Ladder safety is an essentially important, but little thought of, part of any job, until someone gets injured.
The fact is people fall from ladders every day. Their foot slips, the ladders collapse from not being locked into place or carrying too much weight. Perhaps they are reaching too far instead of taking the time to retreat down the ladder, move it to the proper position, and climb back up.
And sometimes it’s simply not being aware of your surroundings.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 88 employees died from falls involving ladders in 2019 and 2020, but 14 others died from electrocution involving a ladder. The majority of those electrocution deaths came either while moving a ladder and striking power lines, or while being on a ladder and moving a work piece, like a gutter, into a power line.
Falls can be prevented with the use of harnesses (available through our Non-Stock Department) that are clipped properly to structures to ensure safety. Using the proper ladder in the correct manner is also important. A Kimball Midwest sales rep can provide more information on ladder usage and safety, as well as where they can be purchased through our Non-Stock Department, which has access to more than 500,000 products.
But we have a few other ways you can stay safe while using a ladder.
The first and most important rule is to know your surroundings. Are you on or near a road? Do your best to ensure your ladder cannot be struck by vehicles or other workers. Make sure the ladder is conspicuous. Use cones or flags to mark the bottom of the ladder, so people will notice it and not trip on or hit the ladder.
You should always have a spotter. Several deaths over the last few years happened while workers were transitioning between ladders and scaffolding. In many cases, the fall was 10 feet or less. An extra hand in those places is helpful to steady yourself.
But there are several other rules to follow to keep yourself safe, and those come from one of the most popular home shows ever created.
On an edition of “Ask This Old House,” a program that’s been on PBS for the last 17 years, coupled with its parent show This Old House, which is celebrating its 42nd season, aired a 10-minute segment about ladder safety on November 19, 2015. In the segment, they spoke about the different materials used to make ladders, what to look to determine if the ladder has flaws, as well as how to position and use them.
General Contractor Tom Silva broke down what to look for as flaws in each of the materials. If those flaws can’t be fixed, it’s time to trade in the ladder for an updated version. Here’s a quick breakdown.
Wood: Check for split steps, chips, splinters and rot, as well as damaged supports.
Fiberglass: Look for frayed fiberglass or cracks in the side as well as any holes or any damaged rungs.
Aluminum: Make sure it hasn’t fallen off a truck or been damaged. If it’s been dented or creased, it’s been weakened.
When it comes to storage, make sure to store your ladders inside if possible. Extension ladders are much tougher to get into a building, but if you can do it, you should. Also, when transporting your ladder, make sure you tie down both ends, and not just the middle. You never know when a gust of wind can dislodge your ladders.
An important part of climbing a ladder safely is to always make sure you have three points of contact, according to show host Kevin O’Connor. That means either two feet and one hand or two hands and one foot. Silva suggests wearing your tool belt so you can climb safely and transport the tools you need to the top with you while maintaining those three points of contact.
While on the ladder, make sure not to reach too far. Of course, you will reach for things now and again, but the focus is your center of gravity. Any change to that puts you at risk of falling.
Another important item to consider is weight. All ladders have weight capacity. But that doesn’t just mean you. Take into consideration your weight, the tools you are carrying as well as any materials you are climbing with. Too much weight can result in the failure of the ladder and injury or worse.
There are three types of ladders typically used on job sites – aside from ladders attached to structures.
The first is the most common, a step ladder. This ladder is always meant to be used in the open position. Don’t lean it up against a structure and climb. Make sure the supports are locked down when in use, because that gives the ladder its strength. Also, never stand on top of the ladder. The top is meant to be a work bench. While it’s typically marked on the ladder, make sure not to climb the skinny steps on the back of the ladder.
Articulating ladders, first made famous for home enthusiasts by Richard Karn – better known as Al Borland from the television show “Home Improvement” – during infomercials for the Little Giant Ladder system, are made by several companies, and can be used as step ladders, extension ladders, as the base for smaller scaffolding and, most notably, to fit on uneven surfaces like stairs. The greatest point of emphasis for these ladders in terms of safety is to make sure all the hinges are 100% locked into place, giving the ladder its strength and stability.
Extension ladders are used for much higher applications. Many reach up to 30 feet and higher and come in two or three sections.
When using the ladder, make sure the back section goes all the way to the ground. If possible, use two people to move the ladder because it is heavy and can get unwieldy quickly when being raised.
Lifting and Raising
If you are alone, use the foundation of the structure you will be putting the ladder against. Position the bottom of the ladder against the foundation and lift the opposite end. Hoist the ladder above your head and begin walking in, moving your hands down the ladder rung by rung and pushing it up until it is upright, then slide the bottom away and set the top against the building. If you have two people, position yourselves on the sides of the ladder. If there isn’t a solid foundation to use to lift the ladder, the second person can act as the foundation, putting their feet on the bottom of the ladder so it doesn’t slide away.
When extending the ladder, make sure you first move it away from the structure and are standing to the side with one hand grabbing the rope in the back, and the other hand on a rung in the front. Pull the rope and lift the rung in concert with one another – probably just two rungs at a time, and make sure the rung locks are engaged. To do this, make sure to lift past the two rungs and let it come back down as gently as possible. If you are trying to extend the ladder all the way, make sure to do it a little at a time as the ladder can get unwieldy the longer it gets.
The proper angle is essential when using an extension ladder. That, according to Silva, is 75 degrees. That equates to one foot from the foundation for every four feet in height.
Thus, a 28-foot ladder fully extended should be seven feet away from the foundation.
If you don’t like math, Kevin O’Connor suggests putting your feet on the ladder when it is set up and if the ladder is at the correct angle, fully extending your arms in front of you should result in your palms touching a rung just about at shoulder height.
Securing the Feet and Top
Make sure to use the feet on an extension ladder properly, too. The feet are made to swivel, so the rubber bottoms work perfectly on a hard surface, while the spiked portion of the feet are made to cleat into soft ground.
Some extension ladders have safety feature built onto the top, like a stabilizer or standoff, which give wider points of contact against the building.
But the most important rule of all is this: If you are uncomfortable on a ladder, stay off it.