Ladder fall risk in seniors and safety tips

A Q&A interview with Research Assistant Erika Pliner from NeuRA’s Falls, Balance and Injury Lab.

Over 4,000 ladder falls per year result in serious injuries. Currently, NeuRA is conducting a research project looking at aspects of ladder fall risk for seniors performing household tasks on ladders. Knowledge gained from this study can be used in interventions to reduce ladder fall injuries through health screening, training programs, improved safety standards and ladder redesign.

What was the motivation for the ladder study?

Injury records show that the majority of ladder falls occur among older men working at home. This data has motivated us to study the underlying mechanisms of these falls.

I have looked at biomechanical mechanisms of ladder falls in previous studies as part of my PhD. Coming to NeuRA has given me the opportunity to work with Professor Stephen Lord, a leading expert in the falls prevention field. Professor Lord and his team study fall risk from a different perspective, primarily looking at behavioural and physiological factors that contribute to falls. The aim of this study is to determine the behavioural and physiological mechanisms of ladder falls for older adults performing household tasks on ladders.

What have you found to be a major cause of ladder falls?

Ladder falls can be categorised into two types. Either a person can fall with the ladder or fall from the ladder. A fall with the ladder can occur when a person overreaches causing both them and the ladder to fall. A fall from a ladder can occur when a person’s foot slips or the person loses balance, causing them to fall from the ladder. Setting up the ladder incorrectly is one factor that can lead to a fall. Other research teams have investigated the proper setup angle for extensions and inclined ladders to prevent the ladder base from sliding out while the climber is on the ladder.

With this study, we’re trying to understand the behavioural and physiological mechanisms that lead to ‘overreaching’ and ‘loss of balance’ ladder falls. We’re looking into the risks men and women will take to complete tasks on ladders.  Specifically, how capable they think they are versus how capable they really are. There is a decline in physical capabilities as we age, but it is important to be aware of our limits and take care when engaging in a risky physical activity.

How can we reduce our risks of a fall from a ladder?

The first step to reducing your risk is to make sure the ladder is set up properly and safely. Most ladders will have warning labels and safety instructions for proper setup and use. Read these before you start climbing. When you’re using the ladder keep focused on what you’re doing. Avoid climbing ladder steps and rungs on your toes, ensure that the middle of your foot is on the step or rung. Use a tool belt or have someone hand you items so both hands can be used for climbing the ladder. It’s best to have at least three points of contact on the ladder when climbing, that is: two feet and one hand, or one foot and two hands. Take your time, falls can happen when you try to rush. Take care when transitioning on or off the ladder.

Even though this study is motivated by domestic falls, this information can also be applied in the workplace.

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