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  • David Hessler

Safety First: Or Else.


I have recently had a lot of free time to contemplate the nature of the universe and my place in it, due to my spectacularly bad judgement regarding the ladder placement shown above. So today I am going to diverge from the usual topics and instead talk about something more important: safety.


About two weeks ago, I fell head-first off this roof and onto my back across the exposed floor joists when the depicted ladder shifted and fell off this gable. I consider myself extremely lucky with only seven fractured ribs, a broken collar bone, and a couple of fractured transverse processes (those little sideways protuberances on vertebrae). Don’t panic: I am recovering quite nicely thank you!


But I have had a couple of weeks to think about things like:

  • How could I be such an idiot?

  • After decades and thousands of ladder trips, why this stupid thing?

  • How did I get off so lucky (with totally recoverable injuries)?

There are some common-sense wrong things with this picture and the use of this ladder, and that’s not the OSHA list:

  • Ladder angle should be no less than 65 degrees

  • There should be anchors at the feet and at the roof contact point

  • There is no spotter to ensure the ladder is stable

  • This is really the wrong ladder for this purpose

To be clear, my safety record is pretty good: in 30 years of DIY from houses to living roofs, water systems, solar systems, and a LOT of chainsaw and tree work: I have exactly zero accidents until this point. I am quite aware of my own fallibility, and I try to avoid risks. So, what went wrong here?


I keep asking myself that question: Why this time? It was late in the day. My helper had just left, I was trying to “finish up”. This ladder was close at hand. I was too focused on the task and not enough on the situation. I was too comfortable with ladder work after a year of rebuilding the main house roof. What I think this all adds up to was: carelessness. Specifically, a lack of attention to detail based on a lack of considering the potential negative consequences.


Of this one thing I am certain: If I had spent a few minutes actually planning how to do the task, I would not have fallen. I had a lot of other things going on in my head: what’s the weather for tonight? When does it get dark? What’s the next task after this? How late is Home Depot open? What’s for dinner? How soon is dinner? The noise of life can be deafening to the circumstances directly in front of me. And that clearly didn’t help in this case.


So what did I learn? Safety isn’t a trend, it’s a discipline. Take the time to plan ahead. Ask for help. Remember one mistake can be catastrophic. And of course: Extension ladders are evil.


As for this project: well fortunately I have a brother, and my daughter’s boyfriend, and my 19 year old son who can all help bail me out and get this thing closed before we get freezing rain. In the meantime, I am on the sidelines: itching to get into the action, and painfully aware that my safety record has just gone to hell.


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