Everyday safety: It’s a long way down

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I don’t like being at heights.

I’m not generally afraid of heights. Climbing has been a part of my job for years, to inspect or install things on rooftops and high structures, such as on the frameworks of gas plants or above aircraft hangars. But if I can find a way to do the job and stay on the ground, I’ll do it.

This time of year, many people will be on ladders cleaning out gutters, trimming trees, or (finally) taking down holiday lights.

Using ladders in the workplace comes with a whole set of regulations, but around the home, you are on your own, and there are more dangers than most people realize.

Most homeowners have at least a couple ladders. I have three: a step ladder, an aluminum combination ladder (also called a multi-position ladder), and a step stool.

Any tool you buy should be “fit for purpose,” as we say in the safety biz. Painting rooms, hanging pictures, and changing light bulbs are typical uses for indoor ladders. I use my 2-m step ladder for this. It’s light, takes up little space, and sets up quickly. If I need a bit more height, my aluminum combination ladder usually suffices. You can fold some indoor combination ladders into a box shape, making them easy to move without dinging the walls. Some are designed for use on stairs.

Most people don’t think of a step stool as a ladder, but that’s how they’re classified. They have two steps and a maximum climb height of 80 cm off the floor. These are great little things. They are cheap and much safer than standing on a chair. Buy one for someone you care about. But remember, low height doesn’t guarantee safety: 25% of falls from 3 m or less are fatal.

Working outside brings other dangers.

My house has a low side, where I can use my combination ladder to clean my gutters at 3 m, and it has a high side, where the gutters are over 7 m off the ground. I also have an end wall that’s over 8.5 metres to the peak. I don’t have the right ladder to access those areas, so I painted everything up to about 5 metres (on a borrowed ladder) and paid pros to paint the high areas. Know your limitations.

So what ladder do you need? Consider these safety rules.

  • For every 1.2 m of wall height, move the base of the ladder out 0.3 m. My gutters are 6.1 m up, so I need to come out about 1.5 m at the base.
  • Allow 1 m of extra ladder above the roof surface. (2)

Ladders are expensive, so don’t try to buy one for every possible need—but rent or borrow the right one for you job, rather than trying to make do with a ladder that’s too short.

Ladders come in three common grades, which have load ratings. Grade 1 is heavy duty industrial, Grade 3 is light duty household use. My reasonably-priced combination ladder, which I got at my local hardware store, is a Grade 1.

Safety tips

  • The safest climb is one you never need to do. The technical term for this is “hazard elimination.” If you hire someone to paint the high part of your house, or to clean your gutters, you will never risk that fall.
  • Read the instructions, especially for combination ladders, which can be set to a variety of climbing combinations.
  • Inspect before use. Wear gloves and feel each part, checking for damage and that locks and hinges work properly. All ladders have sharp edges, hinged parts, and locks that can pinch or cut your finger.
  • Tie your shoes. Sturdy shoes with good traction are important for ladder work, as any roofer will confirm.
  • Look up before you lift. Watch for power lines and other hazards.
  • Ensure the base is level and secure. Extension ladders have feet that you can place on solid wood or flip up to dig firmly into soil.  
  • Secure your ladder at the top. Be very careful at this point since the ladder is not stable until tied off. Reach through the rung to secure the ladder, keeping your body weight centred between the rails.
  • You will be tempted to reach just a bit further by moving your body outside the centre of the rails. Don’t do it. Remember that ladder scene in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation? It won’t go as well for you as it did for Clark Griswold.
  • Never climb past the fourth rung from the top. When your waist is at the roof edge, you’ve gone as far up the ladder as you should.
  • Use a rope to pull up your tools. That will allow you to keep one hand on the ladder at all times. I tie a salt bag on the end of the rope and put my tools into it and then pull up the bag.
  • Transitioning from roof to ladder or back again the most dangerous maneuver in ladder climbing. If your job requires you to do this, leave it to the pros.

Ultimately, you should always ask yourself “What is the hazard and how can it hurt me?” Then control the hazard as much as you can, and work slowly and thoughtfully, and you’ll get back on the ground safely. That’s the best part of a climb.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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