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No One Needs to Fall

By Randy K. Logsdon

It had stormed all night, and the wind had blown debris throughout the neighborhood. As Nathan surveyed the damage to his home, he recognized that the damage was more than superficial. Without expeditious repair to the exterior, the next storm could create permanent damage to both the outside and inside of the structure. Nathan was fortunate that he was one of the few in his neighborhood who owned a ladder long enough to reach the damage site. As he mixed up the stucco-like repair compound, he contemplated how after completing the repairs to his home he would make his ladder available to his neighbors who needed to perform similar repairs.

With bucket in hand, Nathan climbed the ladder and once reaching the top began applying the mixture along with the organic reinforcement to the damaged area of his home. The damaged area was just a bit wider than he had estimated from the ground. Momentarily he considered climbing down with his tools and material and to adjust the ladder’s position a bit more to the right. But the far edge of the damage was just within reach and with just a bit more material in his bucket, he stretched out just enough to reach . . .

That’s when Nathan heard a sharp crack. The right leg of the ladder had buckled under the added weight and as the ladder began to tip to the right, Nathan tried to jump clear, but lost control and fell flat on his back striking his head against the stonewall.

The preceding story could have happened yesterday in your neighborhood. It could have happened 3,000 years ago in the Middle East. It could (and probably will) happen again tomorrow, somewhere. The ladder is one of the oldest tools known to man. Cave paintings depicting ladder-like structures found in Valencia, Spain, have been dated to 10,000 years ago. Ancient Egyptians and Hebrews likely developed the ladder design that we’re most familiar with. It’s a good bet that folks have been falling from ladders since the first step up was taken centuries ago. That leads us to the basic question: why?

Undoubtedly, we’ve witnessed some significant advancement in the basic ladder design. Modern ladders are engineered with safety factors built-in. The use of materials that resist decay and that are relatively light make ladders safer and more versatile than ever. Advanced designs help to assure better stability yet there is still that problem with gravity. Other ancient tools such as hammers and knives are also misused despite safety improvements.

Someday we may be able to engineer out all of the risk associated with using such tools, but until that happens, we must complement the existing safety related design features with effective operational safeguards. Experience has shown that operational safeguards are less reliable than engineering controls simply because they are easily disregarded. The motivation to accept an elevated risk (to shortcut safety) is strong even when the potential consequences may be grave.

Human beings represent the highest life form on this planet. So why, after 10,000 years, have we not learned not to fall from ladders? The operational solution involves only a few simple principles:

  • Use an undamaged ladder designed for the purpose and sufficient to support the weight.
  • Position the ladder so that it will remain stable.
  • Maintain good contact with the ladder – three points of control.
  • Maintain your center of gravity over the base.

From these points, there are a variety of refinements and application variables. We subscribe to rules involving inspection, technique, angles, measurements and maintenance. Yet, all too often, we fail to comply. Given some thought, it just makes no sense.

No one needs to fall.