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THE SAFETY ZONE : Ladder No Place to Push Luck

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Trimming a tall frontyard bush recently, I could feel my rickety ladder start to sway; I had to grab a handful of spindly branch tops to keep my balance.

Looking at ladder-safety issues since then makes me realize I was lucky I didn’t break my noggin. I’d violated just about every standard recommended for ladder safety.

If you never have a home accident, this figure may surprise you: The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that more than 500,000 ladder injuries last year were serious enough to require professional medical attention. Also astonishing, more than 300 deaths were caused by ladder falls.

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“Any time you fall from a height of six to eight feet, you risk serious injury,” said David Mori, environmental health and safety manager for UCI Medical Center in Orange.

Why, then, do so many wind up with ladder accidents?

Dr. Jeffrey M. Smith of the Department of Orthopedics at UC San Diego, who has treated scores of ladder injuries, suggests: “People take risks on ladders that they simply should not be taking.”

The experts list it as “overextension,” said Brian Haubenschild, a building materials executive for the western corporate headquarters of Home Depot in Orange. Too often, we try to extend ourselves beyond the ladder’s intended use. (Guilty here, using a ladder too small for my tree-trimming.)

“How many times have you seen someone on the top of the ladder or the top rung?” Haubenschild asked. (Guilty again.)

State code regulations for safe ladder use say never stand any higher than the second to last rung on a ladder.

Other safety tips I derived from the regulations:

* Make sure all legs of the ladder are on flat, even surfaces. (Guilty again; I had to put one set of legs in a flower bed.)

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* Assure that all ladder rungs are sturdy and capable of holding your weight.

* Keep ladders free from doorways. That may seem just plain common sense, but the experts say this has led to some of the more serious injuries.

* Make sure the spreaders are locked in place. They are the metal strips that bend when you fold a ladder and give it stability when you open it. Often on older ladders, Mori said, spreaders become broken.

* And never ever use a ladder in high winds.

How’s this for idiocy: You’ve seen those long ladders that lean against the side of the house?

“Some people try to ‘bounce’ those ladders over, to get to an area out of reach,” Mori said. “That’s extremely dangerous, but people do it all the time because they don’t want to climb down to move it.”

One more sin I must confess to: When I was done, I left the ladder standing, and later, to my horror, saw my 7-year-old daughter playing on it, all the way to the top.

“Ladders are not toys,” Haubenschild said. “Keep children off them.”

Both of my ladders, I now know, are too old to be safe. If you buy a new ladder, Haubenschild said, consider upgrading. Most basic home stepladders are a No. 3 model. Upgrade at least to a No. 2, he said, because then you’re less likely to overextend yourself.

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The best advice I heard may have come from Mori of UCI:

“If you just don’t feel comfortable at a certain height on a ladder, then you’re probably too high; get down.”

Jerry Hicks’ column appears Monday and Thursday. Readers may reach Hicks by calling (714) 564-1049 or e-mail to jerry.hicks@latimes.com.

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