Staying safe when using a ladder

A ladder can be an invaluable resource for completing various home maintenance tasks. Whether you're using a stepladder or a larger extension ladder, you'll be able to access the higher points around your property to clean gutters, wash windows, put on a layer of paint, or otherwise keep your home looking nice.

However, the proposition of climbing to an upper story isn't always appealing to a homeowner. Even if you aren't afraid of heights, you may not feel too secure when perched on a rung 20 feet off the ground.

If a ladder is not set up correctly, or if you lose your balance through unsafe practices such as overreaching, you can suffer a fall that may result in serious injury or death. Knowing how to properly use a ladder will greatly increase your personal safety.

Before using a ladder, give it a quick inspection to make sure it is in good condition. The American Ladder Institute, a trade organization of 16 North American ladder manufacturers, says you should reject any ladders that have loose or missing parts. You should also avoid ladders that are rickety or unstable when set up. Nick Gromicko and Kenton Shepard, writing for the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors, say you should also look for any warning signs such as cracks, corrosion, or frayed ropes.

A ladder can still be hazardous even if its basic structure is sound. Check the rungs to ensure that they are free of grease, paint, or other slippery materials. Make sure any locks or spreading devices are working properly. The ladder's feet should have slip-resistant pads, and these should be replaced if they have become worn.

If you are working outside, delay the job when weather conditions aren't cooperating. The National Safety Council says extension ladders shouldn't be used in windy conditions. You'll also want to avoid using a ladder outside during rain, snow, or other inclement weather.

Assess your own condition as well. The American Ladder Institute says you shouldn't use a ladder if you are feeling dizzy, fatigued, or otherwise unwell enough that your balance might be affected.

Be aware of any potential hazards when setting up a ladder. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration says you should avoid using a metal wire near overhead power lines or any energized electrical equipment. The National Safety Council says the ladder should not be placed against a window or other unstable surface; it also should not be set up in front of an unsecured door, since someone opening the door could jostle the ladder.

The ladder should be placed on a firm foundation instead of an unstable surface, such as wet or soft ground. A board can be placed under the ladder's feet for extra stability if you have no choice but to use a softer surface. Never set up the ladder on a box, chair, or other object to give it some extra height.

Securing an extension ladder can help keep it more stable while you are using it. Gromicko and Shepard say the base can be anchored to a secure object, while the top can also be fastened to a support.

The angle of the ladder shouldn't be too shallow; it should extend no more than one foot from the surface it is resting against for every four feet of the ladder's height. The top of the ladder should extend at least three feet above the roofline or other supporting surface.

Wear the right shoes for the job. The American Ladder Institute says they should be clean and slip-resistant to improve traction. Heavy soles can help keep your feet from becoming fatigued while you work.

You should know the weight limit of the ladder. OSHA says this limit includes your own weight as well as the weight of any tools or equipment you use on the ladder.

The safest way to climb a ladder is to maintain three points of contact. This means that you should always have two feet and one hand on the ladder or two hands and one foot.

Your grip can be impeded by a tool or other object if you carry it while climbing, so you should ideally have another way to get this equipment to the necessary height. The American Ladder Institute says a tool belt or towline can be good ways to keep your hands free during ascent and descent. An assistant can also pass you the necessary tools, but only one person should use the ladder at a time unless it is designed to hold more people.

The National Safety Council says you should always grip the rungs rather than the sides of the ladder, and that you should always face the ladder while climbing or descending. Don't stand on the top three rungs of the ladder, since you're more likely to lose your balance at this point. If you cannot reach a point, don't lean or reach from the ladder; climb down and reposition the ladder.

Don't use the ladder for anything other than its intended purpose. Gromicko and Shepard say ladders shouldn't be used as ramps or shelves, and should not be connected together unless their design allows for it.

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