November, 2012
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors

Ladder Safety



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Most of us believe we'll never have an accident during an inspection. However, think back over the past months about how many close calls you had? How many times did the ladder jump around while you were going into the attic? Or the ladder shift when you stepped back onto it?

Ladders are one of the handiest tools we use every day. According to statistics from the National Safety Council, last year there were 390 ladder-related deaths and each day 550 people go to the emergency room with ladder-related injuries. By taking simple steps, you can prevent an accident and not become one of these statistics.

In the May 2010 ASHI Reporter, there was an article on basic ladder safety. I want to take that a step further and look at ladder safety issues home inspectors face, and what we can do to prevent injuries.

I spoke with Dave Frances, national safety director with Little Giant Ladders, to identify the most frequent cause of ladder-related injuries to professionals. I cross-referenced this with information from inspectors. The top six causes follow:

  • Poor placement – Uneven or sloping ground can cause significant issues. A difference of an inch at the base of the ladder gets magnified as you extend the ladder to the roof.

  • Reaching beyond the center of gravity – Many of us tend to lean out to the side rather than moving the ladder. I find myself doing this to climb into attics or inspect eaves.

  • Distractions – A number of knee and ankle injuries are due to missing the last rung of the ladder when descending.

  • Slip-out – To protect yourself from having the ladder slip out, it should extend at least three rungs over the gutter line. In addition, slip-out can occur due to worn feet, or placing the ladder on a slope or slippery surface.

  • Remounting Ladder – I find this to be the most critical moment of ladder work. I see many professionals stepping on a rung above the gutter line, which can unload the base of the ladder and cause it to move. Also, the ladder can slide to the side if you place your weight to one side or the other.

  • Carrying or raising the ladder – Many back and shoulder injuries occur from improperly carrying and raising the ladder. The longer the ladder, the greater the chance of an accident.

Ways to reduce the risk

Ladder safety starts with good habits and practices. Each inspector has his or her own routine, but here are some practices I've adopted that might be of help to you:

  • Maintenance: Good practices start with maintaining your ladders. Once a month, I pull out my ladders and clean them. This is especially important for my telescoping ladder. I've found that grit and dust will cause the legs to bind. In addition to cleaning, I lube the legs so they slide and lock easily. Part of the examination includes extending the ladder, testing the locks, looking for damage and checking the condition of the feet.

  • When you arrive: As part of my normal on-site routine, I walk around the home at least twice. This allows me to identify the best place to get on the roof. Inside corners are desirable, but obviously the shorter the distance, the better.

  • On the level: I look for a level surface with no overhead obstructions. If that is not possible, ladder manufacturers offer "leg levelers." Some inspectors will add blocks on the downhill foot, but if you think about the amount of pressure on the legs, blocks or wedges, you realize this can be a risky proposition. A better option is to dig out the ground on the uphill foot (if you can do so without damaging the landscaping).

  • What's underfoot?: The traction of the surface you are placing your ladder on is important: Composite decks, painted concrete or snow-covered surfaces are known to be slippery. I carry a rubber mat to place on these surfaces. I also have been known to take the door mat from the home and use that. The thicker the mat, the better it seems to work. I will also reduce the angle slightly to add to the down-force on the feet.

  • Check and double-check: Before I mount my ladder, I always take a step back and do a double-check. I review the angle, check the locks, look at the feet, etc. Every once in a while, I catch a lock that didn't engage or find the feet of the ladder are not solid. This also gives me time to focus and put me into "climbing mode."

  • Stay on center: I will be the first to admit that when I have my ladder up only a short distance, I am more likely to extend my reach off center. However, when I am higher, I rarely move my body outside of the ladder rails even if I have someone footing the ladder.

  • When to tie off: If you have to extend your ladder above the second floor, I recommend tying it to a gutter spike. I have a short bungee cord I use for this. If it's a windy day, I will use the bungee cord regardless of the height.

  • Stepping on the roof or not: Before I step onto a roof, I do a quick survey of the pitch, material type and surface condition. Many times, a roof that looks walkable from the ground is much more challenging when viewed from the gutter line or when you're calculating how you will safely transition from your ladder to the roof pitch. I also recommend having at least three points of contact with the ladder or the roof.

  • Returning to the ladder: When I go to remount the ladder, I grab the ladder rail with one hand, extend a leg to a rung below the gutter, transfer my weight to the ladder and then, with my opposite hand, grab the gutter adjacent to the ladder rail. Inspectors will have a technique that works best for them. This works for me, in part, because it keeps the ladder from moving too much.

  • No conversations during descent: Often, clients will want to know the condition of the roof even before you get to the ground. It's important that you don't let their questions distract you from descending the ladder.

  • When carrying gets risky: A surprising number of injuries occur from carrying, raising or lowering ladders. Ladders can be awkward to carry and even more difficult to move around when they are raised. Most inspectors I know are comfortable doing this, but we all get caught in an awkward position because of obstructions or that gust of wind at the wrong moment. If you buy a new extension ladder, it's a good idea to mark the balance point on all sides. Practice carrying, raising and lowering, learning how to walk with the ladder and having a plan for what you're going to do if you lose control are critical to preventing an accident.

  • To leapfrog or not: I am not an advocate of leapfrogging to get onto a second story roof. Yes, I have pulled my ladder up to a porch roof and then ascended to the next roof line, but the risk was minimal, and I knew I wasn't going to damage the surface. I have seen other inspectors do this on pitched roofs, but setting a ladder on an angle minimizes its contact patch and creates greater risk of slip-out.

  • Just say no: After getting several thousand inspections under my tool belt, I have a greater respect for the risks we take. If I cannot safely get my ladder into a good position, then the roof gets inspected from the ground. If I get to the gutter line of the roof and feel uneasy about the climb, I inspect the roof from the gutter line. I have no problem explaining to the client that I won't walk the roof because I cannot safely access it.

Although most clients don't realize it, each inspection has elements of danger. Each of us as professionals has to take responsibility for our own safety and do what we can to minimize the risks that we take. As small businesspersons, an injury can shut us down for months while we recover. Be safe and don't become a statistic.