Ladders Last: Putting Safety First When Working at Heights

March 2, 2020 • Previsor

Falls from heights are one of the leading causes of death in the workplace. One wrong step on a roof or elevated workspace can change someone’s life forever. However, most businesses have another hidden danger: ladders.

A fall from a ladder can be just as dangerous as a fall from a roof. Many employees don’t see ladders as dangerous, and they may take fewer steps to be safe. How do you change an employee’s mind when it comes to ladders – especially when they could be causing injuries in your workplace?

Turner Construction is an international construction company that decided to tackle the issue of ladders head-on.  It challenges employees to use ladders only as their very last option. It also reminds them of important safety rules.

For this episode, we invited Richard Jones to sit down with us. Jones spent 18 years with Turner Construction before retiring. There, he focused on helping promote safety to commercial construction teams. First, he’ll share why ladders present so much risk to employees. Then, he’ll share the basics of the Ladders Last program. Finally, we’ll share practical steps to bring the Ladders Last program to your workforce.

Listen to this episode on the WorkSAFE Podcast, or read the show notes below.

Or skip straight to our Ladders Last resources. >


Ladder safety: often overlooked

In 2011, Turner Construction had a problem. They were working in commercial construction, an industry with known safety risks. This included the company’s own employees and the subcontractors they partnered with on the job. But they still had safety incidents involving ladders, so an analysis was conducted.

Over the course of three years, the company found employees were getting hurt most often by ascending and descending ladders, carrying ladders, etc. The company needed a solution, so Ladders Last was developed.

What is the problem with using ladders?

Ladders cause about 20,000 workplace injuries every year. No matter what industry you work in, ladders can be a danger. Employees use ladders to work in high places. They grab them when changing a light bulb. If a box or tool is stored on a tall shelf, then they’ll look for a ladder to help them reach it. Ladders have become a standard part of the workplace. But employees often don’t know how to safely use a ladder.

Have they grabbed the right ladder for the job? Is the workspace dry and level? Did they check to make sure the ladder is in good condition? Employees should maintain three points of contact on a ladder. Is someone available to help hand them tools, or other items they need? It’s easy to overlook safety when it comes to ladders.

“Most times, it’s operator error, I guess you might say,” Jones says when talking about injuries caused by ladders. “Somebody kind of sets themselves up to be a victim, either because they don’t know better or because they haven’t gone through proper safety training, or they’ll have the attitude of ‘It’ll never happen to me, I know what I’m doing, I’ve been doing it for ten years,’ etc.”

Ladders Last: a solution to a safety problem

The idea for the Ladders Last program started in the Turner Construction corporate office. The company had a number of employees, contractors and subcontractors. And they all would have to follow ladder safety rules. Contracts received updates with the new safety standards. But the company still needed buy-in from employees to make the program successful.

“We always tell people to be safe,” Jones said. “But what does safe really mean? In my mind – and this is what I promote – safe is safety and families every day. You cannot separate the two. You’re doing this for your family.”

The Ladders Last program is all about making sure employees return home safely to their families and enjoy a good quality of life. Work is just one part of employees’ lives. The program makes sure they get to enjoy the rest: their family, friends, and the people they have relationships with.

Educating employees on safety changes

It can be difficult to introduce new safety rules and policies. As a senior loss consultant, Jones said that many companies ask him to come and present a one-hour safety training to their employees. For them, this training happens just one time every year. However, sharing safety training once a year is not enough. “You can’t come in and do something once, and expect to change a lot of attitudes,” Jones added. “Because human behavior is such that it is very easy to slide back into our old ways.”

Jones said the key to helping employees adopt new safety rules is to share why the changes are happening. Sometimes they don’t understand how their unsafe behaviors could affect others around them. He likes to give them a powerful example. “‘If that was your son, would you have him perform that work task like that?'” Jones often asks when he sees unsafe behavior. The answer is always no. “‘Then why are you willing to kill someone’s else son?'” They don’t often think about how an on-the-job incident could affect their family and friends, or even their coworkers.

Ladders Last basics

The Ladders Last program focuses on making ladders the last option for working at heights. A fall from a ladder can result in a serious injury. Using fall protection can help reduce the chance of an injury. However, it can’t eliminate it completely. The best way to avoid a ladder injury is to not use a ladder at all.

There are many alternatives to a ladder. Some are:

  • Aerial lifts
  • Boom lifts
  • Scaffolding
  • Scissor lifts
  • Pod Lifts
  • Platform lifts
  • Rolling stairs

Before starting a job, assess what you need to do the job. At Turner Construction, this is done by holding a preconstruction safety meeting before a job. If you aren’t part of an industry where working at heights is common, then work with employees to plan ahead. Offering safer options may require you to purchase or rent equipment. Some employers think that these alternatives are safer than ladders, but come at the cost of efficiency. However, lifts and stairs have large working surfaces. They allow employees to work without climbing up and down. They don’t have to move the ladder or grab supplies. Alternatives can reduce risk and increase productivity.

An exception to the ladder safety rule

For Jones, it’s important to remind employees that using ladders last doesn’t mean that you won’t ever use a ladder again. Sometimes there isn’t always enough space at the work site for other options (i.e. small electrical rooms). There will be some work situations where you need a ladder. Make sure to educate your employees on the basics of safety when working at heights. This is a great topic to cover at a safety meeting.

Turner Construction created a ladder permit to address these situations. This permit is signed by the employee and the employee’s supervisor. It goes over important safety rules and checks. The permit includes the following information:

  • General ladder safety information. What kind of ladder are you using?
  • A ladder inspection. Is the ladder in good working condition?
  • Ladder placement. How are you placing the ladder? Is it on dry, solid ground?
  • Confirmation of training. Has the employee received ladder safety training?
  • Assistance. Will someone be there to help you?
  • Fall Protection. Will work be performed over six foot?

At Turner Construction, the permit is good for up to one week. Jones said the permit is designed to make people stop and think first. What are the potential hazards of using this ladder? How can they be eliminated?

Getting started: implementing Ladders Last

The Ladders Last program can be a great addition to any workplace. Jones recommended looking at the kind of work you are performing. He said the most important question is: “How do I protect my people?” Where can you substitute a better option for the use of a ladder? At the end of the day, using a ladder last is about safety.

Forming a committee of your most experienced employees is a great way to get started. Their opinions can help you identify safety hazards. They can also help encourage other employees to adopt the new safety standards. Their adoption of the program matters. Train each employee on the program, and use a permit to reinforce the safety rules every time.

Visit our Ladders Last page to learn more about implementing the philosophy in your workplace.

March 2, 2020
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