Killer Ladders

Walking around my neighborhood watching folks put up holiday lights, I have to stop myself from admonishing them to be careful on those ladders. I recognize this as a fear born of age and experience. As an electrician, and then a home remodeler, I spent many hours working on ladders. 

As a new electrician I was fascinated by electrocution. I did some research and found that while electricians do die from electrocution, more often they die due to falls from ladders or being run into by trucks. I got more careful around ladders. Trucks too.

Most electricians spend a good deal of their working careers on ladders. Upgrading the electrical service where the wires come in to the building from the street was a typical job for me as a small contractor. For an overhead service we would mount the electrical panel and conduit on an exterior wall. The last job—connecting the wires at the top of the conduit—we did live from a ladder. Not a metal ladder, which conducts electricity and could electrocute you if the hot wire touched it. I was well aware that a direct shock from a live wire could  also throw me off the ladder. I would die not from the shock, but from falling on my head.

Nowadays ladders are made of light materials and there are all kinds of newfangled designs and inventions making them easier to use. Back in the 70s when I worked with Wonder Woman Electric we had an old-fashioned wooden 40-foot extension ladder. The thing felt like it weighed a hundred pounds, but I was young and strong and I could handle it all by myself. You lifted it by pushing one end against a wall then picking up the other end and “walking” the ladder up till it was vertical. Then you carried it upright with a rung on your shoulder, one hand holding a lower rung, and your other hand holding a rung as high as you could reach. Carrying it was relatively easy unless you failed to keep it exactly upright. If it started tilting it was almost impossible to right the thing before it crashed into whatever was in its path, tweaking your back as it fell.

I know people who have died or been severely injured falling off ladders. Our friend Chris died only last year trying to secure a gay flag at his home. Emma became a paraplegic, falling from a tall tripod ladder while picking apples. I worked with Ron who ended up in a wheelchair after falling while tree trimming, and knew Jack who died in a similar accident.

I’ve fallen a few times myself. The first time I remember was while working in a residential garage. I had propped my eight-foot step ladder against the wall. Each step is a foot and I might have been up on the fourth rung, not very high, strapping conduit to the ceiling when the ladder started to slip down the wall. Now most people know—and I knew—that when this happens the correct response is to ride the ladder down the wall. Instead, my sympathetic nervous system overrode my brain and I jumped off, landing on my feet. I fell over and when I tried to get up I couldn’t stand. There was no pain. 

The homeowner drove me to St. Luke’s hospital where they told me I had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in my knee, that ACL injury that has plagued female basketball players. I butt-crawled up the stairs to our second-floor apartment and wasn’t able to leave for three months. If that didn’t make me wary of ladders, nothing would. Three months without work and no income. That’ll do it.

One time I was standing on the top of a three-foot ladder, it went out from under me and I landed flat on my back, sustaining not even a scratch. I knew—we all know—not to stand on the top rungs of a ladder, but I hadn’t felt like looking for a taller ladder.

Another time, at the top of a 32-foot extension ladder, I leaned backward slightly and nearly lost my balance. In that second I saw my life flash before my eyes. A fall from the height surely would have killed me. After that I made sure to tie off.

My most recent ladder incident happened in September. I was on the second rung of an eight-foot step ladder trying to pick the last apples on the neighbor’s tree that grows over the fence. I reached my left arm up and back, turning my head with it, and I lost consciousness. It was probably just for a second but I found myself with feet on the ground and arms stretched up, face up against the ladder. My body had just slipped down, my shins scraping against the lower rungs. Other than bloody shins I was ok. Just stunned. Here is something new that can happen on a ladder!

After that event I gained a new respect for the destructive power of ladders. Now I mostly stand below, holding the ladder for others. Our rule here: never get on a ladder without someone else here to hold it.

Advice from an old ladder climber: be careful out there. Those innocent looking ladders are killers.

Author: Molly Martin

I'm a long-time tradeswoman activist, retired electrician and electrical inspector. I live in Santa Rosa, CA. molly-martin.com. I also share a travel blog with my wife Holly: travelswithmoho.wordpress.com.

12 thoughts on “Killer Ladders”

  1. Good essay and good subject. I’ve had a few ladder incidents too, but one with humor was after i got on top of a boiler about 20 feet up, i was working and heard the ladder fall over, and i without my radio. 20’ up in a boiler room is HOT! I was sweating as if i was running a marathon and no way down or way to call anyone. I had to strip down to my undershirt, and was contemplating taking my pants off when a co-worker wandered into the boiler room and was surprised by my call. Always tied off after that!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Molly apparently I’m a long lost cousin of yours in Colorado. My hubby is an electrician. He lost his best friend recently in a ladder accident building his own house. The dangers are real. Been trying to get hubby to retire or become an inspector for years.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Cousin! My brother found you on a relative’s ancestry site. Sad to learn about your hubby’s friend. I recommend inspecting. Still some ladders and crawl spaces, but not so hazardous.

      Like

  3. Wow you did the drawing too? Nice story. I feel lucky to have only had one serious ladder accident. I cut a lot of corners, no more!

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  4. great article and great warning, Molly. It really does a great job of putting ladder accidents in a bigger picture: It’s not just “I’m fine if I’m being ‘careful’. I’m thinking I’ll actually be a bit more careful now.

    But I’m still worrying about what caused you to pass out while picking apples…. What else is going on?

    On Thu, Dec 17, 2020 at 10:46 AM tradeswomn musings wrote:

    > Molly Martin posted: ” Walking around my neighborhood watching folks put > up holiday lights, I have to stop myself from admonishing them to be > careful on those ladders. I recognize this as a fear born of age and > experience. As an electrician, and then a home remodeler, I spent ” >

    Like

  5. I fell from an 8 foot ladder that kicked out as I twisted my body coming out of the ceiling on a new highly polished concrete floor causing the ladder to shift like it did.i fell ripping out the ceiling grid and landing on my right side.herniated 2 discs in my neck,crushed my ulnar nerve ,broke a few fingers and hyper extended my wrist along with a small tear in my rotator cuff.i found out years later that I had also herniated 3 discs in my lower back that I wasnt aware of and had a fracture of a Thirasic disc.only found this out cause my knee needed replacing due to walking off kilter for 7 years.my hip was recently replaced too due to the alignment being thrown off.
    please use caution and have respect for ladders and heights.is my main piece of advice.Also,don’t rush or let yourself be forced back to work.you only get one body and this wound up ending my career 10 years early.enough about me….

    Liked by 1 person

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