Oregon OSHA Construction Depot Safety and health newsletter for the Oregon construction industry

February 16, 2017

Toolbox talk: Anatomy of a ladder fall

Most ladder falls happen because workers select the wrong type of ladder for their job or they improperly set up the ladder and the ladder shifts or slips unexpectedly. Why does that happen? Here's a good example:

What happened?

A worker fell eight feet and fractured two bones in his leg when his extension ladder slipped out from under him.

...

How did it happen?

The worker usually operated heavy equipment, but because there was no heavy-equipment work to be done at the site that day, he was helping the pipe crew complete work a newly constructed digester tank.

His job was to remove plugs from the bolt holes on the discharge pipes inside the tank. He borrowed a 32-foot extension ladder from a co-worker who didn't need it at the time, but he was trying to complete the job before the co-worker came back and needed to use it again.

Because the piping was 12 feet above the tank floor and the base section of the ladder was 16 feet long, he set up the ladder so that top of the base section would close to his work. He knew that the setup was not ideal – the bottom of the ladder was too far from the tank wall and the concrete floor wasn't level – so he jumped up and down on the second rung from the floor to test it. He set up the ladder the same way when he did the job once before and there were no problems.

The ladder did not move so he climbed up to the eighth rung and started working on removing the plugs. He had been working for about five minutes when the base of the ladder slid out from under him. He tried to ride the ladder down to the floor as it slid down the wall, but his left leg slid between the rungs and the ladder twisted as it hit the floor.

He was working alone in the tank but his co-workers on the other side heard the thud when he hit the floor and they could see him when they looked through the holes in the wall.

His co-workers came to his aid and immediately called 911. The two long bones in his lower left leg – the tibia and fibula – were broken. The supervisor used Styrofoam insulation as a splint to stabilize before the emergency responders arrived.

Findings

  • Another worker, who had been doing similar work in the tank the day before, installed a wood block in the concrete floor to keep the ladder from slipping but the victim needed to work in another area in the tank.
  • The victim said he decided not to secure the ladder because he was in a hurry and it would take only 10 minutes to do the work.
  • The employer expected employees to tie off their ladders at the top or block the bottoms to prevent the ladders from slipping.
  • The employer had other sizes of extension ladders for employees to use at the site, including 12-foot, 16-foot, and 20-foot lengths.

What could the employer and the victim have done to prevent the incident?