Putting ladders in their place with low-level scissor lifts

laddersBy Justin Kissinger, VP of marketing for Custom Equipment

Just like a runner wouldn’t expect to win a race injury-free wearing sandals, a contractor shouldn’t expect optimal safety when using ladders.

Safety isn’t a race, but if it were, ladders wouldn’t stand a chance against low-level scissor lifts’ safe platforms, manoeuvrability or ergonomics. Ladders will likely always be an option when it comes to work-at-height jobs, but there is a time and place for them, and typically it’s last.

Whether young or old, short or tall, every employee has the right to be safe while performing tasks on the jobsite, and high-reach work in the construction industry is no exception. Proper ladder usage may seem like common sense, yet according to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), falls from a ladder remain the leading cause of death in the construction industry.

The good news? These falls are almost always preventable.

The problem with ladders

There will always be a time and place for ladders and when set up and used correctly, they can be a great tool for getting high-reach work done. However, setup and usage is where the problems with ladders arise, and the result of not following proper guidelines can lead to injuries and costs.

According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics study of 1,400 ladder accidents, 66 per cent who were injured had not been trained on how to inspect and set up the ladder. It’s evident the idea that ladders are convenient and show up to the jobsite ready to go is a myth, which is why they should be considered last for any job. There is, however, equipment that does show up to the jobsite ready — low-level scissor lifts; and users get more than enhanced safety.

Low-level scissor lifts allow workers to reach working heights of about 6 metres, which accounts for about 90 per cent of high-reach work. While many think a lift’s overall size is a setback, low-level units are compact and in some cases take up less space than a ladder. For instance, the legs of a 3.5 metre stepladder spread nearly 2 metres apart, which means the ladder consumes about 1.8 square metres of floor space. A low-level lift with a 3 metre platform, however, takes up just 70 square centimetres of space. Both offer the same working heights, yet the scissor lift has a 58 per cent smaller footprint.

A ladder may be fairly simple to move by folding it up, but the taller it gets, the more cumbersome moving it becomes. Not only do ladders get heavier as they get taller, but those taller heights also make it challenging to get around corners and into tight spaces. Low-level lifts, on the other hand, take lifting and awkward manoeuvring out of the equation. Operators can simply lower the units down to an overall height as low as 1.6 metres, and if it’s a self-propelled lift, use the controls on the platform to navigate to the next area.

Low-level scissor lifts can never compete with ladders’ light weight, but some of the lightest scissor lift models can be used on tile, laminate and raised floors without the risk of damage. Some push-around units weigh just 260 kg.

Rise above risk

High-reach work comes with challenges, and when using a ladder to perform that work, those challenges become compounded and can test the human body. For example, HVAC and plumbing technicians installing pipes and ductwork overhead need ample materials and tools as the job progresses. When they’ve completed one section, they must step down, move the ladder, grab more materials and climb back up. This not only is inefficient, but the repetitive climbing can cause injuries to knees and hips, and standing on the rungs for long periods can lead to painful plantar fasciitis. This scenario also sets the installer up for a fall.

In addition, once workers are on the ladder their lateral reach is limited, restricting how much work they can accomplish in one spot. As a result, many are tempted to — and often do — overreach and risk the ladder toppling over.

These reasons are why improper ladder usage continues to make OSHA’s Top 10 most cited violations, year after year. In fact, according to the last study provided by the Center for Disease control, 81 per cent of all fall injuries among construction workers in 2011 involved a ladder.

Lifts can hold as much as 340kg and offer as much as 1.5 square metres of platform space, including their extensions. That’s plenty of capacity for ample materials and supplies. Also, loading the lift with those supplies is substantially easier and less taxing on the body. And because workers can load the lift with more materials, they make fewer trips up and down, which enhances productivity. In addition, some units feature integrated pipe racks, which give installers a place to rest longer materials. These types of features help boost efficiency while maintaining safety.

Providing all employees, whether 25 or 55, with equipment that allows them to do their jobs safely and efficiently not only minimizes their risk of injuries, but also demonstrates that employers value their workers and the time they dedicate to their businesses.