The ladder is one of the most common tools used in the construction industry. However, it can also be one of the most dangerous when it's not used properly.

According to "Work-Related Injuries and Fatalities Involving a Fall from Height" – a report published by Safe Work Australia – ladders are responsible for a large number of injuries and deaths in our country each year. In fact, an entire page of the report is devoted just to this particular subject!

It reveals that between July 1, 2003, and June 30, 2011, a total of 37 workers in Australia died after falling off a ladder. Approximately one-third of these people were employed in the construction industry.

The majority (six workers) fell while either ascending or descending the ladder. This is evidently a risky part of using this tool, so make sure you keep the following in mind when performing such a task.

How is your ladder placed?

It's important that your ladder is secure, so that it can't move around when you're climbing up or down. The ladder should be supported at its base, as well as placed against a stable surface. If you discover the ground you need to place the ladder on isn't stable, use a levelling device to make it even.

It's best practice to fasten your ladder at both the top and the bottom, as well as have a co-worker stand below while you're ascending or descending. Ideally, they will be stand at the base of the ladder the entire time you're working on it – both to keep the ladder in place and keep an eye on you.

Interestingly, "Work-Related Injuries and Fatalities Involving a Fall from Height" reveals that of the 37 falls from ladders which occurred from 2003 to 2011, the reasons for only 20 of the falls are known.

That suggests no one was around or watching when 17 of these workers fell. If they had been, perhaps these accidents and their deaths could have been prevented.

You should avoid using a ladder when the weather is excessively wet or windy, as this will increase your likelihood of slipping when climbing up or down your ladder. Wearing slip-resistant shoes at all times is also a good idea.

However, it's not just your ability to ascend or descend the ladder safely that can be impacted by its placement.

Safe Work Australia revealed a total of three workers fell because the ladder they were working on moved, one died because his or her ladder collapsed and one worker was knocked off the ladder by a falling tree branch.

This last incident points to the importance of ensuring your ladder is placed as far away from hazards as possible.

WorkCover New South Wales says that if you're going to be using a ladder near any power lines, you should ensure that it's made from a material that doesn't conduct electricity. Stay away from metal ladders or those that might be reinforced with wires, and instead opt for wooden or plastic ones.

You should also avoid setting up a ladder anywhere near "sharp objects, machinery or chemicals". It's important to erect them away from doors, too, so that there's no chance of your ladder being knocked over if someone opens a door below.

The report also states that four workers died between 2003 and 2011 after falling off a ladder due to over-balancing.

While this may in part have been due to how their ladders were placed, the way they were performing tasks on them would also have factored into the equation.

How are you using the ladder?

When you are climbing up or down a ladder, make sure both of your hands are free to hold on tight. You should never be holding other equipment when you are moving on a ladder – it should either be stored in your tool belt or transported to you independently.

You should also be facing the ladder at all times, whether you are climbing or standing still. It's best practice to maintain three points of contact when on the ladder – for instance, two feet and one hand.

In addition to this, ensure you never place your feet above 900mm (usually the third rung) from the top of the ladder.

According to WorkCover New South Wales, following this rule will make sure you can always hold onto the ladder at waist height, which is the safest method and one of the best ways to prevent yourself from over-balancing.

Most of the time, accidents occur on ladders because workers are trying to use them in ways they were not designed to handle. One of the most common causes of over-balancing is over-stretching.

You should never lean too far to the left or right when using a ladder, as this could cause you to fall. If you can't reach what you're trying to work on without doing this, safely descend the ladder and readjust it so you can.

Want to know more?

If you would like to make sure you're following best practices when it comes to using ladders, you may want to enrol in AlertForce's Working at Heights course. 

This is a quick and easy online training course that will provide you with a fantastic overview of working safely on ladders.

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