t broken. And then regularly by a competent person to look for any kind of a defect.
And, really quickly, the number one thing you want to look for is that the feet are in good condition. Feet on a ladder are like the tires on your vehicle. If the tread is worn out, they need to be replaced because that’s your contact to the ground.
Dan: Okay. Warning labels on ladders get ripped up. If that happens to you have to throw the ladder away?
Dave: No, but a safety officer will ask you to remove a ladder from a jobsite if the labels are not legible. In years past, ladder companies didn’t sell replacement labels because we didn’t know what kind of ladder you were putting the label on. Most ladder companies will sell a label kit now. Some of the vendors might still believe that they’re not available, and so, if you call your local supplier and he says “Oh, you can’t buy labels,” just go to the ladder company website. Look under “parts” and they should have label kits that you can put on your ladder.
Dave: When they say they’re going to require you to tie off—a fall protection-type situation where, if you fall off the ladder, you’re hooked to an anchor point or with a lanyard in a harness from above, hopefully preventing you from hitting the ground. A lot of times that makes the job more time-consuming, more costly, and, in some cases, it’s almost impossible or is impossible to do because there isn’t anything above you to tie off to.
Or what there is to tie off to—maybe you’re working at six feet off the ground and the closest thing to tie off to is at 40 feet. So your exposure of getting to that tie off point is way greater than the work that you are actually doing at six feet. So, sometimes, keeping that rule requires you put yourself in a more difficult situation getting to an anchor point.
We’ve developed products that have handrail systems and platforms that would put you in a scaffolding-type situation, with a 42 inch handrail and a standing platform that would give you that stability at height, where you wouldn’t need to tie off from above, or in places where you couldn’t tie off from above. Adding stability to extension ladders to prevent them from ever tipping keeps that accident from ever happening.
Dan: Okay. Three-point contact is really important when you’re climbing—both feet, and at least one hand. But what is the rule once you’ve reached your work height? Can you use both hands for work?
Dave: That’s probably the biggest debate in ladder safety right now. There’s a new discussion coming up that’s trying to change “three points of contact” to “three points of control.”
In the standard it says “Maintain three points of contact as you’re climbing the ladder, or as you’re ascending and descending.” It never specifies what you’re supposed to do when you stop to actually work. You really can’t do a lot on a ladder one-handed besides, maybe, screw a lightbulb in. Almost everything you do on the ladder is work. A lot of times you’re using a ladder to just get from one place to another. But a lot of times you’re actually on the ladder to reach something that you need to work on, and you’re going to need both hands to do that.
In the past, we accepted the idea that you maintained your three points of contact by leaning your body against the ladder. That was just an interpretation by some construction people. The newer companies and bigger companies are coming out and saying “three points of contact is three points of contact. If you can’t maintain it with two feet and one hand, then you need to find another tie off point.” Now, on freestanding ladders, you can’t tie off to the ladder. If you fall, you’ll just pull the ladder with you.
Dave: That’s going to hurt a lot more on the way down. So, you have to find an anchor point from above, which, again, becomes difficult to keep that rule with no tie off or difficult tie off points available. Switching to a product—an aerial safety cage product that would be similar to a lift or a scaffolding, but a little easier to maneuver and put in place—would be a good alternative. But that is probably the biggest debate in ladder safety right now: Three points of contact versus three points of control.
Dan: Well, what I do at home—I gave up on using a ladder—I hire people from Cirque du Soleil to do all work on my house.
Dave: (laughs) That’s perfect, that’s perfect.
Dan: Yeah, they’re experienced.
Dan: Next question. When should you use a spotter?
Dave: Uhm, spotters are written into safety programs for different companies. So a lot of companies mandate that if somebody’s going to be climbing a ladder, there needs to be somebody standing at the bottom of the ladder to steady the ladder.
Dave: Unfortunately, because of the leverage involved—you can imagine if a 200 pound person is standing on an eight foot ladder and you have eight feet of rail between you and that 200 pounds—if that ladder is to start to tip you don’t have the physical force to stop that from happening because of the leverage involved. So, a lot of times, that spotter becomes the witness to the accident.
Dave: Or the person who calls 911.
Dave: But they don’t…more what they do is act as the person’s safety reminder.
Dave: And if they do go to overreach, that they pull them back into compliance by keeping their body between the side rails so that that tip over doesn’t happen. People tend to follow the rules more closely when somebody’s there watching them, so, hopefully, that’s the benefit of a spotter.
Dan: The internet is very crowded with good and bad information. Where can anybody go for current facts on ladder safety?
Dave: Uhm, The American Ladder Institute is an organization made up of all the ladder companies together, along with a lot of suppliers. And their website is LadderSafety.org. They have free online training at LadderSafetyTraining.org.
And then, we’ve compiled all of the relevant websites, links from OSHA, ANSI, American Ladder Institute, MSHA, all on one page at LadderSafetyHub.com/toolbox. It has safety training videos, inspection sheets, and links to all of those websites. That’s the one site that has everything in one place. But the ALI, or the American Ladder Institute website at LadderSafety.org is going to be your best bet.
Dan: Great. Well, we’re close to the end of our time here, Dave. Any final thoughts on ladder safety?
Dave: I think almost all ladder accidents can be prevented if people follow the training, and if they don’t get creative and try to invent something to get to those hard-to-reach places that a standard, or grandpa’s ladder, won’t get to safely.
There are ladders out there that will do the job that you need it to do. You just need to educate yourself on those ladders and where to get them and how to use them. Please don’t become a creative engineer trying to figure out those problems with buckets and bricks and boards to build something to get the job done. Take your time, follow the training, and almost all ladder accidents can be avoided.
Dan: And especially if you already own the ladder, but you’re too lazy to go get it at your truck.
Dave: (laughs) You know, that’s a great point. A lot of ladder accidents happen because people don’t use the ladder. They just try and climb up on something instead, so great point.
Dan: Well, thank you Dave. Our guest is been Dave Francis, National Safety Director for Little Giant Ladder Systems. I really respect you for doing all the work that you do.
Dave: Thank you.
Dan: Alright. Well, thanks for joining us. I’m Dan Clark.
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Shoes on ladder photo © ℗ 2014 digitalreflections / Shutterstock