Webster's unabridged dictionary defines the verb "innovate" as "to introduce something new, or make changes in anything established." This article explores five ladder innovations designed to make ladders safer, more versatile, and easier to use.

Almost 40 years ago I bought my first ladder. It was easy, or so I thought. I bought a ladder several months ago, and it was far more difficult to select what I wanted. For some contractors, purchasing ladders can be a challenge. Their contractor supply house may carry one brand and the big box lumberyard still another. The mail order catalogs are filled with even more. Certain sizes may be available but not stocked in all rated load classes or sizes. Other contractors make the task simple: "Just buy a ladder, throw it on the truck, and get back to work."

With over $850 million in annual sales, the 10 major U.S. ladder manufacturers provide dozens of styles and sizes of fixed and portable ladders for users ranging from the handyman to those engaged in heavy commercial construction. The American Ladder Institute (www.americanladderinstitute.org) estimates that about 500,000 ladder accidents occur annually in this country, resulting in almost one fatality every day of the year and accounting for $11 billion in injury costs. The majority of these accidents are directly attributable to two factors: improper ladder selection and misuse. While purchasing the right ladder can help abate the former hazard, not every task on the jobsite can be performed easily and safely without implementing some creative innovations.

Webster's unabridged dictionary defines the verb "innovate" as "to introduce something new, or make changes in anything established." The word is derived from the Latin root meaning "to alter or renew." Once I began looking for them, I found a myriad of products promising solutions to ladder use and selection difficulties. It seems as if a determined tradesman invents a widget every day in order to accomplish his job. Over time, some of these widgets have evolved into versatile, affordable, and marketable add-ons for ladders. The following are five of my favorite ladder innovations that I've discovered to date. They are all rugged, versatile, and made in the United States (or, in one instance, Canada). You should ask your local supply house if they have any of these items in stock - and, if not, why not.

The Stabiladder may be applied to either leg of a portable fiberglass or aluminum extension ladder. It is designed to allow a ladder to be safely erected on stepped or sloped surfaces and in spots where one side rail must be above or below the other.

No. 1: The Stabiladder

Construction sites are seldom level, especially at the point of assembly. Whether it involves wood framing or erecting steel, chaos is the rule rather than the exception at the leading edges of the site. It is inevitable that a ladder must be set up on either a stepped or sloped structural surface with one side rail below or above the other. There are several manufacturers of ladder leveling devices in the market today. I am a fan of the Stabiladder ( www.stabiladder.com).

I often drag my equipment across 11 states for training; therefore, I judge quality not only on features but also on the ability to sustain abuse. The unit is built of rugged, heavy-gauge (3/16-inch) tubular/channel aluminum that could survive a Maine winter in the back of a pickup quite nicely. Six-inch deep, parallel, teardrop cutouts accommodate successive rungs. The 1/4-inch stainless steel wing bolts installed in threaded holes on either side of the channel make it easy to mount to the outside of either side rail. The 1/4-inch diameter stainless steel locating pin has a swivel safety catch, which is easily engaged and difficult to release unintentionally. Model 1 has met UL-184 testing requirements and Model 2 has met NFPA-1931 for ladder quality. And, if I can't find a wheel chock when I need one for my one-ton, the Stabiladder will work just fine. It's that rugged.

The Stabiladder may be applied to either leg of a portable fiberglass or aluminum extension ladder. Two wing bolts quickly fasten the device to the side rails without any tools required. It may be easily installed in the dark in a driving rainstorm. I know. The adjustable aluminum foot has a 3/16-inch-thick slip-resistant rubber pad and is capable of inclining in all four directions for compound angle surfaces. Simply remove the safety locking pin, remove and rotate the foot 90 degrees, and reinstall the foot with the locking pin.

The "male" tubular extension leg is tightly compressed between the aluminum channel frame and the top surface of the ladder rail. The leg is adjustable up to 15 inches in 1-inch increments using the 1/4-inch diameter stainless steel locating pin. Although this pin is safety wired to the frame, it is a good idea to pick up an extra "just in case." Also, no ladder "modifications" are required to install the unit, thus retaining the ladder manufacturer's original "as-built" warranty.

To top it off, the Stabiladder is manufactured in Marathon, N.Y. What else do I have to say? Yes, it costs more than a similar device made in Taiwan or Bangladesh might, but so what. As a consumer of American-made products, the shopping list is getting shorter every day. I proudly pay more for American manufactured products most of the time. It's the only weapon I have left.

The Ladder Stabilizer is designed to stabilize any extension ladder with hollow rungs. While the product is not designed to independently support a worker in a freestanding position, a freestanding ladder using the Ladder Stabilizer with no other means of support passed an aggressive battery of load tests conducted both inside a warehouse and in a sandy parking lot.

No. 2: Ladder Stabilizer

Well, I've seen almost everything in the safety marketplace, but not everything. Mr. Rick Ennis, owner of Sabertec Corp. (www.ladderstabilizer.com), has spent a considerable amount of time and money in research and development to market a unique device aptly called the Ladder Stabilizer. It is designed to totally stabilize any extension ladder with hollow rungs in any location. I believe it will work almost anywhere because they ran it through an aggressive battery of photo-documented load tests conducted by Klondike Crane Inspection Ltd. During some of these static live load tests, a 600-pound (272 kg) water load was applied to a freestanding ladder with no other means of structural support than the Ladder Stabilizer. The load was suspended for a full 10 minutes and, according to the engineering test firm, the ladder and the stabilizer "did not show any signs of lateral movement or vertical fatigue." However, a reasonable caveat was included in the engineer's report: "The ability of the Ladder Stabilizer to independently support a worker in a freestanding position is limited and is not recommended as a safe work practice."

This double-legged, chain-reinforced, folding A-frame design is rugged, adjustable and compact. It is easily and quickly attached to the side rails of any ladder from Type 3 (200 pounds) to Type IAA (375 pounds). It fully complies with all ANSI/OSHA ladder requirements. When retracted into its compact storage position connected to the base of the ladder, it adds less than 3 inches to the depth of the ladder, making it easy to store and transport. The ladder tests were not only conducted inside a warehouse on a clean, level slab, but also outdoors on a typically sandy, debris-filled parking lot corresponding to real-life conditions. Again, no ladder "modifications" are required to install this unit on any ladder, thus retaining the manufacturer's original warranty.

It will attach to any extension ladder manufactured. The wide, cross-braced spacing of the two legs combined with the footprint with the ladder creates a "pyramid" of stability, which reinforces the ladder when it is being climbed and loaded (even above the point of attachment). The angle and position of the two struts may be adjusted at the base by means of changing the length of the base chain in order to expand or contract to the working space. The device may also be attached to a higher rung to accommodate irregular levels, such as stairs and platforms. As a result of this design, the Ladder Stabilizer not only significantly removes vertical defection from the base section of the ladder, but it also eliminates any lateral forces during the climb that may expose the climber to lateral top-end displacement or cause the ladder's feet to kick out. Can it get any better than that?

This product might not be made in America, but it's a near miss; the company is headquartered in Alberta, Canada. How about North American-made? It's got to beat sending raw materials across the pond to have someone else process materials, fabricate components, assemble the product and ship it back to be consumed without any North American earning a living wage in the process. Besides, it will soon be fully marketed in this country, using a U.S.-based firm.

The Ladder Walk-Through is designed to make accessing and discharging from the top of an extension ladder safe and comfortable.

No. 3: Ladder Walk-Through Railing System

Just when I thought every conceivable improvement to the ladder had been made, along comes Minneapolis-based American Innovations Corp. (www.ladderinnovations.com), the company responsible for those nifty cup holders you probably use in your local movie theater. It took Fred Feik and Bruce Clark only five years to come up with some fairly ingenious ladder accessories. Now that I own some of them, I can't seem to do without them. Even NASA is a satisfied customer, a clear sign of success if I've ever seen one.

First is the WT02 Ladder Walk-Through, a new device designed to make accessing and discharging from the top of an extension ladder as safe and comfortable as walking in your front door. It is such a simple concept that it was hiding in plain sight for almost 5,000 years.

The two vertical aluminum extension railings easily slide over the top of each side of the ladder beams and clamp on. The 11?4-inch diameter tubular aluminum looping handles widen to 24 inches and extend 32 inches higher than the ladder cap. When I first tested them, the size and length of these railings may have given me a comfortable feeling of security, but I still spent the time to fasten the ladder to the roof edge with blocking and lashed a ground stake to the ladder base, as I was going to be using this ladder access for awhile. This design even allows a wide climber to access or leave the ladder without creating forces which often tend to either tip or topple the top of an extension ladder as the weight is removed and a push vector is applied. They have added a 1-inch wide adhesive friction strip to the front of the railing to assist in your grip. It was a hot summer here in upstate New York, and I noticed the handrails can get a little warm if you're not gloved up. AIC is considering coating the railings with a slip-resistant substance in order to improve the grip and reduce the accumulation of solar energy, especially noticeable in a southern climate.

The railings were very simple to install and rugged in use. I can kick these beauties around all day and they'll still work just fine. Together they weigh less than 12 pounds. The large plastic lock screw knobs comfortably compress to lock onto the top of the side rails. Combined with spring tensioners to adjust to various size ladder rails, they fasten the railings quite securely to the ladder - no give anywhere. That's what you want in a handrail.

They fit every ladder I own and some I don't. In every case, the product made the act of entering onto or stepping off of a ladder a pleasure. (And that's not a word I often use in print.) Most of the ladder products I included in this article have to be used to be appreciated, but the first time I saw a picture of the Walk-Through system, I got it. Unlike those photos that sometimes adorn restaurant menus, this product is just as satisfying as its advertising claims. I keep them in my truck when I'm not using them. Whenever I drive past a contractor I recognize on site I drop them off for a day or two to get their opinion. When I return the following day, I usually have to fight hard for them. Every contractor I've ever loaned them to has given them an A-plus rating.

The Ladder Dolly's 7-inch diameter cast plastic wheels are designed to make moving any ladder a breeze.

No. 4: Ladder Dolly

The folks at American Innovations Corp. (www.ladderinnovations.com) are also the originators the Ladder Dolly, a pair of wheels that can be mounted on the side of a ladder to make it a mobile on-site vehicle. Yes, I know - I thought the same thing. It's tough for an old wood butcher like myself to own anything with the word "Dolly" in its name, let alone tow it around behind me. Bruce sent me one anyway because he knew exactly what would happen. It took just 30 seconds to unwrap and install them. I picked up the other end of a 40-foot ladder and it took just another 30 seconds to appreciate them, but I wasn't ready to "love" something called the Ladder Dolly. That would take another week.

I don't know why, but I love the way these 7-inch diameter cast plastic wheels can't be destroyed. Believe me, I've tried. They slip onto a 12-inch long steel axle with cap nuts and a 28-inch long center T-shaft saddle, which slides easily into the hollow of the second or third rung from the base. A safety cotter pin on top of the center shaft keeps the Ladder Dolly securely fastened. There's even a safety warning that a ladder installed with Ladder Dolly is not mean to be towed behind your vehicle. Well, what did you expect, Bruce? That's the first thing I tried. I towed a 32-footer at 10 miles an hour for 20 laps around my circular gravel driveway without a problem. I wouldn't tow them down the interstate, but all I can say is, "Some wheels you got there, Bruce."

My ability to lift a 60-pound IA fiberglass ladder onto my right shoulder has slowly but progressively, deteriorated (along with my rotator cuff) over the last 40 years. But I still do it when a bunch of young builders are watching me unload my truck. (It makes a loud snap, like stepping on a dried branch in the woods.) Five years ago I paid a thousand dollars for a double-sided, fold-down ladder rack for my van, so there's little left of my pride anyway. But with the 300 percent increase in musculoskeletal disorders in construction workers' compensation claims, it's no wonder the Ladder Dolly sells so well. I recently started using the Ladder Dolly on my own barn project at home. Now I envision a "parking lot" area for all my ladders, each on its own set of wheels. They tow like they're on black ice and steer, pushing or towing, better than my one ton. Besides, it's virtually impossible to break a window or scratch the wife's car with the blind end when you're towing a ladder. They can be quickly removed by pulling the pin or left stored, without climbing obstructions, on any ladder. They also have a set of accessory hooks to hang bucket-buddies, tool belts, lead cords and beer coolers all atop the ladder, so you can take everything in one trip. As soon as they figure out a stair climber, I'm ordering three more - I don't care what they're called.

Little Giant ladders feature a patented, technologically advanced hinge-lock mechanism that eliminates the need for center lock arms between the legs. The leg sections can be adjusted as required to set up on uneven surfaces or to bring you closer to your work.

No. 5: Little Giant Industrial Ladder

Seven or eight years ago, I went to the Northeast Roofing Contractor's Association (NRCA) annual convention in Boston and first laid my eyes and hands on a Little Giant ladder. A week later, I bought my first one, and I am still using it today. The company's entertaining infomercial is often seen the cable networks, replete with many professional endorsements, and it is also found on the company's Web site (www.littlegiantladders.com). Hal Wing purchased the technologically innovative design from a German firm 30-years ago and brought it to the United states to manufacture as a "little family business" with his sons, Art and Doug. Take notice. This is the only ladder in my selection of five innovations because it is the only innovative ladder on the worldwide market today. Simple.

My Little Giant is a commercial grade IA (300 pound rated), double-sided A-frame/extension fiberglass ladder with a patented, technologically advanced hinge-lock mechanism, eliminating the need for center lock arms between the legs. There is no other ladder with equal design capabilities on the market today. Mine is a model Seventeen, which adjusts from 9 to 17 feet. The Model Twenty-Two adjust from 11 to 22 feet. This model can collapse down to a mere 11 feet, 7 inches for storage. While my fiberglass Industrial Model Seventeen weighs over 55 pounds, Wing Enterprises now manufactures a line of Little Giant Ultra-Lite™ fiberglass ladders with significant weight reduction (net 45 pounds) and the same rugged 1A rating.

My Little Giant lives year-round on my rooftop ladder rack. Just like the truck, it's outdoors 24/7. The day I leave it in the barn is inevitably the day I will need it. So, my advice to you is take one - you'll need it. Mine has endured seven seasons without much preventive maintenance. The ladder gets washed occasionally on the ladder rack. I spray WD-40 into the locking hinge mechanism four times a year, but that's just about it. After six years of driving ladder-first down the road, I replaced a pair of hinge mechanisms within the housings for around $40. The repair took ten minutes. Except for some scratches, the entire ladder is basically in the condition in which it was manufactured. I've gone through a total of six other ladders (step and extension) in the same time period. If there is a drawback, it would be its weight, but I feel that's also what gives it so much stability (what I call "authority"). I work primarily in manufacturing mills and processing plants and am generally prohibited from entering a mill with any sort of aluminum ladder these days due to the potential electrocution liability. It's generally fiberglass or leave it behind the guard shack until you return.

The Little Giant defines versatility. As soon as a salesman or tradesman demonstrates all of its configurations, you realize this ladder was the original Transformer®. As a 300-pound rated A-frame step, you can adjust the leg sections as required to either set up on uneven surfaces or else to bring you closer to your work. The manufacturer also provides a custom-built ladder leveler and a user-friendly step platform, which comfortably converts the ladder into a stable scaffold. As a 300-pound rated extension ladder, it is not only adjustable in length by 1-foot increments, but the 25-inch interior rail spread at the top and bottom creates very stable bearing surfaces. As far as I'm concerned, Wing's design concept hit the finished product square on the head.

Built entirely in Springville, Utah, Little Giant comes with a full one-year warranty on all workmanship and materials, but if my experience is any indication, you should find it trouble-free for much longer than that with only minimum maintenance. Give me a call if you don't.

A Salute to the Inventors

These products were developed to earn a profit, but it's clear every one of these devices was created with the safety of the ladder user foremost in mind. When it comes to ladder use, safety is more profitable every time. With these devices, as with all climbing equipment, you should make sure you read and understand all of the manufacturer's directions and practice regular and thorough inspection procedures prior to use in order to identify any defects or any damage your ladders may have incurred.

While researching this article, I discovered an underground spring of entrepreneurs - real people who have mortgaged their homes, sacrificed personal relationships, lost months of sleep, and seriously doubted themselves several times over in order to bring their own humble idea into being. The risk was that after all those years the finished prototype might not work as designed. Edison said the key to making a light bulb that worked was making a thousand that didn't. I know many tough-as-nails working people on the construction sites but few who have the everyday determination to put it all on the line for a simple idea.

My hat is off to all of the inventors, expeditors and innovators of safety products around the world. Without them, you and I would still be throwing stones at the apple tree instead of safely climbing a ladder to the top.