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Electrocutions in the Construction Industry Involving Portable Metal Ladders -- United States, 1984-1988

In the United States, electrocution is the fifth leading cause of work-related death from injury (1,2) and the second leading cause of death in the construction industry (3). Ten percent of electrocution incidents in the construction industry involve ladders (4). To identify and characterize incidents in which construction workers were electrocuted while using portable ladders, CDC's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) analyzed national data for 1984-1988. This report summarizes the analysis and recommendations for prevention of electrocutions involving portable metal ladders.

Data from 1984 through 1988 were analyzed from three sources:

  1. death certificates maintained in the NIOSH National Traumatic Occupational Fatality (NTOF) data base, * 2) NIOSH Fatal Accident Circumstances and Epidemiology reports, and 3) Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigation files. After duplicate reports were eliminated, the analysis identified 89 work-related deaths occurring in 82 incidents involving metal ladders for the 5 years.

The average age of persons electrocuted was 30.4 years. Of the 89 deaths, 81 (91%) were caused when workers working near an overhead power line moved portable metal extension ladders that contacted the line. The remaining eight (9%) deaths involved workers who touched an energized apparatus or power line while standing on metal ladders. The risk for such events was highest for workers engaged in painting and roofing activities (Table 1). Electrocutions associated with metal-ladder use peaked in the summer months; during 1984-1988, 50 (56%) of the 89 deaths occurred during July, August, and September.

Reported by: Div of Safety Research, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: Electrocution involving portable metal ladders is a potential hazard for construction workers. At greatest risk are painters and roofers who use ladders frequently and who may not be fully aware of risks associated with power lines and electrical equipment.

This analysis has at least three limitations. First, deaths related to metal ladders may be underreported by up to 50% because the data sources used in this analysis do not include all work-related deaths (5). Second, the analysis could not completely characterize these incidents because the fatality reports did not consistently provide details about these incidents (e.g., whether electrocution hazard warning decals were affixed to the ladders). Third, trends could not be determined because of the low number of deaths within this time frame.

Investigations by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission indicate that contact with power lines most often occurs with the top 3 feet of the ladder (6). The use of extension ladders made of or coated with nonconducting materials is one approach to preventing such incidents; the use of nonconducting materials has been a successful approach with citizen's band radio antennas.

OSHA regulations require the use of nonconductive ladders where the employee or the ladder could contact exposed electrical conductors (i.e., a conductor strung from a utility pole) (7) and require that all metal ladders be prominently marked with a warning label (8). In 1989, NIOSH recommended that employers and workers use nonconductive ladders in locations where contact with overhead electrical power lines could occur (9).

During 1982, ladder manufacturers initiated a voluntary labeling standard issued by the American National Standards Institute that called for labeling portable metal ladders with the warning "Danger! Metal ladders conduct electricity. Do not let ladders of any material come in contact with live electrical wires" (10). Because of this voluntary labeling standard, extension ladders are now labeled with an electrocution hazard warning.

Despite these warnings, the regulations concerning ladder use, and the provision of safety training for workers, electrocutions caused by ladders contacting overhead power lines continue to occur. However, the routine use of nonconducting extension ladders in high-risk trades (e.g., painting and roofing) would reduce the risk for death and injury from electrocution. Other preventive measures include 1) elimination of metal-ladder use within 10 feet of overhead power lines, 2) insulation or deenergization of power lines in work areas, and 3) use of steering lines attached to the upper ends of ladders to stabilize and prevent them from tipping backward into power lines.


  1. NIOSH. National Traumatic Occupational Fatality database (machine readable datatape), 1980-1988. Morgantown, West Virginia: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, CDC, 1991.

  2. CDC. Occupational electrocution -- Texas, 1981-1985. MMWR 1987;36:725-7.

  3. Bell CA, Stout NA. Fatal injuries in construction. Excel 1990;4:1.

  4. Suruda A. Electrocution at work. Professional Safety 1988;33:27-32.

  5. Stout NA, Bell CA. Effectiveness of source documents for identifying fatal occupational injuries: a synthesis of studies. Am J Public Health 1991;81:725-8.

  6. Bellegarde ML. Human factors analysis of aluminum ladders/power lines electrocution hazard. Washington, DC: US Consumer Product Safety Commission, 1988:5-9.

  7. Office of the Federal Register. Code of federal regulations: labor. Subpart X: Stairways and ladders. Final rule. Washington, DC: Office of the Federal Register, National Archives and Records Administration, 1990:47687-91. (29 CFR section 1926.1053 (b)(12)).

  8. Office of the Federal Register. Code of federal regulations: labor. Subpart V: Power transmission and distribution -- tools and protective equipment. Washington, DC: Office of the Federal Register, National Archives and Records Administration, 1990. (29 CFR section 1926.951 (c)(1)).

  9. NIOSH. NIOSH alert: request for assistance in preventing electrocutions of workers using portable metal ladders near overhead power lines. Cincinnati: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, CDC, 1989; DHHS publication no. (NIOSH)89-110.

  10. American National Standards Institute. Safety requirements for portable metal ladders. New York: American National Standards Institute, 1982; publication no. ANSI A14.2.

    • The NTOF data base contains information from death certificates provided by the 50 states and the District of Columbia that meet the following criteria: 1) death was related to external causes (International Classification of Diseases, Ninth Revision, codes E800-E999), 2) the decedent was aged greater than or equal to 16 years, and 3) the injury occurred at work.

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