A safe climb

20 steps for portable ladder use


Maintain three points of contact
While climbing up or down a ladder, the worker should maintain three points of contact: two hands and one foot or two feet and one hand in contact with the ladder, cleats or side rails. “Use three points of contact at all times, and don’t carry anything. You need to have your hands and feet [free] for doing what they are meant for,” Matthes said. When using this method, “you’re only moving one of your appendages at a time – even if it is quite rapid,” he said.


Use ladders for their intended purpose
Single and extension ladders are designed to be used vertically. Sometimes, though, workers may try to lay a ladder horizontally for use as a runway, brace, skid, lever, platform or a scaffold to travel between two points. “It was not designed for that,” Matthes said. “You can get bed ladders that are used for that purpose, but that’s not the intent of an extension ladder or a step ladder. It’s absolutely the wrong application.”


Do not use metal ladders near electrical work
The material of the ladder is an important factor to consider, said Ellis, who recommends using fiberglass ladders for work near electrical sources. He warns that metal ladders are highly conductive, and not only is electrical shock dangerous, but a subsequent fall off the ladder may prove fatal. “Every corner of a home has electrical wiring coming through it, unless it is underground,” he said.


Never overextend
It is not wise for workers to overextend themselves on a ladder, as doing so can cause them to lose their balance, according to Ronald Haverkost, technical specialist at Oregon OSHA. “If your center of gravity goes beyond the side rails of a ladder, you invite problems,” Haverkost said. “Once you go beyond the outside of the side rail, you are putting yourself in jeopardy.” Instead, an employee may move the ladder to where the work can be done without overreaching on either side. While climbing and working, a worker should make a mental note to keep the center of his or her belt buckle between the side rails to prevent falling sideways off the ladder.


Avoid “lashing”
Ladders are designed to be used for a specific length, and multiple ladders must not be tied or fastened together to create longer sections – a technique called “lashing,” Haverkost said. “You can’t lash them together. You can’t do anything outside of what the manufacturer intended. And you can’t lash them together just to get one job done.”


Access to upper landing surfaces
According to Rapp, when portable ladders are used for access to an upper landing surface, the side rails should extend at least 3 feet above the upper landing surface to ensure proper safety. “Make sure the ladder is 3 feet from extending beyond the roofline. It avoids tipping or causing the ladder base to slide out. It gives them much more safety to access or to exit to get back on the ladder,” Rapp said. If this is not possible, the ladder may be secured to a rigid support at its top, and a grab rail may be made available to help employees descend. 


Avoid unsafe weather conditions
Using a ladder during strong winds, storms, heavy rain, sleet, snow or hail can place a climber in a dangerous situation that may result in a loss of balance or cause a ladder to slide. “In regards to all those adverse [weather] conditions you have to take the commonsense approach, even though there is not a rule that says, ‘Don’t use this ladder in adverse conditions,’” Haverkost said.


Consider possible alternatives
Always consider alternatives before scaling up a two-story ladder, Matthes said. “Once you keep going up, you are much less stable,” he said. “I’ve seen some awfully big ladders used. I’d much prefer to see articulating manlifts or hydraulic lifts that were designed for that [height]. You can get much better work and production out of them. You can do the job so much easier and so much better and so much faster, it just [seems] practical to me to use the best tool for the job.” 


Proper storage
The National Safety Council advises storing ladders in areas with good ventilation and where they will not be exposed to harsh weather conditions. Avoid storing ladders near radiators, stoves or steam pipes – excessive heat or dampness may cause wear and tear. To prevent warping, the council also recommends hanging ladders horizontally on brackets against a wall with more than two supports. To keep the ladder accessible at all times, other materials should not be placed on the ladder while it is in storage.


Step it up
“Ladders are inherently dangerous, but they are one of the best tools that we have to use,” Haverkost said, adding that OSHA standards set safety and health requirements for ladder safety to prevent injuries and fatalities, but employers are encouraged to adopt more stringent guidelines. “The OSHA practices are a minimum – at least meet those – but follow the best practices and make [the workplace] safer because it’s recognized that ladders are one of the leading causes of falls,” Haverkost said.


J. Nigel Ellis, who served as a source for this article, later said he was misquoted: “In Step 10, the major correction is that all ladders must be held by rounded horizontal rungs. Side rails of vertical ladders should never be held because while they provide a continuous handhold (static), the hand will slide if a fall occurs (dynamic). … The exception: a sloped ship’s ladder such as a the LePeyre Ladder.”

Post a comment to this article

Safety+Health welcomes comments that promote respectful dialogue. Please stay on topic. Comments that contain personal attacks, profanity or abusive language – or those aggressively promoting products or services – will be removed. We reserve the right to determine which comments violate our comment policy. (Anonymous comments are welcome; merely skip the “name” field in the comment box. An email address is required but will not be included with your comment.)