Ladder Safety

Employees must understand how to properly set up, use and climb a ladder for safe work.

Every household in America probably has a ladder in it, maybe it's a step stool or a ladder that extends eight feet or more into the air. Either way, there is a right and there is a wrong way to use ladders, especially when it comes to industrial facilities or construction sites. 

In fact, improper ladder use is so widespread that OSHA’s construction industry standard for ladder safety has been part of its Top 10 Most Frequently Cited Standards list for years, topping out at number three in fiscal year 2021 with over 2,000 violations for the standard.  

CDC statistics show that 43 percent of fatal falls in the last decade involved a ladder. On the construction side, falls from ladders made up 81 percent of all fall injuries since 2012. Understanding how to choose, set up and use a ladder will be the difference in safe work with this popular tool. 

Choosing the Right Ladder 

Some of the most horrific incidents involving ladders stem from incorrect choice of equipment. Issues will crop up if you choose a ladder that is too short, or even too tall for the job you are trying to complete.  

When choosing a ladder, you should keep a few things in mind: style, height, performance and material. There are a few different kinds of ladder styles: a stepladder, extension ladder, telescopic ladder and multi-function ladders. Each of these styles serves the worker in different ways to create safe work, but there are other factors to consider. 

When it comes to the height of the ladder, it is not as simple as figuring out how high the work is. You must consider the angle of the ladder, the highest standing point on the ladder (which is four rungs from the top), the required overlap of ladder sections and the extension above the roofline. Later, we will talk about these requirements in specifics. 

In addition to the style and height of the ladder, you will also have to think about the weight capacity. As you would expect, ladders are designed to hold a specific amount of weight. This includes the weight of the person climbing plus any materials they may need to bring up with them. Ladders have different duty ratings to identify the weight load limits they can handle. This is very important to take into consideration, as you would not want uneven weight distribution during work. 

The last thing you’ll want to take into consideration is the type of material the ladder is made out of. Ladders used to be made of wood and metal, but technology has changed and there are ladders on the market made from aluminum and fiberglass. Advances in technology have also made ladders more lightweight, decreasing the amount of work it takes an employee to get the ladder from place to place. 

Properly Setting Up a Ladder 

Before the employee ever steps foot on the ladder, there are a few things that need to be done first. Before anything else, the worker needs to inspect the ladder for damage such as bends, dents, sharp edges, grease or slickness, loose rungs or bolts and damaged footpads. If the ladder is damaged in any way, it should be reported to a supervisor and another ladder should be used instead.  

After determining that the ladder is in good working condition, workers will need to inspect the surface that will hold the ladder. They will need to ensure that it is free of debris that could affect the ladder stability and that there are no electrical hazards present. If the surface is clear and the ladder’s feet are appropriate for the surface-type, then you can begin to lean your ladder using the 4-1 rule. 

The 4-1 rule helps workers to ensure they are properly angling their ladder each time. The base of your ladder should extend 1 foot for every 4 feet of height between the working surface and the point of contact. When done correctly, the ladder will meet the ground at a 75-degree angle. 

Climbing the Ladder 

There are a few things to keep in mind here as well. When ascending the ladder, employees should be sure to maintain three points of contact with the ladder at all times. They should face the ladder and climb, hand over hand, and stay between the rails. It is important that employees do not carry tools or other supplies while climbing, instead they can hoist tools using a pulley system or electric hoist. 

Employees should be sure to not lean too far back when ascending the ladder, as this can cause falls. They should keep their waist between the rails to ensure the center of gravity stays where it should. 

Key Takeaways 

  • DO maintain three points of contact. 
  • DO extend the top of the ladder over the point of contact using the 4-1 rule. 
  • DO NOT place the ladder on uneven ground or other materials to add to its height.  
  • DO NOT lean out beyond the ladder’s rails.  
  • DO NOT carry extra tools and materials up with you when ascending. 


The base of your ladder should extend 1 foot for every 4 feet of height between the working surface and the point of contact. 

This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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