Ladders are a fact of life for construction projects and home improvement tasks of all sizes and types. We all own a couple and we tend to take their care and use pretty much for grated. But the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that emergency rooms treat more than 164,000 ladder-related injuries each year in the United States, so taking a moment to inspect your ladders and review how to correctly set them up and use them can pay big benefits in terms of safety.

Inspect your ladders: It just takes a moment to check things over before you set it up. Look for loose screws or other fasteners, as well as worn or damaged hinges and braces. Make sure the rungs are solid, straight and not damaged, and that the feet are intact and solidly attached. Inspect aluminum ladders for problems with the welds. For fiberglass and wood ladders, carefully inspect for cracks and splinters. Inspect extension ladder ropes carefully, and replace them immediately if they are worn or otherwise damaged. Clean the ladder after each use to remove mud, dirt, paint, grease and other materials that may accumulate. Never paint a wood ladder, as the paint can mask cracks and other problems with the wood.

Pick the right ladder for the job:  Ladders are constructed in one of three general classifications:

Type I, Industrial:  Heavy duty ladders with a load rating typically not exceeding 250 pounds, and are suitable for virtually all uses. Some Industrial ladders can carry higher load ratings.

Type II, Commercial:  These are medium-duty ladders with a load capacity of not more than 225 pounds, and are well suited for painting and most construction work.

Type III, Household:  Light-duty ladders, with a load capacity of 200 pounds. Type III ladders should be limited to lighter applications around the house.

Proper setup:  Self-supporting ladders, commonly known as step ladders, need to be fully opened out with the spreader braces locked and any other supports fully engaged. NEVER use a step ladder in its folded-up position and leaning up against a wall – the angle of the feet and the design of the rungs are not intended for use in this position, and it presents an extreme hazard.

Extension ladders are also known as non-self-supporting or leaning ladders in that they cannot be used unless they are leaning against a solid support. The proper angle of an extension ladder is critical to its safe and proper use, and should be set up so that the horizontal distance between the wall and the feet of the ladder is equal to approximately ¼ of the ladder’s working length. For example, if an extension ladder is set up with a 12-foot working length, the feet should be approximately 3 feet out from the wall.

With both extension and step ladders, make sure that the area around the base of the ladder is kept clear of tools, rocks, and other hazards. Make sure that all of the ladder’s feet are in firm contact with the floor or ground.

Working on uneven ground:  Since extension ladders are commonly used outdoors, it’s important that both of the ladder’s feet are firmly in contact with the ground, and that they are set on a level surface. If you will be working in areas with uneven ground, use an OSHA-approved ladder-leveling system to make sure that the feet are properly and securely leveled out. NEVER place blocks of wood or other loose, temporary supports under one foot of a ladder in order to level it out.

An even better solution for working on uneven ground is Werner’s new aluminum “Equalizer” ladder. The Equalizer has two heavy duty sliding legs – one on the lower end of each of the ladder’s outside rails – that can be adjusted independently in 3/8-inch increments. Steel pins fit into holes to lock the adjustable legs in the desired position, and a small bubble level is encased in the ladder’s bottom rung to eliminate any guesswork as to whether the ladder is level. The Equalizer has dual-action, pivoting feet with spikes for soft dirt and rubber pads for hard surfaces, a 225-pound load rating, and is approved by both OSHA and ANSI for safety. If you need a new extension ladder, the innovative Equalizer is a good, safe choice for most home and professional construction applications.

Remodeling and repair questions? E-mail Paul at

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