I’m atop an unsteady heavy fiberglass 32-foot ladder on a sunny July day, cleaning leaves out of the downspouts and considering my mortality.

Somebody’s got to clean this stuff out, I reason to myself, and today the somebody is me… But there’s no escaping that I’m a middle-aged freelance writer and I'm unaccustomed to working on a ladder since I haven’t done so for years.

I realized my limitations earlier in the day, when I tried to move the extended ladder from one spot on the front of the house to another while on unsteady, mulch-covered ground—and dropped the ladder, skinning my shins and banging myself up.

I know from experience being the “foot” man is a boring job, and so I check in with Charlie now and again if the top of the ladder feels a bit loose.


Since then, I’d asked my friend Charlie to help me move the ladder and to “foot” it for me in some spots—i.e., holding the ladder solid to the wall of the house by placing his feet against the base of the ladder and extending his arms, applying pressure to the ladder.

I know from experience being the “foot” man is a boring job, and so I check in with Charlie now and again if the top of the ladder feels a bit loose. Sometimes he’s clearly not leaning on the ladder. Could be he’s having a smoke, I don’t know. But having done such a task in the past, I know it’s easy to slack up for just a second and that the ladder will start to fall.

But that’s just one of my issues—I don’t like heights and I'm afraid of falling. And I’ve got a fully charged garden hose that I’m spraying out the gutter and downspout with, which makes stuff wet and slipperier. It’s well over 80 degrees and humid. I didn’t have a full night’s sleep the night before and I didn’t eat much of a breakfast, so despite having a decent lunch, I’m still hungry.

And the neighbor next door is cooking something like lasagna that’s so beguiling wonderful it’s hard to think straight. When the older lady next door walks up I ask what she’s cooking.

“Oh, that’s my husband,” she says, laughing and shaking her head.

He’s torturing me, I think.

From time to time I get comfortable for a moment atop my perch and start to hum a song in my head. Then I remember my work with ENR, on falls and safety. It’s when you stop being a little scared that you screw up, I remind myself.

Counting the Fall Protection Rules I'm Breaking

It isn’t until much later, after a bit of research, that I realize about how many OSHA ladder rules I am breaking in my job. Here are a few: 1) no slipping hazards (including water from a hose); 2) ladders should be used only on stable and level surfaces (an impossibility in many cases, as those in construction know); and 3) an employee shall not carry any object or load that could cause him to lose balance and fall (I was carrying a 5-gallon bucket in one hand to remove the debris from the gutter, leaving only one hand to steady myself on the ladder).

Even without the distractions I’ve mentioned earlier, doing a simple job on a house is fraught with peril. Everyday accepted practices for construction work often are technically illegal, not to mention potentially hazardous. I’ve been cleaning out gutters in the way I described above since I was about age 14, though it’s been a while since I’d performed the task. But lots of contractors perform the task in the way I described, with many of them often coming perilously close to dangerous electrical wires.

Common sense comes into play every day for construction workers. Jobs aren’t always done by the book, or in ideal conditions.

The most common deaths in construction are due to falls, followed by a worker being struck by an object, electrocution, and caught-in/between. These types of accidents—the so-called Fatal Four—made up more than half (64.2 percent) of construction worker deaths in 2015, according to BLS. In fiscal year 2016, among the 10 most frequently cited standards by federal OSHA, fall protection in construction tops the list. Scaffolding, general requirements, construction, is number three on the list, while Control of hazardous energy (lockout/tagout) general industry, is number six. Ladders, construction is number seven.

No worker, no employer should be blasé about the prospect of a potentially fatal fall. Training is very important. So is providing the right conditions and personal protective equipment. A little fear on the part of a worker—or at least, a true respect for the hazards of a job—is important, too.