Handy Guide To Ladder Safety

Updated: May 25, 2023

Ladders add convenience — and risk. This guide contains first-hand experience and expert advice that can help keep you safe.

My first job as an electrical apprentice was at the construction site of U.S. Bank Stadium, where the Minnesota Vikings now play. It was huge! As a newbie apprentice with zero construction experience, I was wide-eyed as the safety officer showed me around on my first day on the job.

She pointed to a 40-foot extension ladder and told a story of an apprentice who missed a step on a similar ladder. He slid from top to bottom, breaking both legs. “He never worked as an electrician again,” she said. Yikes. That got my attention.

Even if you never set foot on a construction site, ladder safety is important. Most ladder accidents happen at home, not on job sites. Whether you’re climbing up on the roof to clean your gutters or using a stepladder to change a lightbulb in the living room, ladders pose inherent risks. Luckily, many accidents can be prevented with a little knowledge and diligence.

Why Ladder Safety Is Important

Working at heights is dangerous. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 161 people died from work-related ladder falls in 2020, with 22,710 injuries. Roofing carries one of the highest risks. That’s why Mike Larsen, owner of Larsen Roofing, takes ladder safety so seriously.

“In roofing, ladders are an essential tool of the trade,” Larsen says. “I always put a priority on the safety of my crews, so it is important that they follow proper guidelines.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets those guidelines, which include manufacturing standards like rung spacing, and user requirements like ladder placement.

Workers aren’t the only ones at risk, though. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), an estimated 500,000 people are treated for ladder accidents each year in the U.S., with 300 deaths. People over age 65 are 80% more likely than younger people to visit the emergency room because of a ladder fall.

Ladder Safety Equipment

For years, I used a rickety wooden stepladder I found in my 100-year-old garage. It worked and saved me from electrical shock. But it lacked nearly every safety feature that comes standard on commercially-sold ladders today.

Instead of taking chances, invest in a quality ladder that conforms to standards set by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). Ladders sold at home improvement centers, with brand names like Werner and Little Giant, are certified by ANSI, but always verify before purchase.

Standard ladder safety features

Buying a ladder from a reputable commercial seller means you’ll get a quality, safe product. Here are some standard features:

  • Warning labels: Important safety information will be printed on the ladder, including weight limits, proper usage and restrictions.
  • Anti-skid feet: Ladders must be stable and stay put while you climb and work.
  • Side spreaders: Stepladders feature locking mechanisms to keep the legs apart and locked into position.
  • Rung locks: Extension ladders consist of two sections that move independently. Rung locks prevent the higher section from moving down, locking the ladder at the desired height.

Aftermarket ladder safety features

Even with standard safety features, falls can occur due to a split second of inattentiveness or just plain bad luck. Larsen uses additional safety mechanisms on every job. Here are some of his recommendations, and others on the market:

  • Fall protection: This two-part system features an extension that fits on top of the ladder, making it easier for workers to transition from the ladder to the roof. “The other piece is an attachment for that, which is a gate that extends to catch you if you begin to fall,” Larsen says.
  • Tool holders: Juggling your tools on top of a ladder is a recipe for disaster. Ladder tool holders keep your workspace free of clutter. Wear a tool belt to free up your hands for climbing and working.
  • Stabilizers: These stop ladder wobble, vital when working on stairs or uneven surfaces.

Ladder Safety Dos and Don’ts

Just because a ladder was manufactured to high safety standards doesn’t let you off the hook. Proper usage is just as important.

For extension ladders, Larsen says to extend the ladder three feet above the roof or work platform to make it easier to climb up onto your workspace.

To prevent the ladder from sliding out from under you, place the extension ladder one foot away from the wall for every four feet of climbing height. Determine this by dividing the wall height by four. So a 24-foot climbing distance means you should place your ladder six feet away from the wall base.

For stepladders, Larsen says, “it’s important to avoid stepping on the top of a stepladder, as that is a locking mechanism and not a step.”

(If you’re interested, learn about telescoping ladders from someone who uses one.)

Other important ladder dos and don’ts:


  • Pick the right ladder for the task, and your weight. Check the label to make sure.
  • Inspect the ladder before every use. Check ropes, pulleys, steps, spreaders and feet. Labels should be present and readable.
  • Place ladder on firm, level ground.
  • Use tool belts or pockets, not your hands, to carry items up the ladder. Bring heavy items up with a bucket and rope system.
  • Always face the ladder and maintain three points of contact as you climb.
  • Keep your belly button between the rails of the ladder at all times while working.


  • Don’t use a ladder if any parts are loose, slippery or missing.
  • Never use a metal (aluminum) ladder near power lines, or for electrical work.
  • Don’t lean a stepladder against the wall to work unless it’s designed for this purpose.
  • Don’t lean your body beyond the rails to work. Climb down and re-position the ladder.
  • Never attempt to move a ladder while you’re on it.

One final note: If you inspect your ladder and find it’s inadequate, don’t just throw it away. You must make it inoperable so an unsuspecting person can’t use it. To reduce the risk of harm and your liability, cut it in half vertically down the rungs with a reciprocating saw before disposing of it.