I am frequently called upon to discuss ladder accidents with attorneys
representing workers, contractors, subcontractors, homeowners, and commercial
landlords from both plaintiff and defense perspectives.
There is one basic premise that relates to jobsite safety that needs to
be examined closely prior to making an injury claim pertaining to an alleged
defective ladder. Every person working with a ladder has the ultimate
responsibility prior to climbing onto that ladder to inspect and verify
that all parts of the ladder are in good condition. If a proper inspection
is made and all visual determinable components appear to be safe for usage,
and the ladder fails when used, who is responsible?
On commercial jobsites, OSHA requires that all workers take a personal
responsibility for their own ultimate jobsite safety. When working with
any jobsite equipment, if a worker feels that the equipment provided to
him for a specific job is unsafe, then that worker should inform his supervisor
that he cannot safely perform the assigned task. The worker should refuse
to perform any job until equipment that is safe and properly functioning
is furnished for use. Climbing protection harnesses and lanyards are important
pieces of safety equipment that can help workers avoid dangerous fall
conditions. Harnesses and safe points of attachment are not part of a
ladder, do not attach to most ladders, but need to be considered for all
work over 6 feet in height above the ground.
Most ladders from major ladder manufacturers have numerous labels attached
to them that indicate a variety of user obligations. Warning labels and
usage information are affixed at multiple locations. All ladder users
should take the time to thoroughly read and follow those instructions
Included among these labels are weight ratings, electrical shock hazard
alerts, and how to properly position the ladder for safe usage. Many manufacturers
provide informative instructions indicating what components need to be
inspected prior to usage, how to use the ladder, and what the maximum
height of usage is. Manufacturers of extension ladders affix labels showing
what angle of inclination is appropriate for safe climbing.
Ladders are manufactured for a wide variety of purposes. Weight load rating
requirements depend upon materials that the ladders are made from and
design configuration. The three most common commercial ladder materials
used are fiberglass, wood, and aluminum.
Heavy-duty ladders are generally rated to 300 pounds, and
Extra heavy-duty ladders are rated to 350 pounds. These two weight designations are often
orange in color. Unless otherwise specified and properly configured, most
ladders are designed to be used by a single person at a time.
Lighter duty rated ladders are generally for homeowners. They are often
constructed for occasional use, far below the commercial ladder capacity
in the weight that the ladder can support without failure. Many people
refer to these short, medium to light-duty products as step ladders.
WHAT KIND OF LADDER SHOULD I BUY?
What material is the best choice when buying a ladder?
Wooden Ladders - In the past, wooden ladders were the state of the art. They were subject
to failure from exposure to sunlight, moisture, insects, hardware looseness
from lack of maintenance or change in humidity, and just the natural weakness
of the wood they were built from.
Aluminum Ladders - When aluminum became commonplace for manufacturing, metal ladders were
thought to be more durable and safer than previous wooden ladder construction.
Aluminum ladders are typically more structurally sound and consistent
in strength characteristics than wooden ladders. Aluminum ladder construction
eliminated the need for attention to wood shrinkage and expansion that
causes loose fitting rungs and struts. One of the most obvious problems with
aluminum ladders is electrical conductivity. Aluminum is an excellent electrical
conductor, while wood, unless completely saturated with water, generally
SHOULD I BUY WOOD OR ALUMINUM?
Purchasers choosing between wood and aluminum ladders need to determine
appropriate usage and jobsite requirements that can influence the choice
between those two types of products. Weight of the ladders and durability
of the ladder structure and hardware are often compared and personal preference
for a specific job type would dictate the choice.
Fiberglass Ladders - When fiberglass became available as a ladder choice, contractors gravitated
towards the hybrid between the light-weight strength found in aluminum
ladders, electrical non-conductivity, and the structural integrity enjoyed
with a new wooden ladder. In the early days of fiberglass ladders, they
offered strength and ease of movement, but also came with some non-apparent
Early fiberglass ladders, when left on roof racks found commonly on contractor’s
trucks, were constantly subjected to continual exposure to the sun, wind,
and rain in warm climates as well as snow and ice in cold climates. These
ladders often experienced delamination of the fiberglass fabric, separation
of the hardware components that were drilled into the fiberglass, and
ultimate structural failures. Fiberglass was also prone to cracking from
resin deficiencies becoming brittle and had problems with structural integrity
once the resins broke down.
Today, most fiberglass ladders are considered durable, safe and a good
choice. Fiberglass ladders are often more expensive than other ladder
material choices. They still require inspection and attention to all of
their hardware components prior to usage. Fiberglass ladders should not
be left unprotected and exposed to the elements. Fiberglass ladders require
vigilance prior to use. All structural components should be thoroughly
examined and verified to be tight and securely attached. Fiberglass ladders
are susceptible to chemical deterioration. Some paint related chemical
products can have catastrophic effects on the resins used to form the
fiberglass into a rigid structural element. When fiberglass is exposed
to chemical strippers or other solvents the material does not always show
outward signs of fatigue. If ladders are borrowed from friends or rented,
it is extremely important to make critical inspections and be aware of
all past uses that would include detrimental chemicals used on previous jobs.
Most times when a customer rents a ladder or any other equipment from a
commercial rental company, the renter has no knowledge of the past use
or detrimental exposures prior to renting. In many cases the rental company
is unaware of how the ladder was used or abused on prior rentals. A rental
company has an obligation to investigate renter usage and to take a ladder
out of service if questionable usage has occurred. The rental company
has an obligation to properly maintain all of their products that are rented.
Appropriate storage, maintenance, and oversight of their rental products
is the sole responsibility of the rental company. When a ladder is rented
all warning labels and usage information should be clearly visible. Faded
and deteriorated or missing warning labels have been the cause of serious
injuries to renters. Rental agencies should keep and maintain their ladders
under cover, not left out in the open environment exposed to the elements.
If a rental company fails to inquire the desired usage from all renters
and offer safety related equipment such as harnesses and lanyards when
long ladders are rented, the rental company is failing to protect that renter.
Examples of faded and deteriorated labels
Many rental companies insist that protective clothing or other safety devices
such as hearing protection and face masks be part of a rental pertaining
to products such as jack hammers or other loud equipment. Renting ladders
to the general public without instructing or furnishing any OSHA related
fall protection safety information is below the standard of care and should
be part of any professional rental company protocol.
Many rental companies require renters to take needed safety equipment as
part of the rental fees associated with their rental tools, and if returned
unused, then the costs associated with that safety gear is refunded upon
return. A rental company that has attempted to inform a renter of the
potential danger associated with the rented equipment by making safety
equipment a part of the rental is meeting the industry standard of care.
If the renter chooses not to use the safety systems provided, that user
does so at the individuals own risk.
WHY DO NEW LADDERS FAIL?
Brand new ladders can fail due to handling abuse and manufacturing defects
prior to your ownership. I have personally returned several fiberglass
ladders from home center deliveries that came cracked and damaged even
though they were wrapped from the factory. There is no way to know how
long, large, or heavy ladders were handled prior to your purchase. New
wooden ladders have left the manufacturer, been transported on open trucks,
and have arrived with severe cracks and splits in the wooden rails due
to changes in climate or simply defective woods that were used to construct
It is essential to take the time to completely examine any ladder every
time it is used. New, used, or old, ladders can have cracks, breaks or
shredded supports with loose strut bracing. Every user should examine
any ladder prior to use to determine visible damage before climbing. Failing
to do so can lead to serious injuries or death from falling from an unstable
ladder that has missing or broken structural components.
STABILITY IS THE KEY TO LADDER SAFETY
For all ladders, it is important to have the base properly positioned prior
to climbing. Some ladders have rubberized or metal feet, others hard plastic.
Some ladders will slide or “walk” when positioned incorrectly
and can shift away from their original position if all feet are not in
direct contact with the ground. Many extension ladders feature pivoting
metal bases that allow for flat surface footing or when rotated, can point
downward into grass or dirt to act as a piercing anchor. The obligation
for correct placement and determination of a stable base is the responsibility
of the user.
Regardless of the ladder being used, it is important to thoroughly examine
all components prior to climbing. Never overreach or exceed the manufacturers
load or height requirements. Manufacturers recommend that a person using
the ladder keep body position located toward the center of the rungs while
using the ladder. Proper maintenance and storage of the ladder when not
in use are important to ensure that the ladder is safe for future use.
DEFECTS IN MANUFACTURING
Fiberglass ladders may be affected by improper chemical components that
weaken the resins used in their manufacture. Resins that are improperly
mixed, missing ultraviolet inhibitors, and improper manufacturing all
lead to weak structural fiberglass. Wooden ladders are subject to rot
and bug infestations. Dings and dents in an aluminum ladders can structurally
affect the ladder integrity due to metal channel deformity. Bent metal
components can break when the ladder is loaded down. A ladder that appears
perfectly good can spontaneously fail due to some prior abuse or unknown
visible defect in the manufacturing process.
TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOUR PERSONAL SAFETY
Ladder injuries commonly occur. Sometimes they are due to user issues.
In order to prevent a fall from a ladder make certain to inspect, evaluate,
and positively determine that the ladder is in good condition and properly
positioned prior to climbing. In some applications ropes or cabling are
essential to ensure that a ladder will not lose its footing or “kick
out” as it is climbed. Never use an “A” frame ladder
as a substitute for an extension ladder. They are not designed in the
same way that an extension ladder is structured and are not always able
to withstand the lateral load without four feet placed firmly on the ground.
Never use any ladder that is suspicious or partially defective or broken
in any way. If it looks weak or previously abused, it is not fit to use.
COMMERCIAL JOBSITE REQUIREMENTS FOR LADDER SAFETY
OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) requires that personal
fall protection be used on commercial jobsites if work is performed over
6 feet above the ground. While fall protection harnesses and lanyards
are sometimes considered to be physically restrictive, they have been
found to protect people from ladder falls and are OSHA required when working
in a commercial environment.
Homeowners are not as well versed in safety protocols as some trade professionals
and not required to follow jobsite requirements from OSHA, but reasonable
and safe practices should be followed at all times. With any tool, always
read and follow the manufacturers warnings and safety procedures. When
renting equipment always use a company that provides quality rentals and
do not just seek the lowest rental cost. A few pennies could cost you
Every ladder user is ultimately responsible for their own personal safety.
Knowing how to properly inspect and understand the limitations of each
type of ladder is important. An exception to this personal obligation
is the presence of a hidden deficiency or defective manufactured condition
that is not visually apparent.
Workers that rely upon rented ladder equipment should make inquiries as
to the previous exposure to any chemicals that could be affecting the
structural integrity of the ladder (wood and fiberglass specifically).
If the rental ladder is kept outside for long periods of time the structure
of the ladder may be compromised. Rental houses and renters should verify
that all labels are clear and in readable condition prior to renting.
Do not use the ladder if it has broken or loose components. Over-extension
of a ladder, working from rungs that are exceeding the limits of the ladder,
or leaning, walking, or jumping with a ladder instead of proper repositioning
are dangerous habits and have led to significant fall injuries.
With all equipment, make certain that you have read and understood the
manufacturers requirements. Always be aware of potential hazards such
as electrical wires, pools of water, soft soils, or automatic gates or
equipment that can move into contact with a ladder if they are activated.
In some applications, a dedicated person on the ground or barricades should
be used to maintain a safe working area under the ladder. This can not
only provide safety for the person on the ladder but can protect pedestrians
walking by the ladder from falling materials while work is being performed overhead.
Taking a few moments to review the affixed ladder safety information, properly
positioning a ladder, and verifying that all components are solid and
in good repair can save you from a dangerous fall.
Mike Panish has been providing construction expert witness services since
the year 2000. He has been retained on over 1600 legal cases nationwide.
He has been the retained expert for both plaintiff and defense cases as
well as workmen’s compensation subrogation issues for numerous scaffold
and ladder related personal injury and wrongful death cases. He has provided
expert opinions on issues of standard of care and job-site responsibility
pertaining to all aspects and types of elevated work platforms. If you
wish to discuss a pending matter regarding ladder safety or wish more
information regarding Mike Panish’s experiences on other cases involving
jobsite falls and fall protection do not hesitate to contact his office
at 888 902-4272 (ask for Sharon).