Ladders and scaffolds have been the go-to solutions for elevated work for a long time — they’re simple to transport and don’t cost much to purchase or rent. While they excel in these areas, ladders and scaffolds continue to lag in one major and potentially costly area: safety.
According to 2014 data from Liberty Mutual’s 2017 Workplace Safety Index, workplace falls, to both the same level and a level below, led to a combined $16.12 billion in direct costs to businesses. In fact, these types of injuries land right behind overexertion, the number one cause of workplace injuries. The costs from injuries directly influence profits and result in expensive downtime.
These numbers are staggering and one could speculate that a fall from a ladder or scaffold is not a matter of if it will happen, but when. However, like many workplace injuries, most falls can be prevented with the right equipment. Low-level scissor lifts, for example, are compact and lightweight enough to work on finished floors, drive through doorways and take a ride on an elevator, but, most importantly, they enhance safety immensely. Operators get a stable platform to stand on while working and the railings protect them from falling. So what’s holding some businesses back from implementing safer alternatives, such as low-level lifts? One word: awareness.
Low-level lifts show up to a jobsite and are ready to go, and one would think ladders do, as well. Setting up a ladder, however, can be more complicated—something many users would never suspect from such a basic tool. From duty ratings to height guidelines, there are several factors to consider when choosing a ladder and setting it up for optimum safety. Unfortunately, this knowledge is often overlooked and not communicated to users, making the risk of falls a very real concern. Here is what all contractors should know.
Ladders come in five duty ratings: Type III light duty, Type II medium duty, Type I heavy duty, Type IA extra heavy duty and Type IAA extra heavy duty. Each is designed to handle a certain amount of weight safely. If one exceeds that weight, physics kicks in with the potential for the ladder to snap and cause severe injury. There is a safer way for workers to haul themselves and their materials to the elevated worksite and that’s with a low-level lift. Workers can place material on the lift’s platform and move from place to place on the jobsite. Some of the lifts even feature overload sensors that alert the user or limit the lift height if there is excess weight on the machine.
In addition to capacity, height is also a critical factor that often is overlooked when selecting a ladder. When it’s too short, it’s tempting to stand on the top rungs or overstretch beyond the rails, which can lead to a fall. A ladder that’s too tall is more likely to be set up incorrectly against a wall and can slip out from underneath a worker because there is not enough friction to hold it in place. Low-level lifts address these potential pitfalls by allowing users to work as high as 20 feet, ample height for reaching almost any job.
“Most jobs don’t require a working height of more than 19 feet,” says Jason Colby, territory manager for ADMAR Supply, a New York-based rental company. “That really means a 12- to 14-foot platform height is sufficient. I often tell customers lower level lifts offer a better overall value and are very maneuverable. And, due to low step heights, they also reduce the risk of injuries from ingress and egress.”
By eliminating daunting climbs and providing a step-in height as low as 20 inches, low-level lifts allow workers to relocate quickly without the hassles and fatigue of setting up. When projects require moving the ladder as work progresses, the contractor needs to climb down, fold up the ladder, and carry it a few feet over, set it back up correctly and climb up the rungs to start again. This not only is cumbersome and time consuming, but it can easily fatigue a worker, which increases the risk for falls.
Properly setting up a ladder is challenging and leaves a generous amount of room for error. OSHA recommends that users ensure the top of the ladder extends 3 feet higher than the elevated surface, place it at a 75-degree angle, and set it one-quarter of the working height away from a wall. For instance, if the wall’s height is 40 feet, the base of the ladder should be 10 feet away. It’s often impractical to measure for these recommendations—or even have room to meet them—on the job site, but not following that guidance can substantially reduce the ladder’s stability. The challenge of properly setting up a ladder is likely why a growing number of contractors are choosing alternatives for their worksites.
“We are starting to see more and more of the ‘zero-ladder worksites’ in New York, most recently was during a parking garage project,” says James Schwartzmeyer, foreman at Danforth Mechanical Contracting, which rents low-level scissor lifts from ADMAR Supply.
Cutting safety corners for the sake of time and effort is also a concern with ladder usage. Overreaching can cause the ladder to topple over and “walking” it—shifting side to side to move—can also cause it to tip or fold on itself. With low-level push around lifts, the user brings the lift to the ground and pushes the unit to the next location. Or, with a self-propelled lift, the operator can simply drive to the next spot. Most lifts also use counterweights and tilt sensors to prevent tipping when pushing against the wall with tools.
Some manufacturers will even provide custom solutions to address safety issues in unique scenarios. Michael Folaron, lead foreman at Danforth, recalls working on the construction of the new University at Buffalo medical facility in New York, where the crew needed a safe way to transport pipe from the ground to the ceiling.
“We worked with a low-level lift manufacturer to develop a unique pipe rack for our lifts that enhanced stability and efficiency,” Folaron says.
Unlike other systems on the market that simply weld on top of the lift, disturbing the machine’s balance and capability, the custom-designed pipe rack system was integrated into the overall design of the lifts without impacting machine stability or safety.
“The pipe racks were an ideal solution for our crew’s overall safety and productivity,” Folaron says.
Scaffolds can provide variable working heights and larger elevated platforms, which ladders cannot, but they still create some of the same safety challenges.
Just like ladders, scaffold must be set up correctly to provide a stable framework and prevent collapse underneath the weight of workers, tools and materials. Low-level scissor lifts are ready to go and leave virtually no room for assembly error. They also make reaching elevated heights nearly effortless. Hauling tools and materials up and down scaffold is a challenging and dangerous chore that can increase user fatigue and lead to more slips and falls.
Once a worker is on the deck, depending on the setup, there might not be anything to prevent them from taking a perilous step off the side of the platform. Lifts, on the other hand, offer a fully encircled platform with 38- to 42-inch-tall railings and toeboards, which protect people below from falling tools and materials.
Just like when using ladders, operators using scaffolding are still tempted to sacrifice safety for productivity. When a scaffold needs to be moved, the worker needs to remove the deck, and in some cases, disassemble, and reassemble the scaffolding at the new location. When a scaffold is on wheels, a user might try to “surf” an unsecured scaffold over to the new location by pulling on objects, such as overhead pipes and fixtures, around the work area. This takes the operator’s focus off where the scaffold is traveling. In addition, if the wheels encounter an object or an uneven surface, such as a ramp, the scaffold could tip. On self-propelled lifts, the user can focus more on the wheel’s path to avoid obstacles and uneven work surfaces while driving to the next location. Push-around units have automatic locking mechanisms on the wheels to prevent the unsafe surfing practice.
The International Powered Access Federation recommends that a complete jobsite assessment be completed before a project begins. This addresses factors such as how people will gain access to the project, its scope and size, and the working environment. Only after they’ve completed the assessment should contractors and project managers select the right tools and equipment for the job.
The first step to enhancing elevated worksite safety is awareness. Know where the risks lurk, understand why they are there, and then face them head on. Ladders and scaffolds pose some of the greatest risks for injuries on job sites, but with low-level lifts, safety can easily be restored.