As a roofer, I make my living climbing up and down ladders every day. So I was surprised to learn that ladder safety violations consistently rank among the top ten cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA); third among specialty contractors, and seventh overall among OSHA's top-10 list of "serious violations"–those in which "there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result." Selecting the right ladder for the job and using it properly can help you and your crew continue working comfortably, productively, and safely without accidents or six-figure fines.

Selecting the Right Ladder

The most important factors to consider when choosing the right ladder for a job are its type, length, strength (Duty Rating), and material used to manufacture it. The most common types include step and extension ladders. Even in these two basic styles, you'll find a variety of offerings, such as tripod stepladders that enhance stability on uneven surfaces and get you into corners, twin stepladders that allow you to work from either side or even let two people work together off the same ladder, and platform, trestle, and telescoping models.

Step Ladder Types

Standard StepTripodTwin StepPodiumTrestle

And of course there's a wide range of sectional and extension ladders for every need. The choices can be staggering, but they offer job-specific alternatives for comfortable, productive, and safe working conditions on various surfaces and for different heights and applications.

Length. Once you've selected the style of ladder best suited to the job, length becomes the next consideration. One of the most common and potentially dangerous mistakes made in choosing an extension ladder involves trying to use a ladder that is either too short, or too tall. If the ladder is too short, you may tend to overreach or even climb beyond the highest permitted standing rung, which can cause you to lose your balance. If the ladder is too long, then you may have to angle the ladder at an unsafe pitch that may cause the ladder feet to slip out. The proper method is to set up an extension ladder using the 4- to-1 ratio–this is the best way to safely set up an extension ladder. The proper setup for an extension ladder is at a 75-1/2 degree angle–and the easiest way to obtain this angle of setup is to set the ladder back 1 foot for every 4 feet of length to the upper support point.

Duty Rating. The third and most often ignored consideration in your ladder choice relates to the ladder's strength and durability, or Duty Rating. According to OSHA standards, ladders must be rated to support the combined weight of the user, plus tools, and materials. In other words, if you and your tool pouch weigh 180 pounds and you're carrying a 70-pound bundle of shingles up a ladder, you need a ladder rated for at least 250 pounds, which would be a Heavy Duty Industrial Type I ladder. The Duty Rating also takes into account whether a ladder will be receiving harsh or more moderate use on a construction site. This is where proper selection can either augment to or diminish jobsite safety, and where trying to save money by buying a lower-cost lighter-duty ladder can backfire.

Label for Type 1A (left) and 1AA (right) ladders
Label for Type 1A (left) and 1AA (right) ladders

Ladder ratings established by American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standards include Type I for professional use, Type II medium duty rated for up to 225 pounds, and Type III light duty for household use. Beyond these basic types, ANSI recognizes two additional, heavy industrial specifications, Type IA rated for 300 pounds, and Type IAA rated for 375 pounds. OSHA regulations do not elaborate on the specifics of ladder construction, given the many options available, but the duty rating provides an excellent guideline for appropriate ladder selection based on the load and use of the ladder. A Type II ladder may be adequate for interior painting or occasional handyman work, but a Type IA ladder will be more appropriate for a framer muscling a garage door header into place. In general, it's best to err on the side of a higher duty rating.

Materials. the old days all ladders were made of wood, but today most commercial ladders are made from lighter and more durable aluminum or fiberglass. Aluminum ladders offer light weight and corrosion resistance; fiberglass ladders will provide safety when working close to electrical power lines because they won't conduct electricity. A dry wood ladder doesn't conduct electricity either, but a wet wooden ladder can be as dangerous around electrical wires as aluminum. This is one reason OSHA doesn't want painted wooden ladders on the jobsite, assuming the user is always aware of the material of the ladder. Never use metal ladders or wet wooden ladders when working near electrical lines, but be careful even if you're setting up a fiberglass ladder.

Always set up extension ladders at 75-1/2 degrees, which is a 4-to-1 ratio of pitch. That means the base should be set back one foot from a wall for every four feet of height. As a rule of thumb, stand at the base and extend your arms.  If you can touch the fifth rung the ladder is in position.
Always set up extension ladders at 75-1/2 degrees, which is a 4-to-1 ratio of pitch. That means the base should be set back one foot from a wall for every four feet of height. As a rule of thumb, stand at the base and extend your arms. If you can touch the fifth rung the ladder is in position.

Safe Work Practices

If used improperly, a ladder won't save you from a potential accident no matter how good it is. The four basic ingredients of safe climbing include ladder inspection, a safety check before every ascent, setting up the ladder properly, and then using safe, sane climbing habits. Safe climbing is a lot like safe, defensive driving: keep your eyes open and use common sense.

Before stepping onto your ladder, look it over for missing, damaged, or loose components. If you find damaged parts, do not use the ladder until it is repaired. And don't leave it lying around like a trap for the next guy. A damaged ladder parked on your jobsite could spell OSHA fines even if nobody's on it. Damaged ladders must be prominently tagged for repair or disposal.

It's a good habit to read the safety instruction labels on your ladder. The label includes information on both ladder inspection and correct setup. Renew your memory and renew you commitment to jobsite safety every time you climb. Make sure your shoes don't have nails, oil, or other jobsite debris that could cause you to trip or slip.

It seems obvious but is still worth repeating: Climb and descend facing the ladder. Center your weight and frame between the ladder rails. When climbing and working, maintain a 3-point (two hands and a foot) contact on the ladder when climbing. When working, maintain a firm grip with at least one hand at all times and both feet firmly planted on a rung. When reaching from a ladder to do your work follow this rule: Never let your belt buckle pass beyond the ladder rail so you won't lose your balance or tip the ladder. If you have to reach beyond safe limits, climb down and reset the ladder into a new position to continue working. When the ladder is used for access to an upper landing or roof (meaning you'll be stepping off the ladder at the top) the ladder must extend at least 3 feet beyond the top landing.

If a ladder has any chance of sliding out of position, tie-off the top of the ladder on both sides to prevent movement.
If a ladder has any chance of sliding out of position, tie-off the top of the ladder on both sides to prevent movement.

Don't stand above the highest safe standing level–two rungs from the top of a stepladder and three rungs above the roof line of an extension ladder. Never climb on the back of a single-sided stepladder, and never climb a closed stepladder. It may slip out from under you. Don't stand on the paint bucket shelf on a stepladder, and if your ladder is not in the right place to reach the work without standing on your toes, climbing onto the last rung, or stretching beyond a safe range, climb down and reset, or get the right ladder that will put you in a safe position to do your best work. And take extra care if you leave a set-up ladder unattended, so that those who are not trained to climb (like children) won't be tempted to try.

By following a few simple, easy, common-sense precautions, you could be a lifelong climber, instead of one of the 164,000 people injured in ladder accidents every year.