Overcoming Gravity: Ladder Safety Basics

If we could levitate, changing light bulbs and skim coating ceilings would be a snap. Unfortunately, gravity requires that we seek other ways to get our feet and our tools off the ground. Ladders and scaffolding are the two most popular solutions, but they can be dangerous when used improperly. Here’s what you need to know to elevate your safety practices when working on high-rise projects.

Ladder basics
Every DIYer has used a ladder at one time or another and probably given it little thought. Yet the Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that ladder accidents result in 150 deaths and 180,000 injuries in the United States each year. I’ve been one of those statistics: Several years ago I was hanging gutters when my ladder slipped out from under me. As I fell, my feet got tangled in the rungs, and I landed on the outside of my right foot, dislocating my ankle and breaking a bone in my foot. In addition to suffering severe pain, I missed more than five months of work. That accident cost me about $35,000 in lost wages and medical bills. Needless to say, today I am extremely conscientious about ladder safety.

The material a ladder is made of can significantly affect its performance and your safety. Aluminum ladders are a good choice because they combine strength with little weight. Fiberglass ladders are the best choice for doing electrical work or when working near power lines because fiberglass is nonconductive. Wood ladders, on the other hand, are almost a thing of the past. They are heavy and more fragile than aluminum or fiberglass. Although I still have a couple of wood ladders at home, I use them only for light-duty tasks such as replacing light bulbs and dusting the blades of ceiling fans. At my place of work we no longer use wood ladders — most of them became unstable and warped with age, and many were cracked or missing pieces. Unless your wood ladder is in good condition, stick with more modern materials.

Ladder ratings
Ladders are rated by the amount of weight they can safely bear (including the person using the ladder plus any tools and materials). Each is clearly marked with a color-coded label stating its duty rating: • Red (Type III) is for light-duty and household use and can support up to 200 pounds. • Green (Type II) is medium-duty (up to 225 pounds) and suffices for most painting and handyman tasks. • Blue (Type I) is considered heavy-duty (up to 250 pounds). • Orange (Type IA) is extra-heavy-duty (up to 300 pounds). • Yellow (Type IAA) is special- or rugged-duty (up to 375 pounds).

I tip the scales at 195 pounds. I need a Type IA extension ladder to safely climb onto my roof with my work belt and a bundle of shingles in tow. If I’m merely changing a light bulb, a Type III stepladder will be fine.

Styles and accessories
Ladders come in a variety of styles, some more familiar than others.

Stepladders are typically 4 to 8 ft. high, providing a safe reaching height of 8 to 12 ft. (To calculate your range of reach, add 4 ft. to the ladder’s height.) The highest permitted standing position on a stepladder is two steps from the top — climbing any higher makes the ladder unstable and increases the risk of losing your balance.

My favorite stepladder is a platform stepladder. It has wide treads instead of rungs, which greatly reduces leg and foot fatigue. Mine also has a large foldout tray at the top, so I don’t have to climb up and down to fetch tools and materials (photo 1).

You can modify a stepladder's tray by drilling a hole in it to accept tools — in this case, the handle of a plastering hawk, which is difficult to set down without spilling the plaster.

For tasks requiring greater height, an extension ladder becomes necessary. These ladders range from 16 to 40 ft. long (when both sections are fully extended with the required four-rung overlap). The highest safe standing position on an extension ladder is four rungs from the top. In addition to your position, you must consider the horizontal distance from the base of the ladder to the surface where the top of the ladder is propped. Safety requires a 75-degree angle, or 1 ft. of horizontal distance for every 4 ft. of rise (photo 2). The maximum reach of a person on an extension ladder is usually 1 to 3 ft. shorter than the ladder’s height.

To check for a 75-degree angle on an extension ladder, stand with your toes at the ladder’s base. If you reach your arms straight out from the shoulders, your fingers should be able to touch the ladder.

Combination ladders, also known as articulating, telescoping or multiladders, fold and extend in different combinations to offer a variety of configurations. They can be used as stepladders or extension ladders, as a pair of bases for short scaffolding or as a stairway stepladder. Regardless of the style of ladder, it must be properly set up for safe use (see “Ladder Precautions,” below).

Several useful accessories are available for various ladders — trays, hooks, tool keepers and paint cups, to name a few. One of my favorites is a ladder stabilizer, which attaches to the top of an extension ladder like a wishbone. It provides a wider “stance” for the top of the ladder and has rubber caps to keep the legs from marring the wall (photo 3). Caution: Although you can reach a bit farther to the side using a stabilizer, always remember to keep your belt buckle between the ladder’s rails so your center of gravity remains within the ladder’s width; otherwise you could tip over.

Besides helping to secure the top end of an extension ladder, a stabilizer bar also props the ladder a few inches from the wall so you can paint or work on the surface directly behind the ladder.

Scaffolding (photo 4) is typically used when the height or width of the work area makes using a ladder impractical or when the load is too heavy for even a Type IAA ladder. Installing siding, applying stucco and completing masonry projects often require the use of scaffolds. Most DIYers do not own scaffolding, but it's easy and inexpensive to rent. (If you do not have a truck or trailer to transport scaffolding, ask the rental service about delivery.)

On a job site, OSHA requirements state that when using ladder jacks, the plank may not be higher than 20 ft. from the floor or ground. This is good advice for DIYers, too.

Scaffolding sets come in two varieties: rolling (typically used indoors) or fixed (for outside projects). Locking casters prevent the wheeled models from moving during use. Of course, scaffolding should never be moved while people are onboard.

As with ladders, be sure to inspect scaffolding before every use. Check that it is clean and dry and that all parts, such as the locking pins and cross braces, are in working order and tightly secured. If the unit is 10 ft. or higher, add guard rails and toe boards on the top section to help prevent a fall. On mobile units 10 ft. or higher, outriggers must be used.

When climbing up or down a scaffold (or a ladder), always maintain three points of contact (two feet and one hand, or two hands and one foot). Use a rope or other hoist to raise tools and materials, or have a partner hand them up to you so you can keep both hands free for climbing.

Other systems
For a midsize project where renting scaffolding is impractical, consider these alternatives:

  • Place a plank (2x10 or larger) on the rungs of two facing stepladders, but not higher than the second step from the top of each ladder.
  • Install ladder jacks on two extension ladders to hold a plank (again, 2x10 minimum).

In either case, the plank should not hold more than 25 pounds per square foot, and no more than two people may work on such a setup at one time.

If you need a really long span, or if you are working in a space too narrow for scaffolding or ladder jacks, consider renting a pump-jack system. This is a set of two poles, either wood or aluminum, secured to the ground and braced to the building at the top. A plank is raised and lowered by foot-operated jacks.

For roofing work, you can use roof scaffolding or a “chicken walk.” Similar to ladder jacks, roof scaffolds are angled braces that support a plank. (They must match the pitch of the roof.) A chicken walk is a long board laid up the pitch of the roof with shorter boards nailed or screwed to it to provide footing (similar to the rungs of a ladder). Both roof scaffolding and chicken walks must be fastened to the roof or secured by 3/4-in. manila rope (or an equivalent).

You'll find more information about scaffolds and ladders at the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) Web site. Manufacturers also offer safety guidelines online. Louisville Ladder's C.L.I.M.B. Academy, for example, has training films and DIY tests where you can see results instantly. Some of the precautions may seem like overkill, but trust me, avoiding falls is worth every effort.

Ladder Precautions
Each time you use a ladder, inspect it to ensure that it's in good working order and free of any grease, dirt or oil that might cause you to slip. Make sure that all of the mechanical parts operate smoothly. As you set it up, follow these rules:

  • Open stepladders to their full width, and make sure that the cross braces are locked in place.
  • Never use a stepladder as you would an extension ladder (folded flat and leaning against the wall).
  • A ladder’s legs must rest on a firm, level surface. This is usually not a problem indoors, but outdoors you may need to shim one or both of the legs with wood or another flat, hard material. These supports must be able to bear the combined weight of the ladder, the person climbing and any materials and tools. The supports should also be large enough that the ladder's legs won’t slip off of them if your weight shifts the position of the ladder slightly. Ladder levelers, short extensions for the legs of extension ladders, will do the same job without the risk of slippage.
  • Extension ladders must extend at least 3 ft. above the highest support point (such as the gutter or roofline) to provide a handhold when stepping from the ladder to the roof and to allow for extra contact area in case the ladder shifts.
  • If your ladder’s legs must rest on a slope (as mine did when I was hanging my parents’ gutters), be sure to block behind the ladder by driving stakes, such as pieces of pipe or rebar, deep into the ground. The little metal teeth on the feet of the ladder are not enough to keep the ladder from slipping.
  • No matter how well you position your ladder, it never hurts to have a spotter, especially if the ladder is leaning against a curved surface, such as a tree.
  • Never move a ladder while standing on it. Always climb down, move the ladder, check its stability and then climb back up.