We take our ladders and their use for granted everyday.

Roofers and ladders are a lot like beer and chips: They just seem to be found in the same places. There have been minor improvements on ladder design, but not much has changed in the last hundred years. Herein lies the problem. We take our ladders and their use for granted everyday. According to the National Safety Council, at home or work, ladder accidents lead to 300 deaths and 130,000 injuries every year. Yet it seems that most of us are born knowing all we need to know about our ladders. Just ask us if we think we need a ladder safety course and you’ll get some pretty curious looks and colorful responses.

The OSHA Construction Standard Subpart X (1926.1053) specifically covers the regulations for ladders. It calls for employer-provided training for every employee who may potentially use a ladder in his or her job. I’ve worked in the construction industry over 35 years and as I recall, no employer ever gave me definitive ladder safety training.

The performance language in this standard is as clear as OSHA ever gets: Maintain the ladders in “a condition meeting its original design,” and use ladders “Only for the purpose for which they were designed.” These two primary suggestions are enough to keep thousands of workers out of the emergency rooms every year. What follows are ladder-training topics that you may want to emphasize in “toolbox” training sessions.

Competent Person

Paragraph 1926.1053(b)(15) contains the Competent Person: “Ladders shall be inspected by a competent person for visible defects on a periodic basis and after any occurrence that could affect their safe use.” The CP is someone who has the ability to observe dangerous conditions and practices as well as the employer’s absolute authority to promptly correct these, regardless of the time and expense involved. Ladder inspection should be logged and kept to a “periodic” schedule (determined by the CP). Pre- and post-shift are typical inspection points. For an inspection to be logged, every ladder needs to be numbered.

Inspection Criteria

A simple checklist is one of the most convenient methods of documenting the pre-shift inspection. The contents of a checklist may usually be found in the manufacturer’s operator’s manual or the OSHA standards. These items could include treads, rungs, side rails, hinges, hooks, locks, screws, bolts, hardware, nonslip feet, safety locks, ropes and pulleys. Be aware of small defects and damages such as missing rivets, fiberglass spider cracks, and torn or missing decals. Make sure sealers or shellacs applied to ladders are clear so you may visually inspect all components. The CP must also maintain an awareness level on the job to identify an “occurrence” that may damage a ladder’s structural integrity. In addition, the CP is responsible to train workers found to be in violation of the standards.

Tagout Defects

Encourage your CP to deputize every crew member to identify ladders that may be in questionable condition, apply a “Do Not Use” tag and then notify the CP that there may be a problem with that ladder. Out-of-service tags should be issued to all employees in their pay envelopes. It is the CP’s sole responsibility to make these judgements but he can rely on trained coworkers to bring questionable equipment to his attention. If a fixed ladder is defective and cannot be removed from the site, then securing a clocking device and suitable warning sign at both ends may prove equally effective until it is repaired.

Ladder Selection

Dozens of major manufacturers with many models can make ladder selection a difficult task. Selections should assess: type of ladder (self-supporting, extension, fixed or portable); materials (wood, aluminum or fiberglass); length (from 2 to 40 feet); and load classification (Type III at 200 pounds; Type II at 250 pounds; Type I at 250 pounds or Type IA at 300 pounds). All ladders should bear a label listing it as approved by ANSI to support its own weight plus four times the maximum load.

Set-Up and Bearing Surfaces

Inspect the ladder to ensure the nonslip pads and swivel feet are in good condition. Select suitable anchor points at the base if there is a possibility of the ladder kicking out from the structure to be climbed. Stakes in subgrade or tying back to the structure is always recommended. If it is not possible to provide a mechanical anchor, then station a ladder-watch person who can “foot” the ladder during use. Whenever possible, secure the top of the ladder in some way to prevent lateral displacement. The majority of lost-time ladder accidents have a root cause of unsecured placement.

Also inspect the two surfaces on which you expect the ladder to remain. Step roofs, clay soils or a rotten fascia may be the only conditions required for tip over or kick out. While in some cases ladder failures may be due to inexperience, it is usually the job pressure to take shortcuts, catch up to the schedule and save the employer a buck that sets up the accident. Encourage your workers to take all the time they need for a secure-ladder set-up. When transporting a ladder by hand, try to keep the forward high enough to clear a man’s head, especially near doors and stairs.


Here we find the largest number of needless fatalities. The best prevention: Take some time to walk around the site. Identify the potential for contacting a conductor while doing your job before you take the ladder off the truck. Aluminum ladders are often cheaper and lighter and for those reasons alone, preferred. However, many contractors and most industries have simply banned their use. Remember that even wood and fiberglass ladders, when wet, can be suitable conductors. While many electrocutions occur when setting up a ladder, a significant number of deaths occur when a ladder tips or collapses and the victim is thrown onto the conductor.

I know of one electrical contractor who requires that workers install a ground insulation mat underneath every ladder as a standard practice. Not only does it prevent a completed circuit to ground, it also helps to prevent the feet from slipping. The 10-foot rule suggests staying a minimum of 10 feet from any low voltage (<50kV) conductor or 35 feet minimum for any high voltage (>50kV) conductor. Keep in mind that high winds can bring suspended wires in closer proximity to your ladder. High relative humidity can also increase the size of the induction field surrounding the conductor two or three times.


Make sure that proper housekeeping is maintained in a 3- by 3-foot area at the top and bottom of the ladder. Observe the nearby site for potential vehicular and pedestrian traffic and secure the area with caution tape, cones or signs to denote the worker above. On a flat roof, make sure the control lines or barricades are in close proximity to the ladder rails, which must project a minimum of 3 feet above the discharge point. On sloped roofs, provide a temporary, level platform on which the worker may step and attach his/her lanyard to the vertical lifeline, rather than struggle to make the PFAS attachment while balanced on a ladder rung. Where well-wheels and davits are installed to deliver materials to the roof, make sure ladders are at least 10 feet away to prevent conflicts, as loads should never be hoisted above personnel.

Climbing and Descending

The worker must always face the ladder and maintain three-point contact. It is a violation to carry anything in your hands or mouth, on your shoulder, under your arms or tied to your back that could cause you to lose your balance and fall. If you can’t put it in your tool belt, leave it on the ground and hoist it up after you’ve reached the roof. Keep your spine perpendicular to the ground with your arms straight in front and elbows locked while climbing. Check your boots for grease, oil and debris that could cause a loss of traction.

Should you have to make two-point contact or face away from the ladder (i.e. to change a light bulb) and your feet are 10 feet or more above the lower level, then some type of personal fall arrest must be established (typically a vertical lifeline with a rope-grab device).


It would take another entire column to describe the ways I have seen ladders used by professionals with decades of experience and even competent training. Some of the more outrageous ladder uses I recall include:

  • Two 40-foot wooden extension ladders tied together end-to-end with #9 form wire in order to reach a chimney repair 75 feet high.

  • A 32-foot fiberglass ladder hooked horizontally over the guardrails of an aerial lift to provide cantilevered access to a street lamp for bulb replacement.

  • A 22-foot Type III fiberglass ladder extended with 2 by 12 planking on the rungs to serve as a work platform between two scaffold towers.

Hopping the ladder sideways (rather than descending and relocating) is considered by many to be a skill to be admired. Other misuses included: climbing the cross braces on a single-sided ladder; placing the ladder inside aerial platform baskets or on top of scaffold planks; setting up a ladder on stairs or behind doors without adequate barricades, locks or safety watch; climbing on the top two rungs/treads on ladders over 32 feet high; using a collapsed step ladder as an inclined extension ladder; scaffold planking between two ladder rungs above 10 feet; accessing a ladder scaffold from the ladder supporting the scaffold bracket; and overloading the rated class of the ladder.

So the next time your crew is unloading tools on the job, make sure your supervisor takes several minutes to assemble all the ladders and inspect them with the help of his workers. This usually generates a ladder-safety discussion, focusing everyone on safe work practices before they climb.