23rd February, 2023
Used right, ladders are not particularly dangerous. But, ladders are involved in over a quarter of all falls from height, causing serious and sometimes fatal injuries. Our 10 rules of ladder safety will help you use ladders correctly, to help prevent you from getting hurt.
Ladders are everyday pieces of access equipment. Nearly everyone owns a ladder, you probably have one in your home, on your van, or at your workplace.
For such a common piece of equipment, they must be safe - right?
In a study of 150 falls from height accidents investigated by the HSE over 3 years, the majority of casualties (40%) fell from a ladder.
Over 45,000 workers were injured from falls from height in 2021/22 according to HSE statistics, and if only a quarter of those injuries involved ladders, that's over 11,000 ladder-related injuries.
These injuries can be serious too. Life-changing in fact. Some people never walk again after a fall from a ladder. And in some cases, the fall can be fatal.
You might not think you are very high up when using a ladder, especially a stepladder. But it's not always the distance you fall, but also, how you fall. Any work above ground level, no matter the height, is work at height.
Work at height means work in any place where, if precautions were not taken, a person could fall a distance liable to cause personal injury. You are working at height if you:
- work above ground/floor level
At work, there are laws covering ladder use.
The Work at Height Regulations covers work from height and access equipment including ladders. The Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations (PUWER) also apply to ladders.
Some of our 10 rules of ladder safety will come from the regulations, while others are best practices or common sense guidance.
If you use ladders right, they are not particularly dangerous. But accidents involving ladders are common, and to stay safe it is important to use ladders carefully.
Our 10 'rungs' (rules) of ladder safety will help you use ladders correctly.
The first rule of ladder safety: Don't use ladders!
I'm not joking, the best control measure is to eliminate the risk, and if you don't use a ladder, you can't fall off it.
Of course, there are times when you will have to use ladders, and that's OK - when it is the right equipment for the job. But don't use ladders for everything, regardless of the consequences.
If you need a safe working platform at height for long durations, ladders are probably not the right choice. You are better off looking at scaffolding, or mobile elevated working platforms (MEWPs).
Only use ladders for access and short-duration work.
Ladders are access equipment, not working platforms. So you should use ladders to get to a working platform, rather than working off the ladder. There's no fall protection, prevention, or edge protection on a ladder.
If you need access or are carrying out short-term work at height (under 30 minutes), you might consider a ladder.
And that doesn't mean you can use ladders for all work under 30 minutes. Once you take your hands off, you are balancing. So if you need two hands to do the work, a ladder probably isn't the safest option.
Only use ladders for work of short duration and which you can do safely from a ladder. For example, work that requires only one hand, and is within easy reaching distance.
Make sure the surface is stable and can take the weight of the ladder (and you!).
The stability of your ladder relies on the stability of the surface it is placed on. Surfaces need to be level, and strong enough to hold the ladder securely during use.
If the surface collapses, or the feet of the ladder slip, you're only going one way - and that's down.
For stepladders, check the ground or platform underneath the feet of the ladder.
For leaning ladders, you need to consider both the ground stability and whatever it is resting on at or near the top. Gutters, branches, glass and other fragile surfaces, might hold the ladder initially, but what about the added weight of a person climbing the ladder? Will those surfaces be strong and secure enough?
- Any surface upon which a ladder rests shall be stable, firm, of sufficient strength and of suitable composition safely to support the ladder so that its rungs or steps remain horizontal, and any loading intended to be placed on it.
Check the area is safe before using a ladder.
Ladders are usually temporary, for short-term work, like maintenance. So when you pop one up, other people might not be expecting you to be there! And people who are familiar with a route, rushing about their daily lives, won't be looking for you - they will be focused on their own stuff.
Never use a ladder in a driveway or passageway unless you can plan how to protect yourself. Use barriers and signage to warn people, lock doors or use diversions to keep people away, or have an assistant constantly in attendance to manage interactions.
Think about your surroundings and other obstacles. Is the type of ladder you are using safe for the conditions? For example, you wouldn't want to use a metal ladder near electrical equipment.
Position ladders at a 75-degree angle and fully extend stepladders.
How you position your ladder can have a big impact on safety. If the ladder is not positioned securely, it's more likely to slip or overturn.
For stepladders, you should make sure they are fully extended before use.
For leaning ladders, you should remember the 4-to-1 rule. Ladders must be placed at a safe angle of approx. 75 degrees. This means the distance from the base of your ladder to the wall should be ¼ height reached by the ladder.
Check the ladder is stable and properly secured.
Ladders can slip both outwards and side to side. Make sure your ladder is secure and stable before use.
Sideways movement usually happens near the top of the ladder. To prevent this, ladders are best secured by tying or fixing the ladder near the top. This prevents the ladder from slipping either outwards or sideways.
Where securing at the upper end of the ladder towards the top is not possible, securing at the middle or near the base is necessary. But remember that this doesn't prevent the ladder from slipping to the side.
- A portable ladder shall be prevented from slipping during use by—
- securing the stiles at or near their upper or lower ends;
- an effective anti-slip or other effective stability device; or
- any other arrangement of equivalent effectiveness.
Where securing at neither the top, middle or bottom is possible, the ladder should be secured by other measures. For example through the use of a stability device or wedging the ladder. Footing the ladder is the last resort and only where other methods are not practical.
If your ladder is interlocking or extendible, the sections should be locked in place to prevent them from moving.
Make sure the ladder is in a safe condition without damage or defects.
Once you have checked that a ladder is the right equipment for the job, you need to check that your ladder is in good enough condition for use. Ladders are well-used pieces of equipment - they can take a battering during use, handling, storage, and during transport.
(2) Every employer shall ensure that work equipment exposed to conditions causing deterioration which is liable to result in dangerous situations is inspected—
- at suitable intervals
You should also regularly inspect ladders for signs of deterioration. Check for splits, warping, decay, damage, etc. It is easy to see how a missing or defective rung could cause a user to lose their footing and fall.
Also check that wooden ladders have not been painted, as flaking paint can also cause slips or disguise damage underneath.
Need help checking your ladder? Use the ladder inspection checklist.
Check that you have installed the ladder correctly before use in a new position.
Wherever you use a ladder, it needs to be inspected in position, before use. Both the Work at Height Regulations, and the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations (PUWER) require this.
(2) Every employer shall ensure that, where the safety of work equipment depends on how it is installed or assembled, it is not used after installation or assembly in any position unless it has been inspected in that position.
This is a final inspection, to double-check the ladder condition, position, angle, and stability.
Don't work off the top 3 rungs. The ladder should extend 1m or 3 rungs beyond the work or access point.
You need to use both hands when climbing or descending ladders and so you should always have a secure handhold available when using a ladder. This applies to both short-duration work from ladders, and ladders used for access (e.g. on a scaffold).
When ladders are used for short-term work, you shouldn't work off the top rungs. When ladders are used for access, they need to protrude above the access point. This is so you can maintain a handhold while dismounting (unless another secure handhold has been provided).
You should also think about how you will move tools and materials up the working height if needed. Think about using a toolbelt, a shoulder bag or similar (or hoist them up afterwards).
Don't use a single ladder for work above 9m.
When you need to reach great heights, you should consider whether a ladder is the best equipment for the job. Anything above 9m, and you need to think about resting places.
- Where a ladder or run of ladders rises a vertical distance of 9 metres or more above its base, there shall, where reasonably practicable, be provided at suitable intervals sufficient safe landing areas or rest platforms. -- The Work at Height Regulations 2005 - Requirements For Ladders
This article was written by Emma at HASpod. Emma has over 10 years experience in health and safety and BSc (Hons) Construction Management. She is NEBOSH qualified and Tech IOSH.
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