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It's said that life has its ups and downs, and that's certainly true of people who work on ladders. But for them, the downs can be especially painful.

Ladder safety starts on the ground

Actually, ladder safety starts on the ground. Ladders should be inspected before every use and, if defective, tagged and taken out of service. Look for cracks, wood splinters, or moving parts that bind or are disconnected or misaligned, along with worn ropes on extension ladders. You don't want to find out about them 8 feet in the air.

Steps or rungs should be checked for looseness and cleaned of slippery spots. Wear shoes with nonslip surfaces, too.

Stepladders should be stored up right, and simple and extension ladders stored flat, so they don't warp with age. It's OK to store them horizontally on wall hooks, the experts say.

  • The Basics of Extension Ladder Safety

    The basic safety rules for extension ladders are as follows:

    1. It is imperative that you understand that an extension ladder must extend 3 feet above the top landing and be at the right angle (we will explain this in a minute). Use this information to make sure that you have the right size ladder.
    2. Extension ladders extends as follows:
      1. Two-section ladders extend up to a maximum of 50 feet
      2. Three-section ladders extend to a maximum of 66 feet
    3. The correct angle for an extension ladder should be ¼, meaning that for every 3-4 feet up, the ladder should be 1 foot out away from the base. This means, for example, that it the height is 40 feet, the bottom of the ladder should be 10 feet away from the base.
    4. As with step ladders, always do a visual check of the ladder before each use and every time it is out of your sight for any length of time (you don't know who might have taken it or used it when you weren't looking and whether or not they did any damage).
    5. Always make sure that the bottom as well as the top of the ladder is set on a firm foundation. Do not set the ladder on crates, boxes, tables, etc… The foundation should be solid and unmoving (Not the flatbed of a truck, for example).
    6. The sections of the extension ladder must overlap by at least 3 feet.
    7. Always use the 3-point contact method and face the ladder when climbing up or descending.
    8. Secure the top of the ladder whenever possible to make sure that it does not slide.
    9. Always keep the top of landing as well as the base of the ladder clear of obstructions and debris.
    10. Use hoists and pulleys to raise and lower equipment, don't try to keep them up yourself.
    11. When climbing up a ladder higher than 10 feet, you must use fall protection (a self-retracting lifeline with a tether, for example).
    12. Always be conscious of power lines when setting up or taking down an extension ladder.
    13. Never stand on the top three rungs


    Arguably one of the most common fixtures on any jobsite, the step ladder certainly gets a lot of use. It’s also the cause of a lot of injuries; injuries that could have been avoided. The problem is that most of us think that we know how to use a step ladder. The other problem is that, because we are so close to the ground when using a step ladder, we tend to ignore some basic safety rules, often times at the expense of a sprained ankle or some other type of injury.

    Follow these basic safety tips to avoid being one of the injured ones.

    1. Always inspect the step ladder before you use it. This includes any time someone else has used it. You know when a hammer fell and might have damaged the spreader arm if you are the one using the ladder but what about when someone else has been using it? They themselves may not realize that something that they did has compromised the safety of the ladder. A visual inspection will show you if there is damage to the ladder. Any time that the ladder has been out of your sight for any length of time you need to inspect it before you use it. Don’t assume that the ladder didn’t get used by someone else while you were eating lunch, for example. Always check it over before you climb.
    2. Make sure that the spreader arms are firmly locked in place before you use the ladder. The spreader arms keep the four feet in direct contact with the ground, providing a stable base. Do not use the ladder as a straight ladder (on two feet instead of four). It wasn’t designed to be used that way. If you need a straight ladder, get one.
    3. Never climb higher than the second step from the top; any higher and the stability of the ladder is greatly compromised.
    4. Never lean over to one side or the other. Additionally do not lean forward or backward. A step ladder is designed for the center of gravity to be firmly in the middle of the four legs, any time that center of gravity changes, the ladder can topple over.
    5. In keeping with what we just stated about the center of gravity, keep both feet on the step ladder when in use. Do not span between something else and the state ladder (one foot on something else and one foot on the step).
    6. Make sure that all four legs of the ladder are firm and stable. A wobbly ladder is a dangerous ladder.

    Step ladders are designed to make our jobs easier and safer. If they are not used correctly, however, they can become a hazard instead. Following these tips will help you get the job done better, quickly and safely.

Only use a ladder as it was designed to be used. For example, it isn’t safe to use a stepladder as a straight ladder.

Transporting ladders takes special care. The old silent movie sight gag about carrying a ladder so that the back end swings around and whacks people is true. Always maintain clear vision the entire length of the ladder and beyond. And if carried on a vehicle, double-check the mountings. A 16-foot ladder flung onto a freeway is not a desirable thing.

At the jobsite

At the jobsite, be sure the ladder is up to the job. Ladders have different weight ratings. The ladder has to be able to handle the load — that includes you and anything you’re carrying. A ladder is rated for its capacity and use. For example, a Type I AA ladder will support 375 pounds for special duty / professional use. At the bottom end of the ratings, a Type I II ladder will support 200 pounds for light duty household use.

Wind is another factor when you use a ladder outside. If wind could make the ladder slip or fall, tie the ladder in place or have someone hold it in position.

Before lifting into place, scan the location. Be sure both feet are on firm ground, or boards are placed beneath if on soft surfaces. Note any power lines and stay away from them! Avoid leaning the ladder on any surface that might move or break through, and if you must place the ladder in front of a door, lock it and post someone to keep it shut.

Power lines present a dangerous hazard. Never use a metal ladder anywhere near power lines or other exposed energized parts. Always keep proper clearance around power lines. You must keep yourself, the ladder, and any conductive tools you’re using at least 10 feet away from the power line at all times. For voltages higher than 50 kilovolts, use a longer clearance distance.

Finally, observe the 1 to 4 rule: The ladder should be placed horizontally one-quarter of its vertical length, so a 12-foot ladder should be positioned 3 feet from the wall.

If you're using an extension ladder, keep 3 feet of overlap between sections. It's also a good idea to physically tie the ladder's top and bottom to fixed points to keep them from moving.

Climb like a bear

With all that done, it's time to climb. Use a tool belt if you must carry equipment up, and always have 3-point contact with the ladder (both hands and one foot, or both feet and one hand). Never go above three rungs from the top, and come down and move the ladder if the work is beyond your reach.

Finally, learn the bear climb. That's the right foot and hand moving simultaneously, followed by the left hand and foot. It may feel funny at first ... but it might save your life.

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