If you want to pick fruit, trim branches, paint a ceiling, build a pergola, hang a birdhouse, put up an awning or do any of the thousand tasks that require you to be taller than you really are, a ladder is the best tool — much safer than standing on a chair or a barrel. The trick is to avoid ladder accidents. People have used ladders for years, and they’ve been falling off them for just as long.
According to the U.S. Product Safety Commission, more than 160,000 Americans go to the emergency room annually as a result of ladder accidents. And there’s no way to know how many less serious injuries occur and go unreported, but a good guess would be exponentially more. Ladder safety is a big issue, and falling from a ladder isn’t the only concern. If you accidentally touch a power line with a metal ladder (or any wet ladder) and you risk electrocution.
Setting Up a Ladder
All ladders should have four solid points of contact with the ground (with the exception of three-legged fruit picking ladders, which should only be used for picking fruit). Make sure the feet of the ladder are resting on a smooth, level and dry surface. If the ladder has safety locks on the feet, be sure they’re engaged. If possible, drive stakes into the ground adjacent to the feet and tie the ladder securely to them. An extension ladder used for access to a roof should extend about 3 feet past the eaves, so you have something to hold onto while going up or down.
Fully extend and lock both side braces on stepladders. Stand first on the bottom tread, grasp the side rails and shake the ladder to make sure it doesn’t wobble. If it does, reposition it until it’s properly situated.
Other Basic Safety Rules
Each time before using a ladder, inspect it for cracks or structural damage — especially after long storage or if it has ever fallen over. Take your time; those extra 60 seconds might save your life. If you find any problems, repair or replace the ladder.
Always look up before you raise a ladder, to check for power lines or obstacles. Climb facing the treads and in the center of the ladder — between the side rails. Use both hands to climb — in many situations, the climber was carrying materials in one hand before falling.
When working on roofs, use a rope to haul up materials rather than carrying them in your hands. Wear shoes (not sandals) with non-slip soles. Never climb a closed stepladder that is leaning against a wall; it wasn’t designed for that. Don’t stand or sit on the top of a stepladder, the pail shelf or on the top three rungs of an extension ladder. Don’t climb an extension ladder when you’re alone. In case of mishap, you’ll need someone else to call an ambulance. Finally, don’t use any ladder if you are physically or mentally impaired in any way, or if you weigh more than the rated load-carrying capacity.
Choosing a Ladder
Ladders are made of wood, aluminum or fiberglass (safest around power lines, but heavy and the most expensive). Examine your needs and budget before you buy, but err on the side of caution. It isn’t wise to save money on this important purchase. Be especially wary of secondhand ladders. Ladders are really disposable tools with a limited life. A friend once bought an old, painted wooden ladder for $10, not realizing the paint concealed hairline cracks in the treads and rails. When it broke, his hospital bill easily would have paid for 20 new ladders.
There are five categories of ladders, rated by maximum load capacity (climber plus equipment): Type III, for infrequent household use, will support 200 pounds; Type II, commercial use, 225 pounds; Type I, industrial, 250 pounds; Type IA, professional grade, 300 pounds; and Type IAA, 375 pounds. Because I weigh 200 pounds, I use only Type IA or IAA, for an extra margin of safety.
Just moving a ladder can be hazardous to your health. Stepladders should always be folded, and extension ladders reduced to their shortest length before you move them. Keep your fingers well away from moving or sliding parts. Two people should carry long or heavy ladders, but if you decide to do it alone, be careful going around corners because the swinging ends can cause property damage or inflict injuries. Carry the ladder over one shoulder at the midpoint, with the front end slightly elevated. Although it might seem clever, carrying it on both shoulders with your head between the rungs is just begging for a neck injury.
When moving a ladder on a vehicle, such as a pickup truck, make sure the end near the cab is weighted down, and the other end securely tied down. If one end hangs over the tailgate by more than 4 feet, tie a red flag to it.
Maintaining and Storing Ladders
Wooden ladders should be coated with boiled linseed oil every year. Check them for splinters at the same time. If you find any, sand them smooth. Check all braces, rivets and joints on any type of ladder. The moving parts and pulleys on metal and fiberglass ladders need occasional oiling. And don’t forget to check the rope on extension ladders for wear or rot, because if a rope breaks while you’re raising the top section of the ladder, it can collapse faster than you can move away.
Hang ladders horizontally by hooks or racks, with one at the midpoint to prevent sagging. Keep the ladder away from heat sources, which can weaken it over time. Indoor storage is best to extend the ladder’s life.