Fixed ladders with no cage at the top are accidents waiting to happen. These ladders often go well over 20 feet in the air. When they have no cage, people climbing them have nothing to protect them from a fall.
The cage is especially important at the top of the ladder. If you fall from that height, it will likely lead to serious or even fatal ladder injuries. The top of the ladder is also where you have to carefully maneuver from the ladder to the building or structure. This is where you are most likely to fall.
What are fixed ladders?
A fixed ladder is a ladder that is attached to a building or other structure. These ladders cannot be moved from one place to another. You often see them on the sides of:
- Water towers,
- Farm silos,
- High voltage power lines,
- Warehouses, or
- Apartment complexes, often as fire escapes.
Because they are fixed, these ladders are stronger and sturdier than portable ladders. Because they are stronger, they often go to higher heights than what a portable ladder can reach. Because of the heights that fixed ladders can go, extra precautions have to be taken to protect people who climb them.
Regulations requiring a cage on fixed ladders are changing
A cage on a fixed ladder is a series of metal rings connected to the ladder. These rings create a tube-like fence that runs up the ladder. People climbing the ladder are snugly surrounded by these rings. If the climber loses their grip on the rungs of the ladder, these rings catch them and keep them from falling.
Federal regulations have long required cages on fixed ladders taller than 20 feet.1 Those cages had to extend at least 42 inches above the top of the landing of the ladder, unless another form of protection was provided.2
Recent changes to these regulations rolled back those protections. Regulations now only require cages on fixed ladders taller than 24 feet. They also phase out the use of cages on fixed ladders in favor of “ladder safety systems” and body harnesses. Fixed ladders built after November 19, 2018 cannot have a cage. By November 18, 2036, cages cannot be used on fixed ladders, at all.3
A lack of cages at the top of ladders puts workers at risk
The new regulations are a step backwards for worker protection. They are likely to increase the number of workplace injuries.
The new regulations phase out fixed ladder cages in favor of ladder safety systems. These systems involve the use of body harnesses attached to the fixed ladder. People going up and down a fixed ladder have to take the time to get into the harness. Workers in a rush or under pressure from their supervisor are going to skip the harness. They are going to shrug at the latent risks of going up or coming down a fixed ladder because it is something they do all the time. They also have to be trained to use the ladder safety system properly.
Cages on fixed ladders require no training and no extra steps to keep climbers safe. They are always there to keep a climber from falling from a fixed ladder.
The difference between cages and ladder safety systems is most important at the top of the ladder. Cages extended past the top of fixed ladders to keep climbers secure before they started descending, and after they stopped ascending. Ladder safety systems, on the other hand, provide no protection at the most awkward time spent on the ladder. In fact, it adds an extra step at this crucial juncture. Climbers have to get into or out of the safety harness.
Fixed ladder cages, though, are expensive to install. Switching to ladder safety systems is a cost-cutting technique for employers and property owners.
The risks of falling are not small
Accidents are waiting to happen when there are no cages at the tops of fixed ladders. Falls are one of the “Fatal Four” accidents in the construction industry. They accounted for nearly 40% of fatal accidents in construction in 2017.4
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says that the new regulations phasing out fixed ladder cages will protect workers.5 Realities in the workplace could make it more likely for workers to get hurt under the new rules. Workers who get hurt climbing fixed ladders with no cage may have to turn to workers' compensation to get the financial help they need to recover.
29 CFR 1910.27(d)(iii) (2010).
See OSHA Fact Sheet, “OSHA's Final Rule to Update, Align, and Provide Greater Flexibility in its General Industry Walking Working Surfaces and Fall Protection Standards,” (November, 2016).
See Note 3 (“OSHA estimates this rule will prevent 29 fatalities and 5,842 lost-workday injuries every year”).