NINE FEET TO AGONY - Fall from ladder shatters man's heel bone into nine pieces

  • Published
  • By Bob Van Elsberg
  • Torch Magazine
I couldn't catch my breath to scream for help. The unbearable pain in my left foot was unlike anything else I had ever endured. It felt like my foot exploded while being crushed in a vice. I don't remember how long it took me before I could call out "Karen!" to my wife, who was working in the backyard. I lay there on my concrete driveway in agony, having fallen nine feet when my ladder gave way.

Once I could think clearly I carefully tried moving my toes, and then my feet and legs. I already had a bad back -- two herniated discs and another that was desiccated (crushed and void of any cushioning fluid). I had no idea what further damage the fall might have done to my back, so I lay still.

My wife, hearing my call for help, came running from the backyard through the garage to where I lay. "Do you want me to call 911?" she asked, as she placed a large sponge under my head to cushion it from the concrete. I hate going to the hospital, but in my misery I didn't hesitate: "Yes!"

As I eagerly awaited the ambulance in need of some serious pain meds, I looked up at the roof gutter, now bent down where my ladder had rested against it. "How did this happen?" I asked myself.

An ambulance and a fire truck quickly arrived in front of my house. The paramedics stabilized me and carefully loaded me into the ambulance; driving some 30 miles to a hospital where an orthopedic surgeon could examine my injuries. The X-rays showed the damage -- I'd broken my left calcaneus (heel bone) into nine pieces. A nurse carefully wrapped a Robert Jones soft cast around my left leg and foot.

The hospital released me that night, and I saw a surgeon four days later. He told me the swelling was so bad it would be three weeks before he could operate. After he did my surgery, I found out it would take five months to recover. As I write this, I'm three months into that. My ankle is still swollen to the point I have to feel around to find the ankle bone.

And, did I mention, it still hurts.

So how did a guy who spent 17 years editing military safety magazines wind up a casualty of failed risk management? That was a question I needed to answer.

To help me I knew I needed to seek out a professional who could look at the circumstances of my accident and identify what I did wrong. My "go-to" guy is Clint Gordy, owner of G&S Home Services LLC, Enterprise, Ala. Clint's company works on both commercial and residential properties, repairing "anything from the floor to the roof," he said. And my accident -- trying to imitate Tim Allen in "Home Improvement" -- is hardly unique.

"It's a more common occurrence than you think it is," he said. Gordy added the most frequent cause is improper or poorly maintained equipment.

"You always inspect your ladder before putting it against a wall or whatever you are climbing to make sure it is in perfect condition," he said.

Gordy explained ladders, like many other tools, have to be operated within safe limitations. For example, what weight is the ladder rated for? Will it safely support you and any equipment you're using? Gordy pointed out the sticker on my ladder said it was rated for 200 pounds. Considering I weigh 183 pounds, the added weight of my heavy boots and the hose and chemicals I carried up the ladder easily maxed it out. From years of working on ladders, Gordy likes to have a margin of safety. "If I'm on a ladder -- and I weigh 240 pounds -- I like for my ladder to be rated at 300 pounds. I like to know that I've got good stability."

The ladder's feet are also crucial to safety, according to Gordy, explaining extension ladders typically have pivoting feet with textured rubber bottoms for gripping concrete or pavement. Looking at the feet on my ladder, he noted they were well worn and in need of replacement - possibly a contributing factor in my fall. He added the feet on some ladders have teeth on them to get a better grip when placed on the ground.

There are other considerations, too.

He pointed out the importance of making sure the surface you rest your ladder's feet on is clean of any debris. In my case, that was a bit of a challenge. A large oak tree beside my house kept the driveway liberally sprinkled with acorns. Could one of these wooden "ball bearings" have gotten beneath the ladder's feet? It would have only taken a few moments with a broom or leaf blower to take care of that.

My house is above street level, causing my driveway to slope downward. That, Gordy explained, increased the likelihood my ladder would slip once I placed my weight on it. However, there was another factor at the top of the ladder that really set me up for a fall.

"You placed that ladder against a gutter, and a gutter is a flexible surface," Gordy said. He explained that stressed the gutter, causing it to flex and bend down. That loss of stability, combined with the worn feet, my driveway's downslope and, perhaps, acorn "ball bearings" was all it took for the ladder's feet to slip and give way.

Until now I was ignorant of the risks I was taking. However, there was another risk I knowingly chose to take that cost me dearly.

I knew you were supposed to face toward the ladder when climbing or descending. That day, however, I noticed the rung I needed to step on to begin descending was resting squarely against my gutter. Stepping onto it would have the toes of my work boots smashing the wire mesh covers I'd installed to keep out leaves and other clutter. To avoid that, I decided to step onto that rung facing away from the ladder, resting my weight on my heels to avoid damaging those covers. I planned to descend to the next rung, turn around and face inward while I finished descending the ladder. I figured I'd been safe enough so far that it was OK to break one safety rule. After all, if you're safe 99 percent of the time, shouldn't that be good enough?

I placed my right heel on the rung and everything seemed OK. Figuring "so far, so good," I placed my left heel on the rung -- effectively putting all of my weight on the ladder. That's when all hell broke loose! Instantly the ladder slid out from under me, dumping me onto the concrete.

While it happened so quickly I can't remember all of the details, my wife swears she heard four distinct "thumps." And that's possible, Gordy said, explaining I had dangerously altered my balance on the ladder, making me vulnerable to falling. Also, with only my heels resting on the rung all it took was a little jolt -- perhaps when the gutter collapsed -- to cause my heels to slip off the rung, possibly launching me on a bumpy ride down the ladder. That may account for some of the thumps my wife heard.

As it turned out, the risk I chose to ignore, combined with the ones I wasn't aware of, caused the worst accident of my life.

Finally, Gordy pointed out you ALWAYS need a spotter at the bottom of your ladder. If, for any reason, the ladder slips or begins to lean, that spotter can help you regain your stability. In retrospect, I should have asked one of my neighbors to be my spotter that day.

You'd think after reading about other people's ladder accidents while editing military safety magazines I'd have learned from their mistakes. Yet the truth is I -- like a lot of people -- am internally motivated to "git er done." Unfortunately, when you're totally fixated on meeting a goal, sometimes it's easy to overlook the potholes along the way.

In my case, the "potholes" left me with a complicated foot surgery and a long recovery period. Fortunately, I'd retired early last year so at least I wasn't a drag on my military organization, shorting them on manpower when things are already tough enough.

The bottom line is that you must always assume there may be risks you are not aware of. Ensure you thoroughly measure all the risks before placing yourself in danger and never assume being safe 99 percent of the time is good enough. When things go wrong, that 1 percent can cost you plenty.