According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, one person every few days is killed by falling from a ladder. Almost all falls are preventable if the ladder is used safely.
A ladder is a vertical or inclined set of steps also called rungs. There are two types: rigid ladders that can be leaned against a vertical surface or wall, and rope ladders that are hung from the top. The vertical members of a rigid ladder are known as stringers or rails. Rigid ladders are usually portable, but some types are permanently fixed to buildings. They are commonly made of metal, wood, or fiberglass, but they have been known to be made of tough plastic. Regardless of the type, most deaths involving ladders occur below ten feet. Above this height, we tend to be more cautious.
A sound ladder is an important tool for many people working in various repair and maintenance industries as well as homeowners. However, an unsound ladder can lead to serious injury or death and has been the basis for numerous lawsuits over the years. This article provides an overview of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines for safe use of portable wooden ladders.
I have served as an expert witness in many tort cases that have involved a wooden ladder. A well maintained ladder that is properly used is unlikely to contribute to an accident.
OSHA has separate regulations for portable wood ladders and portable metal ladders. Regulations for wooden ladders can be found in 29 CFR 1910.25. It is divided into sections for application, materials, construction requirements, and ladder care and usage. These regulations are applicable to common wood ladders and not to specialty ladders such as shelf ladders, extension ladders, fruit pickers ladders, stepladders, and library ladders.
Wood ladders should be constructed of any high-density wood that is free of sharp edges and splinters. Prior to use, the user should conduct a visual inspection for decay, or any wood grain irregularities including ring shake, wane, or other weaknesses. Construction requirements include ladder length restrictions (see Table #1 of 29 CFE 1910.25 for more information) and step spacing. Uniform step spacing must not exceed 12 in.
Proper maintenance of the ladder is essential for good serviceability. Ladders should be maintained by keeping all joints tight; lubricating appropriate areas (wheels, joints, locks, pulleys, etc.) replacing worn rope, and routine cleaning. Defective ladders must be destroyed or removed from service.
Proper usage of the ladder is critical to ensure safety. Usage requirements involve placing the ladder at an angle such that it is 1 ft. away from the wall for every 4 ft. of working ladder height; allowing only one person at a time on a ladder; not placing the ladder on top of other objects to increase ladder height or in front of doors and opening windows; and extending the ladder three feet over a point of support if climbing to a rooftop, among others.
One of the most fundamental aspects of ladder safety, but also one that is frequently overlooked, is the angle of inclination. For a leaning ladder, it is important that the ladder is about 1 ft. from the vertical support for every 4 ft. of ladder height between the foot and the top support.
ANSI consensus standards on portable ladders include ANSI A14.1-2007 for wood ladders, ANSI A14.2-2007 for metal ladders and ANSI A14.5-2007 for reinforced plastic ladders. These standards detail the various materials, construction requirements, test requirements, usage guidelines and labeling/marking requirements for portable ladders.
ANSI recommends various species of wood for ladders. Physical characteristics such as grain, knot, pitch and compression must be accounted for with wood ladders. The environment in which the ladder will be used (electrical hazards, corrosion risk, outdoor ambient conditions, etc.) should determine the material. Reinforced plastic ladders are allowed if they contain fully cured, commercial-grade, thermosetting polyester resin with glass-fiber reinforcement.Metal ladders do not have material guidelines.
The test requirements for the three ladder materials are different. However, ladders generally are evaluated on their resistance to bending, strength in various positions, and the quality of the components in the ladder.
The construction requirements include weight and size categories. There are four ladder types and duty ratings. The size categories vary based on material, ladder types, and ladder design.
Weight Limit (pounds)
375 (special duty)
300 (extra heavy duty)
250 (heavy duty)
225 (medium duty)
200 (light duty)
Proper use of portable ladders is very important. Users should begin by selecting the proper ladder for the job, inspect the ladder to make sure it is in proper operation and sufficiently clean, determine proper placement of the ladder to ensure that the footing and top supports are secure and do not create a hazard for the user or others, always use proper climbing technique, and properly maintenance and storage.
There are certain markings or signage requirements for ladders which includes ladder size, type, maximum length, number of sections (if applicable), highest standing level, total length of sections (if applicable), model number, manufacturer’s name, manufacturer’s location, and date of manufacture. Warning statements and usage guidelines must also be placed ladders in specific locations depending on ladder type.
Before using a ladder it is important to read and following all instructions provided by the manufacturer. Ladders require the user to have good balance. Therefore, do not use a ladder if you are tired, ill, or under the influence of alcohol or certain medications. Also, ladders should not be used during periods of inclement weather. Ladders should not be used in doorways, outside of windows that open to the outside or high traffic areas due to risk to the ladder user and others.
If a ladder must be used near a door, ensure that the door is locked. If the door has to be open or the ladder is in a raised position, ask a coworker to stay with the ladder to make sure an accident does not occur. Also, use fiberglass or wooden ladders, rather than metal, near power lines or other sources of electricity to avoid electrical shock hazards.
Ladders should be used on solid ground. If the ground is soft or uneven, lumber or thick plywood can be used under the legs to provide support. Before climbing the ladder, test it to ensure it is secure. The legs on a stepladder should be fully open and in the locked position when in use. Ladders used be placed at a 75-degree angle when in service.
Dry, slip-free, surfaces are important when using a ladder. Therefore, ensure that your hands and shoes are dry as well as the ladder rungs. Do not use sandals, flip flops, or similar loose fitting footware. Do not paint a ladder as this can possibly result in it becoming more slippery.
It is advisable to use a second person to hold the bottom of the ladder and prevent others from disturbing the ladder when in use. Always check the extension locks to make sure they are properly seated. Keep a three-point grip on the ladder at all times (two hands and one foot or one hand and two feet). Avoid distractions that make you turn away from the front of the ladder. Climb slowly, one step at a time, with weight centered between the side rails. Do not lean back on a ladder, and never stand on the top two rungs of a stepladder or top four rungs of an extension ladder.
A ladder is an important tool for homeowners and those in numerous repair industries. It is important that it be used and maintained in a safely to ensure the safety of the user and others.
29 CFR 1910.25, Portable Wood Ladders
29 CFR 1910.26, Portable Metal Ladders
29 CFR 1910.27, Fixed Ladders
29 CFR 1917.119, Portable Ladders
29 CFR 1926.1053, Ladders
ANSI A14.1-2007, Portable Wood Ladder Safety Requirements
ANSI A14.2-2007, Portable Metal Ladder Safety Requirements
ANSI A14.5-2007, Portable Reinforced Plastic Ladder Safety Requirements
ANSI/OSHA Ladder Requirements, Grainger
This article is not intended as a substitute for legal advice for individuals involved in a ladder related accident nor should it be interpreted as legal advice or opinion. This article is based on available information as of the time of its posting and is intended for general information purposes only. All users of ladders are encouraged to read and follow proper safety rules and be familiar with all applicable government regulations and standards before using a ladder.
Todd Shupe is the President of Wood Science Consulting, LLC. He is a a well-recognized expert on wood preservation, insects and fungi, wood decay and degradation, and wood species identification. He has a broad background in new product development, quality management, and marketing and sales in both the public and private sectors. For more information please visit DrToddShupe.com.