Ladder and Powerline Safety: Important Things to Know
Ladders are typically made of wood, metal, or fiberglass. However, many jobs require the use of ladders that are placed in close proximity to powerlines. In this article, we discuss essential ladder and powerline safety tips to keep in mind when using ladders near powerlines to reduce the risk of electrocution, as well as general powerline safety precautions.
Common Jobs Involving Powerlines
Jobs that can involve work near or directly on powerlines include:
- Professional outdoor installation, repair, and maintenance of electric power transmission, telecommunications lines, and distribution lines (linemen or lineworkers)
- Roofing installation and repair
- Professional home painting
- Professional landscaping (e.g., cleaning gutters, trimming trees)
- Professional tree removal
- Natural disaster relief
- Professional chimney sweeping
- Animal control
Private individuals may also find themselves performing tasks that put them in close proximity to powerlines while in the residential setting. This includes homeowners who are cleaning gutters, cleaning chimneys, and hanging decorative lights.
Common Safety Risks When Working On or Near Powerlines With Ladders
Serious and potentially deadly hazards associated with ladders and powerlines are not confined to the commercial or occupational setting. So, both professional and private individuals who work on or near powerlines must be aware of the safety hazards associated with their tasks and understand how to mitigate these risks.
Below are the most common safety risks while using ladders near power lines:
- Metal = eletrocution. Unlike fiberglass and wood (other commonly used materials in ladders), metal can easily conduct electricity. This means the use of metal ladders near powerlines poses extreme risk to the worker and even other workers who are simply nearby. It should be noted that wooden ladders made with metal reinforcements can conduct electricity, as well, and therefore, can also lead to electrocution and death.
- Workers may accidentally move ladders into direct contact with overhead electrical lines while carrying or transporting ladders, or while operating machinery with ladders on them.
- Ladders can unexpectedly move due to strong winds, uneven ground, faulty set-up, or worker position and movement (e.g., reaching for things while on the ladder). Ladders can also fall when workers attempt to move them without appropriate help, especially in the case of heavier and longer metal ladders. Beyond causing fall or crush injuries, shifting ladders can and often do fall against overhead wires.
Sadly, accidents involving ladders and powerlines are often deadly. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), approximately 4% of all work-related electrocutions that occurred in the United States between 1980 and 1985 were due to the contact of metal ladders with overhead powerlines.
In 2011, the third leading cause of construction worker deaths (700 total) that occurred in the United States were due to electrocution, which included electrocution due to ladders coming in contact with powerlines.
And according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 150 people were electrocuted and killed in the United States between 1992 and 2005 when a metal ladder they were working with or near came in contact with overhead lines.
Keeping Linemen and Other Workers Safe: Important Strategies in Ladder and Powerline Safety
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) offers several regulations surrounding ladders and powerlines, including 29 CFR 1926.450(a)(11) and 1926.951(c)(1). Among other stipulations, these regulations state that “portable metal or conductive ladders shall not be used for electrical work or where they may contact electrical conductors.”
OSHA also promotes other regulations that may apply to ladder and powerline safety, including:
- 29 CFR 1926.450(a)(10), which says that "portable ladders in use shall be tied, blocked, or otherwise secured to prevent their being displaced” (e.g., place flat pieces of wood beneath the ladder feet to ensure a stable surface)
- 29 CFR 1926.21(b)(2), which says that employers must train each worker to recognize and avoid unsafe conditions
- 29 CFR 1926.50, which says that prompt medical attention must be provided in the case of serious injury. Employees should also be provided with basic emergency medical training, including cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)
Purchasing an automatic external defibrillator (AED) could also be a valuable and life-saving investment to have on the job site.
OSHA, NIOSH, and other safety organizations offer additional strategies to reduce the risk of injury or death when dealing with ladders and powerlines:
- Workers should only use nonconductive ladders (fiberglass, wood) when performing electrical work in locations where they may come in contact with electrical conductors. Ladders should also come with warning labels, and employers and employees should look for these labels and ensure ladders do not contain any conductive materials, including metal or metal wiring.
- Never touch or approach a person or piece of equipment that is in contact with an overhead powerline.
- Move ladders horizontally to reduce the risk of accidentally striking an overhead wire.
- Always assume an overhead wire is energized. Keep in mind that phone lines and powerlines can look very similar, and that even though certain types of lines have protective coatings, these coatings are intended to extend the life of the line and NOT intended to protect workers from electrocution.
- Before positioning or ascending a ladder, ensure the ladder is clean and dry. Like metal, water is an excellent conductor of electricity.
- In addition to being fully educated about possible safety hazards, workers should be properly trained in ladder handling, transportation, and use.
- Whenever possible, make arrangements with power companies to de-energize powerlines, or cover powerlines with insulating blankets or line hoses.
- Whenever possible, ensure ladders are far enough away from overhead lines so that they will not strike against the lines if the ladders were to fall or shift.
- How far should a ladder be from power lines? According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission of the United States, ladders should be placed at a distance away from the nearest overhead wire that is at least twice the length of the ladder itself.
Aluminum ladders are often preferred for residential or commercial use because they are generally lighter and easier to transport than wooden ladders. Aluminum ladders are also typically less expensive than fiberglass ladders.
However, aluminum ladders conduct electricity and, for this reason, can be dangerous to use while working on or near electrical wires.
Protective Clothing for Electricians, Linemen, and Other Workers
In addition to following all appropriate regulations and job-specific safety protocols, employers should ensure that their workers have access to appropriate personal protective equipment. According to OSHA, the necessary protective clothing for electricians, linemen, and other workers include:
- Safety glasses or goggles
- Face shields
- Hard hats
- Safety shoes (e.g., sturdy, closed-toed boots, with or without protective coverings)
- Insulating rubber gloves with leather protectors
- Insulating sleeves or coveralls
- Flame-resistant clothing
These items of PPE are intended to reduce the risk or degree of electrocution without hindering a worker's ability to perform his or her typical job duties. Workers should be thoroughly trained on how to don, doff, store, and/or dispose of their PPE to ensure maximal protection.
In addition to these items of PPE, linemen and other workers may require additional protective garments or equipment, including respirators, chemical-resistant or cut-resistant gloves, and chaps, depending on specific hazards and equipment used (e.g., brush chippers, chain saws, or stump cutters).
OSHA describes additional items of protection often worn by linemen including line hoses, rubber blankets, rubber hoods, and insulating live-line tools (e.g., switchsticks, shotgun sticks). These items are classified as insulating protective equipment (IPE) instead of PPE, as they are not worn by the worker.
Metal ladders = electrocution. To avoid serious injury or death, workers using ladders should always assume nearby powerlines and overhead wires are live and energized. Metal ladders—and even wooden or fiberglass ladders with metal components—should never be used in these scenarios.
At International Enviroguard, we are committed to helping you keep your workers safe. To learn more about our PPE and other solutions that can protect your workers during activities that involve ladders and powerlines, contact us today at 1-866-734-3521.