Beginner’s Guide: How to Safely Use a Stepladder

Beginner's Guide: How to Safely Use a Stepladder

Because stepladders are such a common tool, even in the home, it is often taken for granted that employees know how to properly use them.  This is a dangerous assumption.  Most people don’t thoroughly inspect their ladders at home and many wouldn’t know what to look for if they did.  Many people take risks at home that could get them injured or worse.  If they do that at home, chances are they’ll do it on the job, too.  Here is what your employees need to know:

Do I Have the Right Ladder?

Ladders aren’t one size fits all.  Obviously, a 14’ ladder is going to allow you higher reach than an 8’ ladder, but it’s also going to require extra room to be properly set up.  Different ladders are going to support different weights (more on this later).  Aluminum ladders shouldn’t be used in situations where there is the possibility of coming into contact with electrical components, live wires, or even of being exposed to lightning.  Many companies have policies against aluminum ladders (and some have policies against ladders altogether).  Do your employees even know what your policies are?

What Can My Ladder Hold?

Stepladders are broken down into different classifications, cleverly named Type I (which is further broken down), Type II, and Type III.  Each has a maximum height and maximum weight:

Type I: Industrial Stepladders


250 lbs.

Type IA: Industrial Stepladders


300 lbs.

Type IAA: Industrial Stepladders


375 lbs.

Type II: Commercial Stepladders


225 lbs.

Type III: Household Stepladders


200 lbs.

This means that your weight plus the weight of all of the tools/materials you have with you cannot exceed the listed limits.

How High Can I Go?

Take a look at your ladder.  See that sticker that says, “Do not stand on or above this step.”?  If we look at that sticker, then do some quick calculations….carry the one….move the decimal…then we can deduce that it means we should not stand ON OR ABOVE THAT STEP.  Plain and simple.  This does not mean that you cannot stand on or above that step unless you really need to.  This does not mean you cannot stand on or above that step unless you have really good balance.  It does not mean you can stand ON but not ABOVE that step.  It means do not stand on or above that step.  If this is still confusing, the label on the side rail of your ladder with all of the ladder specs should give you the maximum height to which you are allowed to climb.  This should match up with what the “Do not stand on or above this step” sticker is telling you.  Now, if for some reason, you looked at your ladder and said, “Hmm.  I get what he’s saying, but I don’t see any labels,” then take the ladder out of service.  Your ladder must be properly labeled with the necessary information in order to be used.
Now, due to this climbing restriction, you will not be able to climb a ladder all the way to the tippy-top (that’s the scientific name for it) and step off onto a higher level.  Where feasible, use an extension ladder to access higher levels, but if you must use a step ladder, ensure that it extends at least 3’ above the level you are climbing to and is secured so as not to move when stepping on or off, just as you would an extension ladder.

Ladder Position

One of the most frequent violations I’ve noticed in my career when it comes to stepladders is not workers climbing too high on the ladder, but workers keeping the ladder folded and leaning it against a surface to gain access to their work.  This is not how stepladders are designed to be used and therefore you cannot use them this way.  Any time you use a stepladder it must be fully opened and locked into place.  Remember, ladder loads are tested by the manufacturer only when being used the way they are intended to be used.  Once you work outside of the manufacturer’s intentions, you increase the risk of the ladder falling.
In addition, your ladder must be on a firm, level surface.  If you look at your stepladder and have to tilt your head to make it look straight, you’ve set it up improperly.  If necessary, move your ladder to a more level, stable surface, or level out the surface it is on, but do not make any attempt to climb a ladder that is not level.  If there is debris at the base of the ladder, don’t just plant the ladder down on it and hope for the best, clear it out.  Even if the debris isn’t under the ladder itself, you must keep the area around the base of the ladder clear so that your users have safe access.

Body Position

Besides the restrictions placed on the height to which you can climb and the weight restrictions designated by the ladder class that we discussed earlier, there are two simple rules for maintaining the proper body position on a ladder:

  1. When ascending or descending, ensure that you are maintaining three points of contact.  In other words, at least one of your hands must be in contact with the ladder at all times.  If you are carrying anything, even in just one hand, that prevents you from maintaining three points of contact, or that can cause you to lose your balance and fall, then you must find another way to get that material/tool where it needs to go.

  2. When climbing a ladder and/or working from a ladder, keep your center of gravity between the side rails.  Overextending to either side of the ladder could cause it to shift and fall.

Inspect, Inspect, Inspect

In case the header of this section was unclear, you need to inspect your ladder.  Not once a year.  Not once a month.  Not once a week.  You need to inspect your ladder every single time you use it.  Things happen all the time when you’re not working.  Maybe somebody dropped something on your ladder or knocked it over when you were away.  Maybe it got banged around in storage.  Whatever the situation, you cannot leave your safety to chance.  Inspect the ladder before using it.

Yes, ladders are commonplace, but unfortunately, so are ladder accidents.  Take every precaution when using stepladders to ensure that you do not end up among the ladder casualty statistics.  Set it up, use it, and maintain it properly whether you’re at work or at home.  Don’t let a simple task turn into a tragedy.

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