OHSU Study Finds Ladder Fall Injuries Increase for Seniors During Fall Months

11/28/01    Portland, Ore.

Study results provide ladder-safety tips for seniors

Seniors are at highest risk for injuries when they fall off ladders during fall months, as they clean their gutters, hang holiday lights, or go about other maintenance activities, according to a study by an Oregon Health & Science University's Trauma Program. The study revealed that of all patients admitted to the trauma service, geriatric patients had an increased risk of sustaining serious injuries following falls from ladders. The study was lead by Carey Hill, M.D., chief resident in surgery (general surgery) and Richard Mullins, M.D., professor of surgery (general surgery), OHSU School of Medicine.

The elderly are at particular risk during fall months when they climb ladders to perform chores around the home and yard. Due to the severity of many ladder falls, seniors are also at the highest risk of being placed in nursing homes after an accident. Hill states that the most common injuries are broken arms, legs and pelvises. But more serious injuries include broken backs and necks, as well as brain injury.

The OHSU study looked at 164 patients who fell from ladders and were admitted into OHSU's Level 1 trauma center from Jan. 1, 1998, through Dec. 31, 1999. Most of the 136 patients, were 65 or younger, and of those patients, only 10 percent needed long-term care at a nursing home after a fall. The remaining 20 patients were older than 65, and of those patients, 35 percent needed long-term care in a nursing home after an accident. "After seniors fall from a ladder, they are at a very high risk of losing their independent lifestyles. They suffer much greater consequences than any other population," said Hill.

The study showed that the main activities requiring ladder use were house painting, maintenance, gutter repair, landscaping and construction. In each activity, incorrect ladder placement was the reason for most of the falls. "Incorrect ladder placement, whether on unstable ground or slippery surfaces, caused the most falls," Hill said. Another reason for the falls is the weather. "Ladders become unstable on slippery surfaces such as decks after it rains," Hill said. Especially now during the fall months, as the holiday season arrives and more people are climbing ladders to hang decorations and Christmas lights, correct ladder placement is essential.

From this study, Hill and Mullins concluded that injury prevention should be on the mind of anyone who uses a ladder and made the following recommendations:
  • Place ladders on dry, hard and flat surfaces.
  • Adjust ladder to an angle that is not overly steep or flat.
  • Rest the ladder against a secure, nonslippery object.
  • Use ladders outdoors only when the weather permits.
  • Carry lightweight, small objects when climbing up or down ladders.
  • After reaching the proper height, use a rope to pull tools up.
Keep your body weight centered and balanced, and avoid reaching. Allow someone to stabilize the ladder by holding the base. "Ladders should be inspected annually to be sure that they are in good repair," Hill said. The best way that seniors can protect themselves is to practice safe ladder procedures as they carry out their tasks this holiday season.