Don't sacrifice safety for productivity

Dec. 8, 2014
Know when and where to use ladders, scaffolding, and low-access lifts to get the job done.

People are often tempted to make do with available tools and risk bodily injury for the sake of saving time and energy. This temptation applies to nearly all tools and equipment, including those designed to provide access to elevated work heights. The risk of falls from elevated working heights is very real. According to Liberty Mutual’s 2013 Workplace Safety Index, these types of incidents ranked as the fourth leading cause of workplace injuries, and they led to $4.9 billion in direct costs to businesses in 2011.

This is where safety on ladders, scaffolding and low-level access lifts comes in.

Hand over hand

Low-level-access scissor lifts offer the same working height as ladders and scaffolding, but with greater convenience and safety features, such as 38- to 42-inch-tall railings, lanyard tie-offs and minimal setup, to name a few.

One of the most common tools, and often the first people think of for working at heights, is the ladder. Ladders are relatively quick to set up, are graded for a variety of applications and, since they’re fairly inexpensive, are an attractive option.

Ladders come in four duty ratings: Type III household, Type II commercial, Type I industrial heavy and Type IA industrial, which can withstand as much as 300 pounds. If that workload is exceeded – for instance if a worker decides to use a household ladder while installing heavy equipment – the ladder could snap under the combined weight of the worker, tools, and materials and cause severe injury.

Selecting the right height also is critical. If a ladder is too short it could tempt a worker to ignore safety precautions and stand on the top rungs or overstretch beyond the rails, either of which can lead to a fall. A ladder that is too tall is more likely to be set up incorrectly against a wall and can slip out from underneath a worker because there is not enough friction to hold it in place.

One key thing to keep in mind is that ladders are excellent for small jobs, such as changing a light bulb. Just be sure you’ve selected the right type of ladder and set it up properly. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends that a ladder be one-quarter of the working distance away from a wall. For instance, if you know the wall’s height is 40 feet, the base of the ladder should be 10 feet away. To access an elevated surface, OSHA says the top of the ladder should extend three feet higher.

Furthermore, the American National Standards Institute recommends ladders should be set at a 75-degree angle. It’s often impractical to measure for these recommendations on the jobsite, but not following them can lead to improper set-up, substantially reduce the stability of the ladder and increase the risk of falls.

If you are working on a ladder, being productive and safe can become a juggling act. When large projects like electrical and HVAC jobs in new buildings require moving the ladder as work progresses, the contractor needs to climb down, fold up the ladder, carry it a few feet over, set it back up correctly, and climb back up to start again. This constant moving, climbing and standing on ladder rungs can easily fatigue a worker, which also increases the risk for falls. By comparison, scaffolding or a low-level access lift may benefit workers by reducing fatigue and lessening the hassle of moving a ladder to a new location.

The scaffolding shuffle

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, nearly 65 percent of workers in the construction industry use scaffolding. Scaffolds provide variable working heights and larger elevated platforms, where ladders cannot. Still, they create some of the same safety challenges.

Scaffolding safety begins with setup. Sections need to be correctly assembled to provide a stable framework, and a worker still needs to pull boards up the side of the scaffold to provide a platform to work on. If a scaffold is improperly assembled, it can collapse underneath the weight of workers, tools, and materials.

Once the scaffolding is in place, you still need to maintain three points of contact while climbing up the sides. This can make hauling tools and materials a dangerous chore. Also, the user has to climb safely on and off the deck repeatedly. Like the ladder, the extra climbing can increase user fatigue, which can lead to more slips and falls.

Scaffolding is ideal for projects such as changing out an entire lighting fixture. But just as it is with ladders, operators using scaffolding are still tempted to sacrifice safety for productivity. When a scaffold needs to be moved, the worker needs to remove the deck, and in some cases disassemble and reassemble the scaffolding at the new location. When a scaffold is on wheels, a user might try to “surf” an unsecured scaffold over to the new location by remaining on the deck and pulling on objects, such as overhead pipes and fixtures. This takes the operator’s focus off of where the scaffold is traveling. The scaffold could tip if the wheels encounter an object or an uneven surface, such as a ramp. And, finally, there usually is nothing to prevent a user from taking a perilous step off of the side of the platform.

Elevated decision-making

Then there are circumstances that require changing out an entire lighting system, for example. With projects of this scope and size, an aerial lift is the best option. Aerial lifts have a lot of benefits, especially in terms of safety and efficiency.

Low-level-access scissor lifts have step-in heights as low as 20.28 inches, which reduces the risk of injuries that can occur from tripping and falling. It also eliminates the fatigue created from multiple trips up and down ladders and scaffolding.

For instance, workers can more easily load materials onto a lift and move from place to place on a site. Plus, some of the lifts are equipped with overload sensors that alert the user or limit the lift height if there is excess weight on the machine.

Low-level access lifts are ready to use when they arrive on site, meaning less set-up time is needed to ensure a safe ascent. On a low-level scissor lift, workers remain on the platform and have no sides to climb or decks to assemble. Plus, low-level lifts offer working heights as high as 20 feet, so the worker can reach the exact height that offers the greatest productivity.

Push-around lifts can be lowered to the ground and pushed to the next location. These units have automatic locking mechanisms on the wheels to prevent the unsafe surfing practice. Self-propelled lifts are drivable, even while the lift is elevated, which gives users the optimum efficiency. When maneuvering around a site with a self-propelled unit, the user operates it with simple, easy-to-understand buttons, so they can focus on the wheels’ path to avoid obstacles and uneven work surfaces.

Lifts offer a fully encircled work platform with 38- to 42-inch-tall railings and toeboards. Railings prevent workers from falling from an elevated lift and toeboards protect people below from falling tools and materials. For added fall protection, some low-level-access lifts come with lanyard tie-offs. Workers have the option to attach their safety harnesses or lanyards to the tie-off, and the system will catch them if they start to fall. 

Justin Kissinger is the marketing manager for Custom Equipment, Inc. Contact him at 262-644-1300 x13 and at [email protected].

A lift eliminates daunting climbs and, providing a step-in height as low as about 20 inches, the lifts allow workers to quickly relocate without the hassles of disassembly and reassembly. Further, most lifts employ counterweights to address side-loading issues, and some even have tilt sensors that alert the operator when loads become imbalanced.

Lifts should be inspected daily and before each use. It’s also important to have a qualified aerial lift professional perform required annual inspections. Annual inspections keep users safe by addressing any mechanical issues that might arise through normal wear and tear.

Contractors and project managers are always looking for ways to make gains on jobs, both in terms of safety and productivity. By following a few of these guidelines, they can be confident in knowing the masterpiece is more than the finished project; it’s also the time and people that have been spared in the process of completing it.

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