The University of Iowa

Ladder Safety

Portable ladders are one of the handiest, simplest tools we use. Portable ladders include stepladders, straight ladders and extension ladders.

Each year in the United States accidents involving ladders cause an estimated 300 deaths, 30,000 disabilities, and 130,000 injuries requiring emergency medical attention. The main causes of ladder accidents are:

  • The ladder is in poor condition.
  • The ladder is poorly located and incorrectly positioned.
  • The ladder is placed on a dirty, greasy, or uneven surface.
  • The person does not use proper techniques for working on the ladder.

The key to using a ladder safely is to select the right ladder, set it up so it is stable, and pay attention to work techniques.

Training:  Ladders - W040OS

  • A basic information course on hazards and safe use of ladders. Recommended initially and annually.
  • Audience: Personnel using ladders.

Contact information and areas of expertise can be found on the Contact Us page.

  • The length of portable stepladders shall not exceed 20 feet.
  • The minimum clear distance between side rails for all portable ladders shall be 16 inches.
  • Portable ladders shall have slip-resistant feet.
  • On portable ladders, rungs, cleats and steps must not be spaced less than 10 inches or more than 14 inches apart, along the ladder’s side rails.
  • On step stools, rungs, cleats and steps must not be less than 8 inches apart, nor more than 12 inches apart, between their center lines.
  • A metal spreader bar or locking device shall be provided on each stepladder to hold the front and back sections in an open position.
  • Ladder components must be surfaced to prevent snagging of clothing and injury from punctures or cuts.
  • Wood ladders shall not be painted so as to hide defects in the wood.

Determine what load limit rating is needed.

The load equals the person’s body weight plus materials and tools being used. IA = 300 pounds I = 250 pounds II = 225 pounds III = 200 pounds

  • At the University, use Type I or Type IA industrial or heavy duty stepladders equipped with non-skid cleats. Do not use Type II and III.

Stepladders are usually used indoors.

  • Rule of thumb for selecting the right length: Measure from the place you will set it up to the highest point you need to reach, subtract your height, and add 2 feet. Example: you are 6 feet tall and want to reach something 10 feet from the floor, so 10’ – 6’ + 2’ = 6’

Straight or extension ladders are usually used outdoors.

Rule of thumb for selecting the right length: measure the span it needs to reach and add 3 feet. Estimate by measuring straight up, add 20%, and add 3 feet. (The 20% comes from comparing the hypotenuse to the vertical leg of a 3 X 4 X 5 right triangle.) Do not use portable metal ladders for electrical work, near live electrical parts, or within ten feet of high voltage electrical lines. Instead, use a nonconductive fiberglass or dry wooden ladder.

  • Electrical shock can occur. If using power tools while on the ladder, do not use a metal or wood ladder if the ladder is wet. A shock itself can be dangerous, but also the startle effect may cause a person to fall and be injured.
  • The steps or rungs of all ladders shall be set to provide at least 7 inches of toe space from the inside edge of the rung to the nearest interference.
  • Ladders shall be restricted to their intended use.

Note: If work will be done above six feet, if the top three rungs of the ladder will be used, or if the work activity does not allow for three points of body contact at all times, then fall protection is also needed. Refer to “Walking and Working Surfaces” for fall protection requirements.

  • Ladders shall not be placed in passageways, doorways, drives, or any locations where they may be pumped or displaced by any other work unless protected by barricades or guards.
  • Ladders shall not be placed in front of a door that opens towards them unless the door is blocked, locked, or guarded. * Portable ladders used as temporary access shall extend at least 3 feet above the upper landing surface.
  • All portable ladders shall be of sufficient length and shall be placed so that workers will not stretch or assume a hazardous position.
  • Follow the 4 to 1 ratio ladder rule: set the base 1 foot out from the wall for every 4 feet it reaches up. This can be estimated by counting rungs, which are about one foot apart. * Ensure latches (or locks) are in place and holding to prevent overloading a rail.
  • Open stepladders fully; never use a folding ladder in an unfolded position.
  • Ladders shall not be moved, shifted, or extended while occupied.
  • Face the ladder while climbing up and down and keep hands on the ladder.
  • Adjust extension ladders only when standing at the base, not while on or above the ladder.
  • Climb ladders one person at a time unless the ladder is specially designed for more people.
  • No work requiring lifting of heavy materials or substantial exertion shall be done from ladders.
  • Move tools or equipment using a tool belt or rope tied to a bucket.
  • Avoid leaning too far sideways. Rule of thumb: naval outside the side rails is leaning too far out.
  • Keep loose tools off the steps and top platform.
  • Do not place planks on the top (cap) of a stepladder.
  • Do not stand on the top (cap) of a stepladder or on the step below the cap. This makes both you and the ladder dangerously unstable. By staying lower, your center of gravity stays lower and the ladder should not tend to tip easily.
  • Do not stand on the paint shelf of a stepladder. It is built to hold no more than 50 pounds.
  • Ladders shall be checked for visible defects on a daily basis and after any occurrence that could affect their safe use.
  • Broken or damaged ladders shall be immediately tagged “DO NOT USE” or similar wording, and withdrawn from service until restored to a condition meeting their original design.