Ladder Safety Tips

Take these precautions to avoid the leading cause of construction deaths.

It was an accident that could have been easily avoided: A 29-year-old carpenter was electrocuted when the 40-foot aluminum ladder he was carrying hit a power line 24 feet above the ground.

This kind of accident isn’t uncommon. Improper ladder use is a leading cause of fatal falls in construction, according to the Massachusetts Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation Project (FACE), which investigates workplace fatalities with the goal of identifying risk factors that lead to fatal injury.

Common mistakes in the use of ladders are as numerous as the applications themselves. To head them off, FACE offers the following safety tips:

  • Stabilize a ladder securely before use. Set the base on a secure, even surface.
  • When accessing a porch or a roof, extend the ladder side rails 3 feet above the landing.
  • Set the base at a horizontal distance of 1 foot for every 4 feet in height.
  • Always face the ladder when climbing it. Maintain three-point contact, and use a tool belt or a hoist to lift tools.
  • Don't overreach. Take the time to reposition the ladder.
  • When working on ladders placed on elevated porches and balconies, remember that a fall could send you all the way to the ground.
  • Don't place a ladder in front of a door without blocking the door to keep someone from opening it into the ladder.
  • Maintain and inspect your ladders. Lubricate metal bearings, locks and pulleys. Check for loose or cracked rungs. Make sure the rung locks are in working order. Tag and remove defective ladders from the job site.
  • Never work while standing on the top rungs of an extension ladder or from the top step of a stepladder.
  • When working around power lines, call the electrical company for assistance. Nonconductive fiberglass ladders are available for such applications.
  • Use ladders of the right size. Don't use a small ladder for a big job.
  • Train workers in ladder safety. Look into safety-training programs.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration also publishes a number of documents about ladder safety. Following are some ladder-safety rules from its Construction eTOOL document:

  • Self-supporting (folding) and non-self-supporting (leaning) ladders must be able to support at least four times the maximum intended load, with the exception of extra-heavy-duty metal or plastic ladders, which must be able to sustain 3.3 times the maximum intended load.
  • In the case of job-made wooden ladders, OSHA recommends departing from the 1:4 ratio of horizontal distance to vertical height. That angle should equal about one-eighth the working length, OSHA says. This minimizes the strain of the load on ladder joints, which may not be as strong as those on commercially manufactured ladders.
  • Keep ladders free of oil, grease, wet paint and other slipping hazards.
  • Foldout or stepladders must have metal spreaders or locking devices to hold the front and back sections in an open position while in use.
  • When two or more ladders are used to reach a work area, they must be offset with a landing or platform between the ladders.

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