How to buy (and use) ladders

By The Old House Web

No matter what type of ladder you use or what you use it for, it paysto take some extra precautions. Any fall can be serious, and a fallfrom the height of even a low ladder can mean a painful andincapacitating injury. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commissionestimates that in one year 65,000 individuals receive emergency roomtreatment because of ladder accidents.

Taking proper precautions withladders begins with choosing the ladder. Consider the type of workthe ladder will be used for, the weight the ladder must carry, andthe condition of the ladder.

Most ladders sold for household use areType III light-duty ladders. These are rated for a maximum load of200 pounds (user plus materials). If the ladder needs to carry moreweight than this, select a Type II medium-duty ladder (225 pounds) ora Type I heavy-duty ladder (250 pounds). Most ladders will be labeledwith their duty rating. Buy a ladder long enough for any use you mayhave for it. You should not stand on the top or top step of astepladder, or the top three rungs of a straight or extension ladder.Keep in mind that the length of a ladder is different from its usablelength. The height these ladders can safely reach is reduced by theangle at which the ladder must be set up.

When purchasing a newladder, there are certain defects and features that are potentiallydangerous. On metal ladders, check for sharp edges, dents and bentsteps, rungs or rails. Wooden ladders should be free of splits,cracks, chips and all but small, tight knots. No ladder should haveloose rungs or steps. Steps on wooden stepladders should bereinforced with metal rods or angle braces securely attached to thestep and side rail. The bottom step of all stepladders should havemetal angle braces. The stability of an individual stepladder can bechecked by standing on the first step from the bottom and twistingthe ladder. If it feels unsteady, choose another ladder. All metalladders should have slip-resistant rubber or plastic feet. Metalstepladders should have slip-resistant steps. Some wooden stepladdersalso have this desirable feature. When using a ladder near powerlines, use a wooden or fiberglass ladder since metal ladders conductelectricity.

Even a rigidly constructed ladder can be involved in anaccident if proper precautions are not taken. Read and follow allinstructions accompanying the ladder, set up the ladder properly, anduse good sense while working on the ladder.

Straight and Extension Ladders

Taking proper precautions with ladders is an important step inpreventing these accidents. To raise a ladder, brace the lower endagainst a wall and then grasp the top rung with both hands. Raise thetop end and walk underneath the ladder, moving down the rungs untilthe ladder is vertical.

Straight ladder and extension ladder.

When using an extension ladder, raise it tothe desired height, being sure the locks engage properly on bothsides of the ladder. To position the ladder properly, place itagainst the wall so the distance between the wall and the base of theladder is 1/4 of the length along the ladder from the base to itspoint of support (1/4 of its working length). Since the rungs onladders are normally one foot apart, the approximate distance is easyto compute. If the ladder is to be used for getting onto a roof,there should be 3 feet of ladder (at least three rungs) extendingbeyond the edge of the roof. The ground under the ladder should beboth level and firm. Large flat wooden boards placed under the laddercan level a ladder on uneven ground or give a ladder better footingon soft ground. If possible, secure the ladder. One way to do this isto have someone hold the bottom of the ladder. Other points toremember when raising and positioning a ladder are:

  • Never use a ladder in a strong wind.
  • The point where the ladder rests against the wall should be flatand firm.
  • A ladder should not be placed in front of a door that is notlocked, blocked or guarded.
  • Before positioning the ladder, check for insect or bird nestsunder the eaves; the top of a ladder is no place to discover a waspnest .

Face the ladder when climbing or descending and use both hands. Mountthe ladder from the center, not from the side. Tools should becarried in the pockets, in a bag attached to a belt, or raised andlowered by rope. Be sure that the soles of your shoes are clean anddry. Work facing the ladder, holding on with one hand. If it is evernecessary to work with both hands, hook one leg over the rung. Don'tlean too far to the side while working. A good general guide is tokeep your body centered between the rails of the ladder. Instead ofleaning to the side, get down and move the ladder. In case of suddendizziness or a panicky feeling, bow your head, drape both arms overthe rung in front of you, close your eyes, and wait until the feelingpasses.

Do not use a ladder as a scaffold or for any purpose exceptwhat was intended. Be very careful when using a metal ladder aroundelectrical wires or equipment. Many fatalities occur when a metalladder brushes against power lines while being moved. Use onlydouble-insulated or properly grounded electrical tools on a metalladder. To be safer, use only a dry wooden or non-conductivefiberglass ladder when working around electrical wires or equipment.


Many of the suggestions for using straight and extensionladders also apply to stepladders. When using a stepladder:

  • Erect a stepladder only on a flat level surface. Do not place it on atable or any similar platform for added height.
  • Never use a stepladder as a straight ladder.
  • Before climbing a stepladder, make sure that its legs are fullyextended and the spreader locked. The locking device on some laddersmay present a pinching hazard, so keep fingers clear when setting upthe ladder.
  • Do not step on the top platform or top step.
  • Do not step on the bucket shelf or attempt to climb or stand onthe rear section supports. They are not designed to support the weight of a person.
  • Finally, no matter what kind of ladder you are using, never leavea raised ladder unattended. It could fall unexpectedly and injuresomeone.

Storage and Maintenance

To keep a ladder in good condition, proper storage and maintenance isa necessity. Ladders should be stored in a sheltered area. Woodenladders are affected by exposure to heat combined with dampness andneed a dry, well-ventilated storage area. A wooden ladder usedoutdoors should be shellacked, varnished or given two coats oflinseed oil as a protective coating. Some new ladders may alreadyhave protective coatings; this will vary with the manufacturer. Neverpaint a wooden ladder; the paint can hide defects. Straight andextension ladders should be stored horizontally on racks or hookswith support points at the top, middle, and bottom of the ladder toprevent sagging and warping. Inspect a ladder before each use forwear and damage. This is particularly important after a long periodof storage or after a ladder has been dropped. Have repair work doneonly by a competent repair shop. If there is major damage, discardthe ladder. Do not attempt to straighten a bent metal ladder. Neveruse a damaged ladder. Periodically tighten the reinforcing rods underthe steps of a stepladder, the spreader hinges and other hardware.


U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Fact Sheet No. 56:Ladders (March 1976).

Acknowledgments to Michelle L. Wallingford for her contributions tothis publication.

Reviewed by Drs. Dennis Stombaugh and Mike Veenhuizen, Department ofAgricultural Engineering and Dr. Judy Wessel, Department of FamilyResource Management.

Funded in whole or in part from Grant Number U05/CCU506070-03,"Cooperative Agreement Program for Agricultural Health PromotionSystems, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Search Improvement Project