Risk Managers’ Forum
Using alternative devices can decrease claims and claim severity
It is no secret that, by working to help them improve loss experience, agents and brokers can deliver superior value to insureds. Better loss experience opens the door to more markets to choose from and more latitude in pricing and credit; and forms and endorsements are more negotiable, especially when tighter markets or more challenging risk factors are a consideration.
In many cases, loss experience can be greatly improved by focusing on a few things that significantly impact frequency/severity. One of those is the use of ladders.
Unfortunately, in middle market construction accounts, ladder falls are fairly common. While many of these falls are from less than four feet, the financial consequences are often quite severe.
In construction workers compensation claims, the types of injuries with the greatest frequency and severity are sprains/strains and falls. Falls are usually broken down into falls from the same level (slips and trips) and falls from heights. Falls from heights can range from a deadly fall from an unprotected leading edge several stories up to something as simple as a misstep on the lowest rung of a ladder.
Unfortunately, in middle market construction accounts, ladder falls are fairly common. Many of these falls are from less than four feet, but the financial consequences can be quite severe. In fact, these claims often incur medical and indemnity costs in excess of $100,000. Combine a ladder fall with poor housekeeping, where a worker falls onto a tool or materials, and the expenses can be much higher.
Most loss control professionals will say they see ladders being misused all the time. Misuse includes—but is in no way limited to—workers on the top step or even top of a ladder, broken ladders in use, over-reaching the rails, failure to use three points of contact, and so on. These examples illustrate one of the reasons that the Centers for Disease Control reported that in 2011, among construction workers, an estimated 81% of fall injuries treated in U.S. emergency departments involved the use of a ladder. Read that again: 81%. Falls reported by the CDC resulted in 34,000 non-fatal emergency room visits, 113 fatalities, and 15,460 lost work days. Good risk management could have lowered these figures significantly.
While there is no magic bullet, there often are alternatives to the use of ladders. In many cases, proper use of these alternatives can be much safer, especially when working at heights. However, prior to discussing specific examples and recommendations, let’s review the hierarchy of controls in safety.
The hierarchy of controls in safety
The hierarchy of controls in safety calls for using controls to address hazards in the following order:
- Eliminating the hazard
- Substitution of a hazard
- Engineering controls to isolate the hazard
- Administrative controls (training)
- Personal protective equipment to protect workers
If the hazard (falling from an elevated surface) cannot be eliminated or replaced, then engineering controls should be used to manage the risk. When engineering controls cannot be implemented, administrative controls should be relied upon.
A typical contractor with a job at ceiling height often grabs a ladder and sets to work without a second thought. Assuming the worker has had training on the proper use of a ladder, which is a huge assumption, the use of a ladder in this scenario cannot be controlled by elimination or substitution. The work must be done at eight to 10 feet.
What about engineering controls? Many risk managers might say that engineering controls are not feasible, and they move on to administrative controls. However, engineering controls are being pushed in at least one construction market.
Reducing the use of ladders on a construction site
Agents who work in the New York City market acutely understand the underwriting problems associated with New York labor laws and action over claims related to falls. These considerations have prompted at least one large general contractor in the New York market to rid its jobsites of ladders to the greatest extent possible. A subcontractor that wants to use a ladder must obtain a permit from the general contractor for the use of a ladder. The subcontractor must provide sufficient reasoning for the use of the ladder over other methods and show that the employee using the ladder has appropriate training.
As mentioned, the use of a ladder does not provide any engineering to control the fall hazard. One must use a ladder properly in order to control the hazard of falls (administrative controls). The question then becomes, “How does a worker run cable in the rafters using ‘engineered controls’ to reduce the fall hazard?”
The answer is: “by using an elevated platform with fall protection railings.” This would include a scissor lift or, in the event of a frame structure that cannot bear the weight, Baker scaffolding. When used properly, a scissor lift provides a flat working surface, fall protection railings, and a place for a worker to lay down his or her tools. Properly used, Baker scaffolding provides the same benefits. While there are administrative controls needed in the “proper use” of these systems, they provide an engineering control solution with far greater protection than a ladder. The chances of a fall are greatly reduced, due to the standing platform and the fall protection railings.
An additional benefit of using Baker scaffolding and scissor lifts is the need for improved housekeeping in order to move these systems around on the construction floor. Poor housekeeping causes trips and falls from the same level. Poor housekeeping is also often an aggravating factor in the severity of a fall. Falling on a drill, saw, or debris is bound to increase the potential of a serious injury. The added benefit of better housekeeping is sure to reduce frequency and severity injuries.
Let’s look at another problem with ladders that can be solved with engineering controls. On construction sites, straight ladders and extension ladders often are used by workers accessing a higher floor before permanent stairs are installed. When this occurs, exposures increase because of numerous people using the ladder during a work day. An alternative to a ladder in this situation includes the erection of a temporary stairway system. These are usually erected by a scaffold erection company. Like properly erected scaffolding and scissor lifts, temporary stairs have the benefit of engineered controls to reduce falls. They will have appropriate treads, risers, and handrails. In addition, temporary stairs can be erected in tight spaces, which makes this engineering control a feasible alternative in many cases.
Another use of engineering controls is the employment of a straight ladder to access heights on the exterior of a building. When used appropriately, articulating lifts (commonly known as “boom lifts,” due to the “boom” with a basket for a worker on the end of it) have proven to be a more efficient and safer method of getting to required working heights on the outside of a building. They have railing systems for fall protection and toe-boards to reduce the potential for injuries from falling objects. Many of the newer articulating lifts also have built-in controls to shut the machine down when the operator is using the machine in an unsafe manner (on a steep grade, improper weight and angle of boom, etc.). It is now common to see dozens of these machines on a jobsite.
While the machines reviewed in this article can provide alternative controls to the use of ladders, the improper and unsafe use of these systems can be dangerous and even deadly. These systems require training (administrative controls) to be an effective alternative to ladders. The scaffolding systems must be assembled correctly by a competent person. Fall protection railings should be utilized even when scaffolds are at their lowest heights. Scissor lifts should be used according to manufacturer recommended procedures. Aerial articulating lifts require appropriate training and personal fall arrest systems during use.
Replacing ladders with the systems discussed in this article provides viable alternatives in most situations on a jobsite. While these alternatives will not eliminate the need for ladders, their use provides a much safer method of accessing heights. The increased cost of Baker scaffolding in a contractor’s inventory will be offset by the reduction in replacing ladders that become damaged and worn. The cost of renting temporary stairs, scissor lifts, and articulating boom lifts has decreased significantly over the years.
A broker that can help clients replace ladders with alternative methods that have shown to be safe when used appropriately will find improved results, namely, reduced frequency and severity related to falls from ladders. It is a great opportunity for an agent to provide a win-win solution: reduced claims, reduced EMR (Experience Mod Rating), more markets, and the potential to solidify the trust of your client.
Ron Hicks is executive vice president of Hicks Risk Consulting, Inc., a firm located in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, that focuses on insurance coverages and loss control as a significant aspect of the risk management process. He works with both agencies and insurance companies, and his past and present clients range from small family-owned manufacturers to national railroads and global print media organizations. Ron is also a faculty member for the National Alliance’s Certified Risk Manager (CRM) education program.