Ladders in Focus

By Matt Weber

Everyone thinks they know about ladder safety … including the more than 100 people who die each year in ladder-related accidents, as well as the thousands who suffer disabling injuries.

The problem is that ladders are deceptively simple in design, so workers grow accustomed to using them and get lazy about proper usage. Most falls don’t occur at great heights, when workers are more likely to be careful, but instead happen from six to 10 feet from the ground where workers are more comfortable. The two most common ladder accidents are easily avoidable: (1) missing the last step when climbing down, and (2) overreaching, which causes the user to lose balance and fall. Rather than taking ladder safety for granted, a true professional and any mindful DIY’er should respect basic procedures and learn which ladders work best for the type work they do. When choosing a ladder, consider your work environment. For example, if you’re working near sources of electricity, avoid using a metal ladder because aluminum is a conductor. Your body can complete an electrical circuit between the power source, the ladder, and the ground if you contact a live wire. An electrical shock can trigger a fall or stop your heart. On the other hand, if there are no electrical sources in your work area, an aluminum ladder is the lightest weight option when compared to fiberglass or wood.   Understand that a ladder’s weight rating is the combined weight of the climber and whatever the climber is carrying. Don’t forget to account for equipment or materials you’ll be carrying when selecting a ladder with the proper weight rating. Keep in mind that a taller ladder does not equate to a higher weight rating. Make sure to take into account the Duty Rating for your ladder. The Duty Rating is the total amount of weight your ladder will support, meaning the sum total of your weight, the weight of your clothing, plus the weight of tools and supplies you’re using. Avoid using a ladder that is too long or too short. Standing on the top cap of a Stepladder (or the step below it) will cause you to lose your balance. Likewise, the top three rungs of an Extension Ladder are not meant for climbing. An Extension Ladder is too long if it extends more than three feet beyond the upper support point. In this case, the portion of the ladder that extends above the upper support point can act like a lever and cause the base of the ladder to move or slide out. A-frame ladders such as Stepladders are more stable than straight ladders due to their broader support base at ground level. Unlike a Stepladder that requires level support for all four of its side rails, Extension Ladders require only two level ground support points in addition to a top support—but they must be set up at the proper angle. Extension Ladders should be erected as close as possible to a pitch of 75-1/2 degrees from horizontal to prevent its bottom from sliding outward and to maintain strength of the ladder. A simple rule for setting-up an extension ladder is to place the base a distance from the wall equal to one-quarter of the extended length of the ladder. To prevent tipping the ladder over sideways due to over-reaching, always climb and work with your body near the middle of the rungs. Ladder levelers at the bottom of the rails may be used to achieve equal ground support on uneven surfaces. A stabilizer accessory at the top can be used to secure or tie off the ladder to increase stability.

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