The root cause of many ladder accidents on construction sites can be attributed to the speed and carelessness with which we erect out ladders.

The foot of an extension ladder should be 1 foot from the building or support for every 4 feet of vertical rise to the contact point. Counting rungs will give you an estimate of the ladder's length (rungs are spaced about 12 inches apart).

Secure the top and bottom of the extension ladder whenever the competent person has determined that conditions may potentially cause the ladder to kick out, slide sideways or tip over.

All four legs of a stepladder should be placed on a firm, level surface. The spreaders must be in the fully locked position.

Use two workers to carry and set up large ladders.

Keep all ladders at least 10 feet away from low-voltage (less than 50 kV) power lines and 30 feet away from high-voltage (greater than 50 kV) power lines. Even fiberglass and wood ladders with grounding guards on their feet and side rails can conduct electricity when coated with moisture.

Set the ladder on a firm, level surface. Use ladder levelers on uneven surfaces and spread pads on unstable ground. Never set a ladder leg on boxes, bricks, scaffolding or loose dunnage. Never set a ladder on a mobile vehicle such as a truck bed or wagon.

Check your ladder base regularly during the shift. As ground conditions change (due to frost, vibration and excavation, for example), the security of your ladder may be compromised.

Maintain good housekeeping. Keep a 3-foot-square area around the top and bottom of the ladder clear and clean from materials, tools and debris. Post signage and barricade tape if necessary to alert foot and vehicular traffic of the potential of ladder use. Secure any doors or passages where visibility is restricted and contact may disturb the ladder.

Never tie two ladders together. If you use two or more ladders to access a level, confirm that there is a platform or landing between them and they are firmly secured.

While it should be obvious, drugs and alcohol use around ladders is prohibited. Even over-the-counter cold medicines can produce mental and physical effects that could easily endanger a worker on a ladder.

This photo is indicative of marginal ladder practices used around the country every day. It’s hard to tell from this angle, but the ladder may not be installed with a 4:1 horizontal to vertical ratio, making the base prone to kick out. There is no stake in the ground or wall tie-off, and it looks as if the tops of the side rails are resting on a screen attic vent with unknown security. The debris field around the base of the ladder could pose a tripping hazard in the departure area. While the worker is maintaining three-point contact facing the ladder and is positioned between the side rails, the rake overhang is forcing his body’s center of gravity away from the ladder. While not a clear violation, a harness, lanyard and lifeline above the roof would certainly be recommended as a redundant protective measure.

Climbing and Descending

The practices by which we use our ladders are the second most likely root cause of ladder accidents. It seems as if even the most conscientious worker becomes lax by the end of a shift.

Always inspect your ladder before use. Recheck it if it has been left unattended for any time.

Always face the ladder when climbing or descending

Wear boots with slip-resistant soles. Be careful when discharging that the boot heel does not catch the last rung or step.

Always maintain thee-point contact (two hands, one foot, etc.) when climbing or descending any ladder. The OSHA standard clearly states that this contact must be maintained when climbing or descending a ladder, but not necessarily when using it for a workstation. Caution should still be exercised. Keep both feet on the same rung.

While there is no reference to Subpart M in Subpart X, a personal fall arrest system with a suitable exterior anchor point may still be employed whenever the competent person determines a worker 6 feet or more above a lower level is going to have less than three points of contact on the ladder for any length of time. This is especially important if the ladder tasks require pushing, pulling or quick movements.

Do not hold or carry any objects that could cause you to fall while climbing or descending a ladder. While the standard is not clear on this matter, you should exercise equal caution when working in a stationary position on a ladder rung. Carry tools and equipment on your belt or shoulder pack or hoist them into position once you've reached your final elevation.

Never move a ladder while it is occupied.

Always lower the top (fly) section of an extension ladder before moving the ladder.

Be careful with excess rope, as it may become a trip hazard.

Never erect or climb a ladder in high winds or inclement weather. The competent person shall determine when conditions are safe for ladder use.

Employee Ladder Training

There is no substitute for a well-trained worker. No one, regardless of age or experience, is immune to short-term memory loss, and ongoing training is important when it comes to ladder safety.

Each employer should designate at least one competent person trainer to provide an initial comprehensive ladder safety program, as well as refresher safety training. Training topics should be ladder-, site- and task-specific in content. Hands-on field evaluations under simulated working conditions should be considered, as well as a brief written examination based on the OSHA/ANSI standards. Make it an open-book exam to encourage the daily use of the standards by your employees. After all, it's often not what you know but knowing where to find the information that counts.

Records of site-specific employee ladder training should be accurately maintained, including dates of training, the subject matter, and the trainer and trainees' names.


It just can't be overemphasized - ladders are the most versatile and potentially dangerous pieces of personal access equipment on the job today. Without a written portable ladder safety policy in your corporate safety and health program, your employees and subcontractors will never understand what you expect of them when using ladders on the site. In next month's issue, I will review some of the newest improvements in ladder designs and innovations in ladder accessories found in the marketplace today.