Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Before the Fall: Mind that Ladder

Have been cruising around the landscape via Google Maps, and came across this remnant from my past:

The dark diagonal line is the shadow of a radio tower in Ropesville, Texas, that I spent time on and around for a Smithsonian story, hanging with the good ol' tower hands of Strickland Tower Service. It reminded me to post a few safety tips about ladders, which I've been using a lot lately in a repainting job around the house.

While the altitude at the peak of our roof is about 500 feet less than in Ropesville, just about any ladder can be dangerous to one's health. During the days of preparation and painting, several neighbors stopped by to urge me not to fall off.

After I put away the ladder, I looked into why thousands of people fall from ladders every year.

Don't try to save time by stretching sideways or "bumping" the top of ladder sideways. Once the ladder starts sliding, even a little, there's nothing you can do to stop it. Experts say that if your belt buckle is beyond the vertical supports of the ladder (called "stiles," by the way) you're already out of balance.

Aluminum ladders are a fine electrical conductor, and the results of electrocution are terrible to behold, so stay far away from live wires.

A large number of injuries trace to mistakes on the first two rungs. Common reasons: holding something in your hand, tripping on hazards around the base of the ladder, or slipping on wet rungs. Since nearly every ladder-related job requires some tool or container available at the top, use a rope to pull it up.

I recommend the "stabilizer" or "standoff" attachment available at hardware stores. It reduces the chance that the ladder will rotate around one side and dump you off, and it also makes for a more comfortable working distance when painting.

Check the ladder out before you head up, looking for anything out of shape, cracked or bent. Dented stiles are a concern with aluminum ladders, and a fiberglass ladder is in trouble when it starts turning fuzzy at the surface. That means it's losing the resin covering that gives it compressive strength.

Ditch the heavy family-heirloom wooden ladder, particularly if it's painted. Paint holds in moisture and hides rot around the rungs, and I wouldn't trust my life to one.

Check the ground surface against any tendency for the ladder feet to slip. In our neighborhood, one hazard while painting the front of the garage is that all our driveways slope toward the street. Combine a sloping surface with a shiny coat of sealer on the driveway: the feet of the ladder are more likely to slide and drop you on your face.

Planning to lop off some tree branches from a long ladder? Mind the fact that after you saw off that big bough, the remainder of the branch could spring upward a foot or more, freeing the top of the ladder to drop you on the ground.

While I haven't fallen from a ladder (yet), I can think of a few mistakes that could have ended that way. The most embarrassing: While I was putting up decorations at a preview showing of the History series on my disaster book, my brother pointed out that I hadn't locked the braces on the stepladder I was using. Oops!

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