Ladder Safety

By Todd Fratzel on Power Tools, Safety

picture of unsafe ladderI drove by a house yesterday with some guys painting and it reminded me of how many people do unsafe things with ladders. I’m sure you’ve all seen this photo of the guy changing a light bulb using some scary scaffolding and a pickup truck. And I’m also sure that most of you have probably used a ladder in a way that wasn’t really safe. However, I think it’s worth going over the basics of safe ladder use.

In my previous career I used to inspect bridges as one of my many engineering duties. It wasn’t uncommon for me to be over a 100 ft in the air hanging off some old rusted steel bridge. Safety was always my first priority. How could it not when you’re that high in the air right? Well one summer I was painting our first house and I put the ladder in a position I knew wasn’t really safe but I thought to myself that I’d get up there and right back down before anything bad could happen. The next thing I know I’m falling two stories straight down with a paint brush in one hand and a full gallon of paint in the other. Man did that hurt! I was actually very lucky that I only received minor cuts and bruises.

The point of my story is we tend to get lazy in our respect of working safely, especially when we are at home. When I was working 100 ft in the air I was very conscience of the dangers involved, however, when I was only 20 ft in the air it seemed less dangerous. The reality is a fall of only 4 ft could result in serious injury or even death. So when you pull out the ladders this summer to paint your house, or fix a loose piece of siding, make sure you follow some simple rules.

The first rule you should follow is to make sure your ladder is free of defects and in good working condition. Make sure your ladder has sufficient load capacity for your weight and gear. If you’re a big guy like me it’s important to have a heavy duty ladder rated for the extra loading.
diagram of safe ladder useProbably the most overlooked and simplest rule is to place the ladder properly. OSHA recommends placing the ladder at an angle of 4:1 (See the sketch below). You should also make sure the ladder extends 3 ft above the point at which you will be “off loading” if you plan to get off the ladder at an elevated location.

The other rule is to make sure you stay clear of power lines. If you need to work in the vicinity of power lines then make sure you have a non-conductive fiberglass ladder. Quite often people get in trouble around power lines when they are extending a ladder before placing it against the house. They extend the ladder up into the air and don’t realize the power lines are overhead. Make sure you treat all overhead wires as power lines. You may think you know which lines are cable or phone but it’s much safer to assume they are all live power lines.

Another good rule to follow is to make sure you’re not reaching out to the sides too far. It is recommended that you work directly in front of yourself and not reach out to the sides. It’s much safer to move the ladder a few extra times than it is to try reaching a bit further (this is how I fell!). It’s also very helpful to install a ladder stabilizer to the top of your ladder to help stabilize your ladder and make it easier to work around windows and corners.

The last safety rule I’d like to remind you about is not working off the top rungs of step ladders. I see people do this EVERY day and it drives me nuts. If you can’t reach from the proper rungs then you need a taller ladder. It’s as simple as that.

If you take your time and respect ladders you’ll avoid potentially dangerous situations and remain healthy. After all, a paint job is certainly not worth a broken limb or even worse your life.

About the author

Todd Fratzel

I'm full time builder for a large construction company in New Hampshire. I run their design-build division that specializes in custom homes, commercial design-build projects and sub-divisions. I'm also a licensed civil and structural engineer with extensive experience in civil and structural design and home construction. My hope is that I can share my experience in the home construction, home improvement and home renovation profession with other builders and home owners. I'm also the Editor-in-Chief and Founder of Tool Box Buzz. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions, suggestions or you'd like to inquire about advertising on this site.

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  1. Ethan says:

    Great reminder Todd! I can recall plenty of times I’ve done rather stupid things very high off the ground. Hopefully I keep your tips in mind next time I’m off the ground.

  2. marvin mcconoughey says:

    This is a life saving article. I was on ladders only yesterday and was tempted to stand on the top step to change a high-up fluorescent light tube. Luckily a remnant of common sense persuaded me to go find a better ladder. Thank you for the article. Freedom from injury is worth all the attention it needs.

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