Put Your Best Foot Forward with Ladder Safety

When the home repair you have in mind is out of arm’s reach, chances are you will rely on a ladder to get the job done. But homeowners and contractors alike should keep in mind that ladder-related accidents are a major cause of injury. The following tips will help you stay safe when you’re up there.

Use the right ladder for the job

Make sure it is tall enough to allow you to follow the “belt buckle rule” while working (see below). Each ladder has a weight rating, shown on the sticker on the side rail, indicating how many pounds it will support. This includes the weight of the person climbing, plus any tools and supplies. Light-duty ladders for household use are rated for only 200 pounds. Other types are commercial (225 pounds), industrial (250 pounds), and heavy-duty industrial (375 pounds). Because of these weight limits, and the way the ladders are built, only one person should be on a ladder at a time (unless otherwise specified).

Inspect your ladder first

This is especially important if it’s been a few months or years since you’ve used it. Are the rungs or steps free of dirt, grease, or other contaminants that could cause you to slip? If it’s a stepladder, is the spreader bar working right? If it’s an extension ladder, are the nonskid safety feet in place, and does the rope and pulley system work correctly? Ladder manufacturer Werner offers an inspection checklist that includes these items, plus rails, label, pail shelf, braces, rivets, rung locks, hardware, and overall structural condition. Is anything loose, missing, corroded, or damaged? If repairs are needed, don’t improvise—use only the manufacturer’s replacement parts. It’s better to spend a few extra dollars than to risk possible lifelong consequences from serious injury.

Set it up right

Follow the "four to one rule" for a safe angle.

Follow the "four to one rule" for a safe angle.

The area where the ladder is placed should be clean and free of conditions that might cause it to slip. To make sure the ladder is placed at a safe angle, use the “four to one rule” specified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Imagine a rope in a vertical line starting at the top support of the ladder and dropping straight to the ground. Now imagine a horizontal line from the bottom end of that rope to the foot of the ladder. That horizontal distance should be one-fourth of the ladder’s working length. NIOSH also has a Ladder Safety smartphone app that will help users position a ladder at the optimal angle.

Plus, you should never try to reposition a ladder while you’re on it by “walking” it; climb down to make any needed adjustments.

Climb with the “three point rule” in mind

Two feet and one hand, or two hands and one foot, should be in contact with the ladder at all times. That means you shouldn’t climb while holding supplies in one of your hands. Use a tool belt or hoist your supplies up with a bucket and rope. Climb slowly and carefully while keeping your face, not your back, to the ladder. Similarly to the surface of the ladder itself, you should ensure that your hands and shoes are clean and free of dirt or grease that might cause you to slip.

Follow the “belt buckle rule”

This guideline will keep you from climbing too high or leaning out too far to the side. If you stand at or below the highest safe standing level (that’s the second rung from the top for a stepladder and the fourth rung from the top for an extension ladder, according to the Home Safety Council), your belt buckle should always be within the area of the ladder—never over the top or out beyond the side. Don’t sit on a rung or straddle a stepladder.

Use common-sense caution

Avoid climbing a ladder in rain, windy conditions, or when there is risk of lightning. If you become dizzy or disoriented from the height, close your eyes, breathe deeply, and wait for the feeling to pass—then climb down slowly.

Beware of power lines. Aluminum ladders conduct electricity. A fiberglass ladder should be used when live electrical wiring is nearby.

Store it right when done. Hang your ladder on sturdy hooks to prevent decay and accidental damage.

Much of this information is drawn from a webinar on ladder safety from the Journal of Light Construction, www.jlconline.com. This article is updated from one that originally appeared in our HandsOn newsletter, spring 2008.

More information is available from the American Ladder Institute.