How to Use Ladders Safely

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How to properly use stepladders and extension ladders for home improvement projects.

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) each year there are more than 164,000 emergency room-treated injuries in the U.S. relating to ladders. Knowing how to properly use your step or extension ladder can prevent property damage, injury, or even death. Serious injuries can result from even short falls and falling from a height of 11 feet gives you only a 50% chance of survival according to the National Safety Council. ( )


Ladder accidents falls into 3 basic categories: 1) using the wrong type of ladder; 2) improper use; 3) ladder failure due to wear or improper maintenance. Over-reaching, which would fall (sorry for the pun) into category #2, is the leading cause of falls from ladders.

Before Using a Ladder

Follow these steps before you use your ladder during your next home improvement project:

• Carefully inspect the ladder for damage

• Ensure that the ladder is free from slippery substances on the rungs and feet before mounting the ladder. Grease, oil, paint and mud are common sources.

• Use a ladder with the correct load rating and length for your task. If the ladder is rated for 200 lbs and you weight 190 lbs and you are carrying a 5 gallon bucket of paint or water, you just added 40 lbs to the load.

• Get help when carrying or setting up large, heavy ladders.

• Keep ladders away from overhead electrical wires.

• Place the ladder on a firm, level surface. Use a ladder with slip-resistant feet or secure blocking. You may also have someone hold, or “foot”, the ladder for you.

• Make sure that both side rails rest on a support at the top.

• Tie off ladders at the top to prevent slipping.

• Use some sign or barricade to keep people away from the area you are working to prevent any injuries from falling debris.

How to Use the Ladder

• Always face the ladder when climbing or working from it.

• Keep the center of your body within the side rails.

• A ladder should never be placed horizontally as a scaffold or runway.

• Do not work from the top 3 rungs.

• Do not carry objects in your hands while climbing the ladder. Hoist the materials up afterwards or carry them in a tool belt.

• When painting, use a paint can hook to attach the can to the ladder rung.

• Do not join two ladders together to make a longer ladder.

• Only one person should be on the ladder at any time.

• Do not paint wooden ladders. Paint hides defects; instead use wood preservatives or clear coatings.

• Do not use a ladder in windy weather. If you are using a wet ladder during emergency repairs, use extreme caution.

• Always dismount the ladder before moving it. Never try to hop the ladder along while you are on it.

• Lower the top section of extension ladders before you move them.

• Keep ladders at least 10 feet away from overhead electrical lines. Aluminum and to some extent wet wood or fiberglass ladders can conduct electricity.

Maintaining Your Ladders

Stepladders and extension ladders should be inspected for broken rungs or frozen joints or latches. Aluminum ladders should be inspected for cracks and broken welds as aluminum can fatigue over time under heavy loads. Look for burrs on aluminum ladders as well which can cut you as you climb the ladder. If you drop extension ladders they can become warped; it may be possible to correct the warp by placing the ladder between two posts or trees and pulling on the ladder in the opposite direction. Too many drops can damage the ladder and cause cracking which may cause the ladder to eventually fail.

Wood ladders should be inspected for cracked wood, splinters, and rot. Look for broken or loose hardware. Protect wood ladders with linseed oil or clear sealant. If the ladder sways from side to side and connector rods cannot be tightened, stop using it.

Fiberglass ladders are protected with a clear sealant. If the fiberglass is damaged through the sealant, sand lightly before applying another coat of lacquer.


Non-self-supporting ladders (extension ladders) that lean against a wall or other support should be positioned at such an angle that the horizontal distance from the top support to the foot of the ladder is about 1/4 the working length of the ladder. This is known as the 1 to 4 rule.

Three-point Rule: Always maintain a three point contact with the ladder by having two hands and one foot, or two feet and one hand on the ladder at all times.

Instead of lifting your hands off of the ladder and holding onto the rungs when you climb, slide you hands along the side rails to maintain constant contact with the ladder.


The American Ladder Institute (ALI) is a national trade association whose mission is education of the public as to the proper selection, care and safe use of ladders.


Daniel Snyder
Posted on Jan 22, 2011
Jerry Walch
Posted on Jan 22, 2011