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How to use ladders safely

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A ladder makes tricky maintenance tasks around the home easier to do yourself. It’s also a helpful tool for hanging pictures, mounting shelves or even changing a light globe.


Taking the time to set up your ladder correctly is crucial to keeping safe while completing any task. This guide shows you how to select the right type for the job and includes tips for safe ladder use.


A multi-purpose ladder used open as a double-sided step ladderA multi-purpose ladder used open as a double-sided step ladder

Choosing the right ladder for the job


Whether you’re buying a new ladder or grabbing one from the shed to put to use, choosing the right ladder for the job is a safety must. Here are the main ladder types:



Step ladders


Step ladders fold out and lock open and are also known as A-frame ladders. They may have steps on one or both sides and are only intended for use when open and locked – not as leaning ladders resting against a surface. Step ladders are often used indoors for tasks such as hanging pictures, getting to high shelves and cutting-in when painting.



Multi-purpose ladders


A multi-purpose ladder folded out to use as a straight ladderA multi-purpose ladder folded out to use as a straight ladder

At first glance, multi-purpose ladders look like a regular double-sided step ladder but they can be configured in different ways. These ladders can be locked open as steps or folded and locked out as a longer leaning ladder. Some are also intended for use folded up as a leaning ladder. These ladders have similar uses to a step ladder, but when folded out to a straight ladder they’re ideal for accessing the attic. As an A-frame, they can be used for single-storey gutter cleaning or light pruning. When folded out, they’re great for accessing a single-storey roof.



Extension ladders


Extension ladders consist of two straight ladders joined with a runner-and-pulley system or a hinge mechanism. Make sure that the locking mechanism has been activated before climbing the ladder. These ladders can be extended to nearly double their length and the reach is expressed as two lengths – the unextended length and the maximum extended length. For example, 2.4/4.1mt means that the unextended length is 2.4 metres while the ladder in full extension is 4.1 metres long. Two-stage extension ladders can be set at any ladder rung height between this minimum and maximum extension. A-frame extension ladders operate at only two lengths – the unextended length and the unfolded full-extension length. Extension ladders are often used outside for reaching higher areas. They’re ideal for accessing roofs of various heights, hanging lights, painting and other maintenance or tree work.



Platform step ladders


Platform ladders are a safe and stable option for many tasksPlatform ladders are a safe and stable option for many tasksPlatform step ladders have a bulkier structure and feature a large platform as the top step with a support rail at hip height. If you need a greater range of heights, there are adjustable height platform ladders available. These ladders are known for being the safest. You can keep more tools or materials close due to the platform size and the top rail for hanging. Don’t exceed the maximum load rating or put anything on the platform that you may trip over.



Ladder safety checks


These safety checks don’t take long but could save you from a serious accident.


  • Look for any conspicuous wear or damage. For example, a dented frame will be significantly weakened.


  • Check all rivets, nuts and bolts to ensure everything is secure.


  • Make sure all hinges and safety catches are functional and in the locked position as required.


  • Check that the ladder’s feet are present and in good condition.


  • Make sure that all rungs or steps are clean and free of mud or dirt.


  • Check the condition of the pulleys and rope on extension ladders.


Setting up your ladder


Take a moment before you start climbing to make sure your ladder is set up correctly.


Use solid blocks beneath legs on softer groundUse solid blocks beneath legs on softer ground

  • Check the reach. Will the ladder be long or tall enough for your tasks?


  • The ground under the ladder legs must be level. If not, use leg-levelling devices such as timber blocks at least 20cm x 40cm in size. Don’t use single bricks that can move around or anything where the ladder legs can slip off.


  • Is the ground firm and stable? On areas such as lawn or soft soil, use solid good-sized timber blocks beneath the legs.


  • Ensure all hinges are fully-opened and that any safety locks or catches are properly engaged.


  • Keep the ladder clear of any electrical cables – 3m is a safe minimum distance. This clearance distance should also account for your reach when using the ladder.


  • Don’t rest any leaning ladder on an unstable surface such as a tree branch. Rest on the trunk instead. It is important that the ladder is not resting on the rungs unless it is fitted with a tree or pole guard.


Always extend ladders at least 1m above a gutter lineAlways extend ladders at least 1m above a gutter line

  • When accessing a roof with an extension or straight ladder, make sure that there is 1m of ladder extending above the gutter line. This is to make movement to and from the roof safer.


  • For extension, straight or other leaning ladders, aim for an angle ratio of 1:4 for every 4m in ladder height. Place the ladder feet 1m out from the wall.


  • Consider using a non-slip gutter protector when resting a ladder against roof guttering.


  • Leaning ladders should be used with great care indoors. They should have non-slip and non-marking feet and be set up at an angle that prevents slipping, especially on hardwood floors. If you’re using a drop cloth for painting, don’t place the drop cloth under the legs as they may slide more easily.


  • Always make sure that there is a suitable surface supporting a leaning ladder. If you need to lean against a plasterboard wall, add some padding such as an old towel folded over where the rails contact the wall.


Tips for safe ladder use


Follow these simple guidelines while using a ladder for any task.


  • Always climb a ladder facing towards the rungs or steps.


  • Maintain three points of contact at all times – two feet and one hand or vice versa.


  • Keep your centre of gravity within the side rails of the ladder and never overreach.


Don't climb too high or overreach on any ladderDon't climb too high or overreach on any ladder

  • Check the load rating. Is it suitable for yourself and any gear you may be carrying? Do not carry heavy or bulky loads up or down a ladder.


  • For any leaning ladders, have someone hold the bottom steady while you climb or work. If this isn’t possible then both the top and bottom should be secured.


  • Never climb higher than the third rung from the top on your ladder. A good rule of thumb is that your hips shouldn’t be higher than the top of the ladder.


  • Do not straddle or sit on top of double-sided ladders.


  • Do not work on anything directly overhead which may fall on you.


  • Do not undertake any work that involves vigorous pushing or pulling.


Go all the way to the last rung before stepping downGo all the way to the last rung before stepping down

  • When stepping off a ladder, go all the way to the last rung before stepping down.


  • Make sure someone else is home or aware of where you are and what you are doing when using a ladder.


  • If using a ladder for the first time, read any warning or operational labels on the ladder.


  • Wear suitable clothing. Non-slip footwear is an absolute must and avoid any loose clothing that may get caught on the ladder.



For more safety tips, check out How to stay safe during D.I.Y. projects and let us know if we can help with ideas or advice for your next project. You might also find these resources helpful:





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