What You Need to Know About Ladders

Almost all homeowners have a ladder around the house, and most don't spend much time thinking about them. However, ladders are serious business. In fact, the Underwriter's Laboratory (UL) estimates that over 220,000 visits to hospital emergency room were a direct result of home ladder accidents, so maybe they should be given some thought to working with ladders.

Dos and Don'ts

  • DO wear strong working shoes when working on a ladder.
  • DON'T ever climb in bare feet or wearing flip flops or sandals. Always check your feet before you climb and make sure your shoe bottoms are clean and dry.
  • DO climb ladders with both hands on the stiles.
  • DON'T carry tools or materials up the ladder when you are climbing. Wear a tool belt or use a line attached to a tool bucket to raise your tools once you're up.
  • DO hang onto the ladder with one hand while working at the top. You can get specially designed trays that attach to the ladder to hold paint cans or tools.
  • DO keep you body in between the ladder stiles.
  • DON'T stretch too far out to one side or stand on one foot to give yourself a few extra inches of reach.
  • DO climb down and move the ladder if you can't reach. It's frustrating and tiring, but it's the only safe way.

Setting It Up

The magic formula for ladders is one in four. This means that for every four feet of height you are going up, the base of the ladder should be one foot away from the wall it's resting on.

How High Should You Go?

The maximum working height for a ladder is less than its overall length. Setting it up on an angle obviously reduces its height, plus, you never want to stand on the top three rungs of a straight, single, or extension ladder.

Here's a list of ladder lengths and their associated working heights. To help you figure out what size ladder is right for you, consider that the roof peak of a normal single story house is 17' from the ground, while a two story house is 25' from ground to roof crest.

Working Height Ladder Length
9' 16'
9-13' 20'
13-17' 24'
17-21' 28'
21-25' 32'
25-28' 36'
28-31' 40'

Choosing the Proper Ladder

It's not just the proper height that's important when choosing a ladder, you also want to be sure you have a ladder that's both safe for you and strong enough to handle your job. Start by looking for the Underwriter's Laboratory seal on your ladder, that's your assurance that your ladder has been tested and meets national safety standards.

UL also rates ladders based on the loads they can safely handle (the weight of the climber as well as any other weight). Most ladders sold for household use are Type III - light duty, but if you're buying a ladder make your choice based on how you plan to use it.

  • Type LA Industrial extra heavy load capacity 300 pounds maximum
  • Type I Industrial heavy duty load capacity more than 250 pounds
  • Type II Commercial Medium capacity load capacity not more than 225 pounds
  • Type III Household light duty with a load capacity of 200 pounds

Remember, it's important you not only choose the right ladder, but also use it safely. There's a lot of truth in the old saying that while falling off a ladder won't hurt you, the sudden stop when you hit the ground could kill you.

Murray Anderson is an experienced freelance writer with over 500 articles published on the web, as well as in print magazines and newspapers in both the United States and Canada. He writes on a wide range of topics, but specializes in home-related topics.