Ladders Are Safety Equipment: Why Suppliers Should Carry Them

Basically every industry uses ladders to some extent. If everyone is using ladders, why do so many industrial supply houses dislike carrying them?

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Dave Francis, National Safety Director, Little Giant LaddersLadders are everywhere. Every work truck you see in a parking lot or driving down the road has two or three of them on the rack. Every job site you drive by has stacks of ladders of every type and size. Basically every industry uses ladders to some extent. If everyone is using ladders, why do so many industrial supply houses dislike carrying them?

Ladders Don't Pay the Rent

Suppliers know every square inch of their retail space. They know what it is worth, and they know whether the products in that space have enough margin and turns to justify the space they take. Essentially, each product must be able to "pay the rent" for its space.

Ladders are bad tenants; they rarely pay their rent. They are long and heavy and take up a lot of floor space; and from the dust I see on most ladders in stores, they don't move quickly. Compared to other products in your inventory, ladders are expensive and the return on that inventory dollar is almost never good. It’s also hard to stay competitive with big box retailers who frequently sell the exact same ladders for prices close to your wholesale costs.

So why tie up a lot of room in your retail space on an expensive product that turns slowly and has a below average return on investment? Because ladders are used on every job. They are a necessity. If you don't have the products your customers need, you are forcing them to shop with your competitor. If they have to run to the big box store to buy their ladder, they will probably just buy everything else they need while they are there. It's a double-edged sword.

Big Box Stores and "Grandpa's Ladder"

Big retail has been bad for ladders, not just for smaller retailers trying to sell them, but for the customer using them. Ladder companies compete for space in the ladder aisle based mostly on price. Every few years, one company tries to take that space from another company by having the lowest price. These days, to be a low-price leader, you need to take as much out of the product as you can. Reduce the labor costs, material costs and margins to maintain control of the aisle. This fight for the ladder aisle is a race to the bottom based on price and does not promote innovation and improvement to the product. The box sells grandpa's ladder, so grandpa’s ladder is the only choice the customer has.

When I say grandpa's ladder, you can probably see a visual image of what I'm talking about. Maybe you have one of these ladders in your garage or out behind your shed. The fundamental design hasn't changed in hundreds of years. Can you think of a product you use today that is basically the same design as when your grandpa was using it? The traditional stepladder is one of those products that hasn't changed much. Companies have made them cheaper but haven't improved their design. If you were jumping out of an airplane, I bet you wouldn't buy grandpa's parachute just because it was cheaper.

Ladders Are Not Just Ladders: They Are Safety Equipment

Unfortunately, almost no one thinks of ladders as safety equipment. Some treat them as throwaway items they use for a job or two and then toss them in the scrap bin. But the statistics on ladder-related injuries and deaths are not improving over time; if anything, they are getting worse. About 35 workers on the job will be permanently disabled each day due to a ladder-related accident. And one person will die. That's over 12,000 families whose lives will be horribly changed this year. You would think that would raise some red flags in the ladder industry, right?

Well, it has raised red flags with OSHA and with responsible safety professionals. OSHA recently had a stand-down for fall prevention emphasizing ladder safety and better training. I highly recommend the free online training from the American Ladder Institute on www.laddersafetytraining.org. Even with the increased emphasis on ladder safety training, the number of ladder-related injuries hasn't decreased. We can no longer just provide training and then blame the person when they get hurt. I’ve heard the following too many times: “We can prove they were trained, so we’re not liable.”

The Hierarchy of Control

When you set out to design a truly safe product, the best way is to eliminate all the danger—to make it impossible for the operator to suffer an injury. If that is impossible, the next highest form of design is to guard against those dangers. The lowest form of design is to stick a warning label on it and develop a training program. This is referred to as the "hierarchy of control." Long ago, someone decided that grandpa's ladder was dangerous, but instead of improving the design, they just added warning labels. If you've looked at the side of a ladder lately, you know there is no shortage of warnings. If we were going to rely completely on the user to follow the training, we would still have cars with no seat belts or airbags. They would just have a sticker on the dash that said "Do not crash."

Everyone knows how people misuse ladders because most of us have done it. We stand on the top rung, we over-reach, and we don't maintain proper contact with the ladder because we are carrying an arm full of tools or Christmas lights. We also know how people are injured using ladders because we have the accident reports. If we have this information we can use it to design safer products.

We can divide the majority of ladder-related injuries into three categories:

  1. 1. Strains and sprains from carrying and setting up heavy ladders.
  2. 2. Using the wrong ladder for the job (mostly because the right ladder weighs too much, so we didn't want to carry it).
  3. 3. Over-reaching, which causes the ladder to tip and the user to fall, usually from dangerous heights.

There is good news. Some in the ladder industry are paying attention. Today, there are ladders on the market that address these problems. With new, lightweight fiberglass composites, we can reduce the weight of the product — less weight to carry, fewer strains and sprains. With multipurpose ladders, the user will almost always have the right ladder for the job — a 6-foot stepladder that opens to 8 feet and 10 feet and adjusts to stairs. With outriggers that double base footprint of an extension ladder and adjust to unlevel ground, we can protect operators from catastrophic falls caused by over-reaching. Safer ladders by design will help reduce injuries and save lives.

More and more, safety is a key factor in purchasing decisions, and these products are becoming widely accepted as a great advance in an age-old problem. These products are not sold at the big box stores. Let them keep selling grandpa's ladder. Provide real value to your customers by letting them know that there are new, safer products available. Help them get their people home each night, safe and sound.

If you have customers that would like ladder safety training please contact me at dave@ladders.com or 801-362-8586. We have trained safety professionals in your area. 

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