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Ladder safety

You might think that you know ladders, but did you know that they still account for a huge proportion of injuries in the construction industry? By Meg Crawford

The workplace health and safety legislation and regulations in each State and Territory and compliance codes of practice supporting their application require that ladders are used as a last resort when undertaking work at heights. Despite this, falls from heights continue to be a major workplace hazard. For instance, WorkSafe Victoria estimates that they account for 27 per cent of injury-related claims in the construction industry. “It’s almost enough for it to qualify for being called a scourge,” says Stephen Sugden, Paramount Safety Products’ Chief Technical Officer for LINQ Products. “People think they know ladders and they treat them with a degree of contempt, but if you fall from 10 metres on your head, you’re dead,” observes Gavin Rundle, Managing Director Australia / New Zealand /United Kingdom for the Hartman Group (including Gorilla Ladders). Lateral falls and overreaching contribute to the bulk of ladder-related injuries. “For instance, people lean to the right and the ladder falls to the left,” Rundle explains. “Stepping off the top of an unsecured ladder which then slips sideways, or having the feet of a ladder slide out where the bottom of the ladder isn’t secured are also common causes,” adds Sugden.

DOES IT NEED TO BE A LADDER?

The first question, then, which ought to be addressed as part of any risk assessment regarding safe work at heights, is whether a ladder is the most appropriate method for performing the work in the circumstances. In determining this issue, consider alternatives including whether the work can be brought down to ground level, and if not, whether a piece of industrial machinery or equipment, such as a scissor-lift, cherry picker or scaffolding should be used to perform the work safely. Of course, the answer to those questions is frequently no—for instance, you might be working indoors. Assuming then that a ladder is the best option, the next issue to consider is which one should be used. “The number one safest ladder is a platform ladder,” Rundle explains. “The reason we always recommend it first is because you’ve got a flat surface to stand on and a handrail to keep you safe, which enables you to safely use both hands.” That said, a platform ladder isn’t always going to be appropriate either, in which case the next cab off the rank is to explore the practicability of a double or single-sided A-frame ladder, followed by a straight ladder or extension ladder, working from the safest to least safe options. Consider too whether the ladder should be aluminium or fibreglass. Keep in mind also that not all ladders are made equal. “Price is not the best determinant of the ladder you should be using,” Rundle notes. “You need to be looking for durability and safety. You might save $20 on a ladder, but if you end up with a fractured arm or skull, it’s going to cost you a lot more.”

“People think they know ladders and they treat them with a degree of contempt, but if you fall from 10 metres on your head, you’re dead.” Gavin Rundle, Hartman Group

TOP TIPS FOR USING A LADDER SAFELY

Where the use of a ladder is unavoidable, Sugden and Rundle agree on the following suggestions for safe ladder use:

  • Only use a ladder that complies with the relevant Australian Standards (namely, AS/NZS 1892.1: 2018, which was introduced last year).
  • Inspect the ladder before you climb. Next to lateral falls and issues of failure to secure a ladder, one of the most common reasons for ladder-related injuries is that the ladder was in poor condition. Accordingly, check for things including bent rungs, loose rivets, broken hinges, cracks or other signs of fatigue.

  • Work on a clean, dry and flat surface. If you have to work on grass put down a board or mat.

  • Observe the load-bearing requirements of the ladder, which includes the weight of the person climbing the ladder, as well as their clothing, boots and tools, plus whatever they might need to carry up or down the ladder.

  • Ensure spreader arms, platforms and latches are properly engaged.

  • Wear slip resistant footwear.

  • Never let two people climb the ladder at the same time.

  • If you’re working with an extension or straight ladder, make sure it’s secured.

  • Have a second person hold the ladder while you’re climbing to ensure it is secure.

  • Be mindful of the angle of the ladder. For instance, an extension ladder should be angled at a ratio of 1:4. Also,  watch your centre of gravity as you climb.

  • Don’t grab things outside of your reach. Get down and move the ladder.

  • Climb one rung at a time, but start from the second rung up (starting on the bottom rung can result in a ladder flipping backwards onto the climber).

  • Watch for powerlines and any other obstacles.

  • Follow the manufacturer’s advice.

  • Store the ladder somewhere where it is protected from the elements.

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