Extension Ladder Safety: How to Safely Climb a Ladder

Sometimes the most dangerous tools are the ones we take for granted as common and safe. That's definitely the case for ladders.

It's something everyone has in the garage. But almost half of all fall-related fatalities involve a ladder, and most ladder deaths aren't even due to a fall from a great distance. They're from a fall of 10 feet or less.

Ladder safety training is an especially hard sell for professionals. Construction workers certainly encounter more obvious dangers every day, like sharp tools, heavy machinery, and hazardous substances. The fact is that ladders are so dangerous because users don't take the risks seriously.

To Climb or Not to Climb

Some ladder safety tips are common sense. Don't climb a ladder if you're tired or dizzy. Don't use a ladder in a storm or high wind. Don't climb a ladder too close to power lines. Don't climb a ladder in shoes that aren't slip resistant.

Even though these guidelines are obvious, it can be extremely tempting to violate them "just once" or "real quick." How dangerous could it possibly be? You've done it a thousand times before! You're not even going to be up that high.

The conditions that make you consider breaking the rules – urgency or a false sense of security – can also make it riskier to follow through. Some of the biggest risk factors include haste, lack of attention, or sudden movement.

Don't land yourself in the hospital accumulating expensive bills for doing something you knew was stupid.

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Choosing a Ladder

Choosing the right ladder is an important first step to staying safe.

Choosing the Right Type of Ladder

There are many types of ladders on the market. We're going to focus on extension ladders, but self-supporting stepladders are a common alternative when there's nothing stable or sufficiently load-bearing to lean. It's also worth considering whether a specialized type of ladder will suit your application better.

The material a ladder is made from may also be important. If you'll be near energized electrical wires or power lines, avoid using aluminum ladders – they'll conduct electricity.

Choosing a Ladder with the Right Duty Rating

Extension ladders are divided into five classes by "duty rating," which tells you how much weight the ladder can support. Household or Type III ladders are rated for up to 200 pounds, while the most rugged, special-duty ladders (Type IAA) are rated for up to 375 pounds.

When you're choosing a duty rating, keep in mind that the weight limit applies to you and everything you'll have with you – tools, materials, and other supplies.

Choosing the Right Ladder Size

You need to choose an extension ladder that will extend at least three feet past your work area, so that you're never standing on the top three or four rungs.

Additionally, ladders are meant to lean at an angle, which means the ladder length is not equivalent to the height it will reach. And that's before you take into account that extension ladders have overlap  between their segments.

How does all this shake out in terms of math?  If you need to reach a height (H), then you should calculate the maximum ladder length (L) as

H + (H/4) + 3 = L

That accounts for the work height (H), as well as the length needed for a safe angle (H/4), then the extra three feet at the top.

When in doubt, size up by one to three feet.

Inspect the Ladder Before Each Use

On a worksite, OSHA expects a competent person to inspect all extension ladders before use. They should look for problems like missing, loose, or damaged rungs, bolts, screws, cleats, or locking mechanisms, as well as dented siderails. Labels should also still be legible. The ladder must be clean of any slippery material.

Defective ladders must be marked immediately with "Do Not Use" and disposed of.

How to Set Up an Extension Ladder for Safety

It's important to place (and secure) the ladder properly to ensure it's safe to climb.

Place the Ladder on Firm, Level Ground in a Safe Location

When choosing a place for the ladder, keep at least 10 feet away from energized power lines, even if the ladder is non-conductive. You should also avoid placing them in front of an outward-opening door if possible.

You want to place the ladder on firm, level ground on a non-slippery substrate. Some ladders allow for the feet to be placed at different heights, but in all cases, the side rails need equal support that places them square to the building.

Placing bricks, cinder blocks, or other "firm and level" items on unsuitable ground won't fix the safety problem. The ladder will still be unstable.

Lean It at the Proper Extension Ladder Angle

Set up extension ladders at a 75° angle to the ground.

In other words, for every 4 feet of height, there should be one foot between the base of the ladder and the base of the structure it's leaning against. A ladder that's braced 16 feet above the ground should have its base sitting 4 feet from supporting structure.

Always lean the ladder against a structure that is sturdy enough to support the load it will bear.

Never use extension ladders like a horizontal platform. They're only rated to hold weight at the proper leaning angle.

Keep the Area Around the Base and Top Clear

When people come down a ladder, they're not necessarily looking at the ground behind them, so it's important to keep the area around the base clear of clutter that can trip them. Also check the area for any holes that could cause a twisted ankle.

If the ladder is in a high-traffic area, use a barrier to redirect people and prevent them from accidentally bumping or blocking the base. If you must place a ladder in front of an outwardly-opening door, the door should be blocked open, locked, or guarded, to prevent the door from knocking the ladder down.

If you'll be dismounting the ladder at the top – to get on the roof, for example – make sure the area there is also kept clear.

Tie Off the Ladder for Safety

Movies always show ladders falling backwards, but the real danger is lateral movement. Obviously this is more of a problem on the upper rungs, and that's why it's important to secure the ladder's top to make it stable.

Before you secure the ladder, make sure it extends three feet (which is typically three rungs) past the work area. This ensures that anyone at the work area always has something above them to hang onto.

Ladder extenders – which make the siderails taller – are the safest option if you plan to dismount at the top. They give you something to hang onto while making it possible to get onto the ladder while keeping your center of gravity between the siderails.

Use sturdy rope, wire, ladder hooks, or similar solutions to anchor the top of the ladder to the supporting structure. Make sure you're tying off to something that won't deflect, move, or break under the load. If you've done a good job, the ladder won't move all.

If there's nothing secure enough to tie the ladder off against, you can get a ladder stabilizer or standoff that provides stability to the top of the ladder without anchoring.

How to Climb a Ladder Safely

Once the ladder is set up for safety, there are just a few things to keep in mind.

First, only one person should climb a typical ladder at a time. Additionally, no one should adjust a ladder while someone is on it.

Check the soles of your shoes before mounting the ladder. Are they muddy, slippery, or otherwise caked? Take a minute to clean them off to maximize your traction.

Before you place your weight on the ladder, from the bottom or the top, check its stability. Be careful when mounting the ladder from either direction – this is when you're most likely to tip it sideways or cause the base to slide.

Now for the big ones.

Keep Your Center of Gravity Between the Side Rails

You secured the top of the ladder to protect the whole shebang from a lateral fall (and you with it).

That doesn't stop you from falling off the ladder if you're overreaching or leaning out to the left or right. You need to keep your center of gravity between the side rails at all times.

If your work area is out of reach, you must dismount first, then move the ladder closer.

Maintain Three Points of Contact

At all times, you should be facing the ladder and keeping three points of contact with the rungs or side rails – two hands and a foot, or two feet and a hand.

Don't overthink it – this is your natural climbing posture. It only becomes a problem when you're trying to carry things or lean out too far.

If you need to bring tools with you, stow them in a tool belt, vest, towline, or something similar that leaves your hands completely free.

The reason three points of contact are important for ladder safety is that it guarantees that if one limb slips, you still have a grip with two. You'll be able to stay on the ladder in a stable position.

When you start with only two points of contact and one slips, the remaining limb may not be enough to stop your fall. Even if you can hold on, your lack of balance may bring you down.

Slow and Steady Prevents a Fall

There's no reason to rush up a ladder – it'll only make you more likely to slip or fall.

Avoid sudden movements. Climb slowly and deliberately. This will not only give you time to ensure three solid points of contact, it will give you time to notice any problems, like a slick substance on the rungs.

Train for Extension Ladder Safety Online

Ladder safety is an often-neglected area in overall fall protection training, which is why accidents are so common. Proper ladder safety training won't just introduce you to safety concepts as we did in this article. It will also test you on the applications and principles to make sure you can put them to work.

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