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Tips for Safe Ladder Use

Ladder climbing takes place in almost every home and workplace. So why read a warning label before doing something as simple as changing a light bulb or reaching a box on a top shelf?

"Yet, that's exactly what you should do," says Richard Dresser, C.S.P., C.E.T., safety director for IHC Group Inc. in Elgin, Ill. "All ladders come with information taped to their sides, which tells you their specifications, warnings and directions for use. Knowledge about safe use of ladders is crucial to avoiding serious injury or death from a fall."

Falls are at or near the top in causes of fatal work-related injuries in the construction industry and the third leading cause in all industries combined.

Before you place your foot on the first rung, Mr. Dresser suggests you become familiar with these other ladder-safety basics.

Use the right ladder

Stepladders should never be used as straight ladders—propped against a wall. They're designed for use only with the spreaders open and locked in place.

Likewise, if a job calls for a 10- to 12-foot extension ladder, an 8-foot one won't do.

"You'll end up standing on the top two steps and could easily lose your balance and fall," Mr. Dresser notes.

Weight matters

Ladders are rated for weight capacity. For example, a "type 1" heavy-duty ladder is designed to bear no more than 250 pounds. That doesn't mean a 250-pound person can use that ladder. You need to account for the weight of the tool belt, hardhat, boots, and other heavy clothing items. Consider whether a type 1A (300-pound rating) or 1AA ladder (375-pound rating) is a safer choice.

Do a pre-climb inspection

Before each use, look for damage or cracks on the rungs and side rails, and check for missing safety feet—the rubber attachments that help keep the ladder from slipping.

On extension ladders, also inspect the dogs—the latches that secure the extension when it's fed out to full length. Take the ladder out of service if it has any damage.

Use in proper places

Don't ever set up a ladder near power lines. If the ladder falls against them and connects with current, it could knock you off the ladder or even electrocute you.

Always place the ladder on a secure, solid surface. And follow the 4-to-1 rule for stability: for every 4 feet of elevation, the ladder's base should be set 1 foot out.

"An easy way to figure the proper angle is to stand at the ladder's base and reach your arm straight out toward the ladder. If your hand can grasp a rung, that's a ballpark 4 to 1," says Mr. Dresser.

The rails of a ladder should extend 3 feet above any landing so workers can climb safely on and off. Tie off the ladder securely at the top to prevent slippage.

Climb safely

Follow the three-point contact rule for climbing—only one foot or hand should be out of contact with the ladder at any time.

"Adhering to that advice means you can't hold anything in your hand as you climb," Mr. Dresser says. "Instead of grasping a bag of tools on the way up, wear a tool belt or drop a line from the roof and hoist up the bag."

Never stand on the top three steps of a straight ladder or the top two steps of a stepladder, and permit only one person on the ladder at a time. Always keep your belt buckle between the rails—a simple rule that keeps you from leaning out dangerously far.