In 2014, work-related falls to a lower level in the wholesale and retail trade (WRT) sector accounted for over 12,500 reported injuries. These injured employees were out of work for an average of 7 to 11 days (BLS 2015, BLS 2016). This post provides information about preventing ladder-related injuries in the wholesale and retail trade sector.
The most common type of fall to a lower level in the wholesale and retail trade sector is from a portable ladder. While providing customer service can tempt employees in retail to work quickly, it is important that they do not put service before safety. Taking time, not rushing, and watching one’s step is critical to preventing falls from ladders. Falls can cause back injuries, sprains, strains, contusions, fractures, severe head injuries, paralysis, and even death.
In 2014, 20 employees working in wholesale and retail trade sector died from incidents attributed to the use of ladders, mostly portable ladders, such as step and extension ladders (BLS 2017). Below are some recognized safety procedures that are used in working with portable ladders.
Setting Up the Ladder
When using portable ladders, users must follow two important steps. First, inspect the ladder to be sure that all rungs or steps are in place and secure. Second, inspect the floor surface where each foot or rail contacts the floor. This surface needs to be level, dry, and clean.
For a free-standing portable ladder, such as a step ladder, make sure it is fully open, the spreaders are correctly secured, and all four feet are in contact with the floor.
For a ladder that is not free-standing, such as a single or extension ladder, position it against a nearby vertical surface, railing, or shelf that is secure. It is important to avoid resting the top of the ladder against anything breakable or movable such as a window.
Once the ladder is upright and resting against a surface, adjust it to the proper angle. Remember the 4-to-1 placement rule: for every 4 feet of height you have to climb, move the base 1 foot away from the wall.
For quick guidance on setting a safe angle, NIOSH provides a free Ladder Safety app for a smart phone or tablet. Its “angle-measuring tool” has both a visual indicator and an audible signal to help position a ladder at the safest angle for climbing.
Misjudging the Last Step
Once a portable ladder is correctly positioned, a common fall incident occurs when the user is climbing down and misjudges the location of the last step (Hsaio 2008).
Users can mistakenly think that their foot is about to touch the floor, when in fact the floor is actually 24 inches from the second-to-last rung. To avoid falling, they must quickly realize —before shifting their weight to step down —that there is another rung on the ladder. Ladder users are reminded to be aware of this potential mis-stepping hazard and take precautions in their actions when climbing down a ladder.
Typically when climbing down a ladder, WRT workers will be carrying a box or item retrieved from an upper shelf. With one hand, holding the item and the other hand holding onto the ladder, their descent can be far from safe. Best practices suggest that three points of contact are needed at all times to safely ascend or descend a portable ladder, which is possible only if both hands are free for holding onto the ladder.
One solution is for the worker to lower the item in a container or basket. A coworker can help keep the ladder secure and take the item from the basket. If no co-worker is available to help, then the ladder-climber can put the item in a shoulder bag or backpack. This prevents a visual obstruction and frees both hands for descending.
Additional research is needed to prevent falls from ladders in WRT.
About the Authors
Peter Simeonov, PhD, is a Research Safety Engineer in the NIOSH Division of Safety Research
Vern Putz-Anderson, PhD, CPE, is the NIOSH Wholesale and Retail Sector Coordinator
Donna Pfirman is NIOSH Wholesale and Retail Sector Co-Assistant Coordinator, and Program Analyst in the NIOSH Education and Information Division
BLS . Nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses requiring days away from work, 2014. News Release. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics November 19, 2015, https://www.bls.gov/news.release/archives/osh2_11192015.pdf.
BLS . Fatal occupational injuries by industry, and event or exposure, all, United States, 2015. Table A-1. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 19, 2016, https://www.bls.gov/iif/oshwc/cfoi/cftb0286.pdf.
BLS . Fatal occupational injuries in the private wholesale trade and private retail trades, 2011-2015. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics; data inquiry March 21, 2017, Jill Janocha, BLS.
Hsiao H, Simeonov P, Pizatella T, Stout N, McDougall V, Weeks J . Extension-ladder safety: Solutions and knowledge gaps. Int J Ind Ergon: 38 (2008) 959-965. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Peter_Simeonov/publication/229343827_Extension-Ladder_Safety_Solutions_and_Knowledge_Gaps/links/5640a4a208aeacfd8935cec1.pdf?origin=publication_detail.
NIOSH . Falls in the workplace: NIOSH ladder safety app. Cincinnati, OH: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease and Control Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/falls/mobileapp.html?s_cid=3ni7d2LSMobileApp042017.