The impact from sprains and strains, broken bones and other more serious disabling conditions resulting from falls from ladders reaches far beyond the injured worker's suffering. The direct compensation and medical treatments associated with falls from elevation cost American businesses $4.6 billion, according to Liberty Mutual's 2005 Workplace Safety Index. And the indirect costs associated with increased absenteeism, worker replacement and productivity loss can cost up to two times as much, according to a recent survey of corporate financial decision-makers.

How can you help prevent ladder falls? First, you need to understand why they are happening. Unfortunately, there are many potential causes. Workers lose footing while carrying tools or materials up the ladder. Grease, ice, mud, snow or water on the rungs can cause slips and falls. Old, poorly maintained ladders can break during use. Or the most common ladder accident the ladder base slips out of position. This happens when the ladder is at a wrong angle, workers climb too fast or the surface below the ladder is wet, bumpy or uneven.

Once you have identified why your ladder accidents happen, your next step is to implement a safety and training program. Outlined below are suggested steps to get your program off on the right foot.

What's Your Angle?

The American National Standards Institute recommends setting ladders at a 75.5 degree angle. Findings from a Liberty Mutual Research Institute study echo this recommendation. Liberty Mutual researchers found that adjusting a ladder's angle a mere 10 degrees from 75 to 65 degrees almost doubles the friction required to hold the ladder in place. If you increase the worker's climbing speed, the friction required jumps again by 7 percent.

However, in the real world, most workers have no way to measure ladder angle. In fact, several studies show that when workers set up a ladder at 75 degrees without a measurement device, resulting angles vary from 67.3 to 76.2 degrees. Here are some ways to check your angle:

  • Use the label with the large "L" on the side of the ladder as a guide. The long leg of the "L" should be parallel to the wall or the short leg parallel to the floor.
  • Set the base of the ladder one-quarter of the working length from the wall.
  • Position the ladder so that the heel of your palm comfortably reaches the side rails. Test this by standing with your toes at the base of the ladder and holding your arms straight out.

You can reduce falls by training your workers to use these techniques and using appropriate equipment, such as non-slip feet, cleats and ladder tie-offs. The following case study demonstrates the difference safe ladder use can make on your bottom line.

A Ladder Safety Success Story

After Company A paid out more than $130,000 over 2 years for nine ladder accidents, it decided to implement a safety program. Traveling to various worksites to determine why accidents were happening, the safety director recorded and photographed multiple incidents of ladder misuse. He presented his findings to management in a company-wide analysis of accident drivers and cost and gained approval on a ladder safety program that included:

  • Property manager briefings on the primary accident drivers, how those accidents occur and their impact on the company's profitability.
  • Safety training for all employees including proper ladder selection; three-point rule; ladder setup; ladder capacity and strength; and ladder inspection, care and maintenance.
  • Usage policy development and implementation to demonstrate management's commitment to safety. All workers must acknowledge their receipt and understanding of the policy at the end of training.
  • Periodic safety audits to ensure policy and technique compliance that evaluate ladder setup, use, condition and maintenance. Property managers must address and confirm findings in writing.
  • Field safety coordinator position established to support safety director and increase safety awareness.

Two years later, ladder accident frequency decreased by half despite a 40 percent increase in the work force. The result: An over-90 percent decrease in the cost of accidents.

You, too, can implement a successful ladder safety program by focusing on the four key elements: selection, inspection, setup and use. Choose the correct ladder for the job; inspect the ladder; set up the ladder properly; and use safe climbing techniques. (See sidebar for more tips.)

Most importantly, use ladders only for their intended purposes. Don't be creative. Never tie ladders together to gain additional height. Do not use ladders as braces, gangways or as substitutes for planks. And never use a folded stepladder as a straight ladder.

When incorporated into a broader program that includes engineering measures, training and follow-up, you can significantly reduce your risk of falls. And you'll gain a safer, healthier work force, enhanced productivity and a stronger bottom line.

Sidebar: Select the right ladder for the job:

  • Never use wood or metal ladders for electrical work.
  • Don't use a step ladder where a straight ladder is needed and vice versa.
  • Check ladder capacity and strength.
  • Read and follow all manufacturer's instructions.

Inspect your ladder:

  • Look for damaged rungs or side rails and loose, broken or bent hardware.
  • Check the condition of extension ladder ropes and pulleys.
  • Tag a defective ladder as "out of service" and report it. Do not use it.
  • Clean wet or slippery rungs before use.

Set-up the ladder properly:

  • Get help to move or set up heavy and awkward ladders.
  • Erect the ladder on a solid, level surface and install a manufacturer approved "leveler" if using on uneven surfaces. Do not put on top of boxes, barrels or other unstable objects.
  • Secure base when raising an extension ladder and never set up when extended. Remember: wet or muddy concrete affect performance of non-skid feet.
  • Support the ladder at the top on both side rails, never on a rung.
  • Install a single point support attachment when both rails cannot support the ladder such as against columns, poles or inside and outside corners.
  • Check ladder angle.
  • Protect the base from traffic. If a ladder must be in front of a door, make sure the door is locked or guarded.
  • Tie off and extend the ladder 36 to 42 inches above the dismount level when stepping off at a higher level.
  • Secure the ladder against displacement by tying it at the top or the bottom or both, depending on the conditions. Make sure someone "foots" the bottom when tying off the top.
  • Fully open stepladders and lock the spreader. All feet should contact a level supporting structure.

Use safe climbing techniques:

  • Don't rush.
  • Face the ladder and use both hands while climbing up or down.
  • Apply the three-point rule: keep at least both feet and one hand or both hands and one foot on the ladder at all times.
  • Clear the area around the ladder of debris and materials.
  • Clean mud and grease from footwear before climbing.
  • Carry tools in pockets or belt or hoist them on a rope.
  • Keep eyes on the ladder and pay attention to hand and foot placement.
  • Stay off the top two rungs of a straight or extension ladder and the top step and cap of a step ladder.

Ted Christensen is director of contracting services at the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety. Nathan Cooper is senior loss prevention consultant for Liberty Mutual's Business Market. For more information about workplace safety and health research, visit www.libertymutual.com.