June, 2003
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors

An Ounce of Prevention: Ladder Safety


I  can’t imagine inspecting a home  without a flashlight and a ladder. In fact at one point using a ladder became so routine, I gave little thought to safety. I suspect the same is true of many home inspectors.

Then I learned I’d rather not hear a ladder fall as the wind catches it, leaving me stranded on a roof, staring longingly at my ladder on the ground 20 ft. below. Or worse yet experience that terrible sinking feeling of helplessness as my ladder moves slowly, ever so slowly, out from under me!

It’s human nature to believe this sort of thing won’t happen to us, but I can tell you from experience it does. That’s why I’d like to remind other home inspectors of a few safety tips we know, but sometimes forget to follow.    

Watch your footing

All ladders need proper footing. Hardwood floors can be slippery. Area rugs will move as more pressure is applied against them. When on firm, level ground, set the ladder on its rubber feet. Beware of soft earth. Put the steel spurs on the prong feet down when on earth or turf.

Carry with care

While moving your extension ladder, carry it horizontally, not vertically. Typically we work in unfamiliar territory, so we must always watch where we step. Be extremely cautious with aluminum ladders around entrance cables or overhead wires supplying a detached garage. A large ladder can be tricky to manage. According to OSHA guidelines the most ladder one worker should carry is 24 ft. It takes two strong people to safely erect a 50-ft. ladder.

Set it up correctly

Tolerate no lean to your ladder. Make it plumb. Setting up the ladder correctly can prevent an accident. Consider asking someone who is present to foot the ladder for you. If there is any question about its stability, take the time to reposition it. Using a rock or a wedge under one foot is not the safe solution to a stability problem.

An extension ladder should be positioned 1 ft. away from the wall for every 4 ft. of elevation. I place my toes against the ladder’s feet and grasp the rungs with my hands to position it correctly, and always extend the top of it at least 3 ft.  past the support point. To anchor it, I tie it to the gutter nail with a simple bungie cord.

If you use folding stepladders to climb through the attic scuttle or into a high crawlspace, be sure both spreaders function properly and lock into place.   

Don’t over climb or overreach   

Never stand on the top three rungs of an extension ladder to peer over the parapet roof edge and do not overreach at any height.

Overreaching is probably the greatest cause of falls. To be safe, keep your belt buckle within the sides of the ladder. When climbing into an attic or other overhead space, don’t use the top of a ladder as a step. Weight at the top can cause the ladder to become unbalanced and tip over.       

Watch your weight   

Be mindful of the weight limits. Only one person should be on the ladder at a time. I have seen short telescoping ladders crumble under too much weight. Consider buying a heavy duty, industrial ladder rather than a lightweight one.

Three-point ascent and descent   

Face the ladder when ascending or descending. Maintain three points of bodily contact at all times. Be sure one hand is always grasping a rung. I caution you against letting clients climb your ladder. Be concerned about their safety too.

Recognize risk

Accidents are more likely when we carry tools. I’ve dropped so many flashlights, phones, screwdrivers, rules and levels, real estate agents just yell “incoming.” It’s important to be especially watchful about dropping things when working on a public sidewalk.

We are most at risk when we let go of the ladder to check the number of roof layers, and when we step off or onto the ladder. I don’t step on any ladder rung above the gutter since the gutter can act as a pivot causing the ladder to rotate, moving the base of the ladder. The best vantage is to step on the ladder rung just beneath the gutter. This directs your weight straight to the ground. I never adjust the ladder from the topside since the locks may remain in the unlocked position.

Examine the ladder  

A worn out or defective ladder is an accident waiting to happen. Don’t use a step ladder with broken spreaders, an articulated ladder that can’t be locked into position, an extension ladder with a broken hook, a wooden ladder with rotted rungs, a straight ladder with bad feet or a fiberglass ladder that is beginning to tear or crack.  

Choose well

Use the proper ladder for the job. Don’t take the adjustable ladder onto the low roof to gain access to the high roof just because you don’t want to lug out the heavy extension ladder. Don’t use one section of an extension ladder as a straight ladder.        

Last but not least

Always be sure your ladders are tied down during transit. Don’t ask. That’s another story.

Our ladders are so dependable that it’s too easy to become careless. We tend to push the safety limits, but a misused or mistreated ladder is unforgiving. No fall is a good fall. One fall can end a career, even take a life. Ladder safety is for everyone — including home inspectors.