Portable Ladder Safety

Portable ladders provide a convenient way of performing work at height and you’d think that after the years they’ve been in use that the relevant safety issues would be pretty well entrenched in people’s minds. But if the number of people injured or killed each year while using portable ladders is any indication it’s anything but the case.

The most common injuries occur when people fall they can range from minor bruising and embarrassment to disablement and even death – even from what would normally be considered low heights.

So let’s have a brief look at some of the things you can do to prevent yourself being hurt the next time you use a portable ladder.


There are basically two types of portable ladder commonly used – step ladder or “leaning” ladders with the latter being either a single or extending form. Where you intend using the ladder will determine what type is the best. It would be probably impossible to use anything but a step ladder to change a light globe in the middle of a room whereas either type of ladder could be used to change the light globe on a wall mounted light.

The next factor to consider is the height of where you want to access. If the ladder’s too short you won’t be able to reach the job safely and if it’s to long you may not be able to erect it within the space you’re working.

Finally, if you’re intending to do electrical work DO NOT use a metal ladder – you face enough risks working with electricity without adding the risk of working above ground on a conductive ladder.

Selecting the right ladder for the job is the first step (pun unintended) in making sure you’re not injured when doing the job.

Step Ladders

Step ladders are more stable than leaning ladders and can be safely used in a stand alone mode by following these instructions:

  • Inspect the ladder to make sure the rungs, side rails and anti-slip feet are in good condition, clean and not loose (or even missing).
  • Make sure the soles of your footwear are clean and in good condition.
  • Fully extend both sides of the ladder and make sure the spreader bars are locked in the open position to prevent the ladder collapsing on itself.
  • Erect the ladder on a level, firm surface – use timber or similar pads to adjust surface level or provide support on unstable ground making sure both ladder feet are fully supported by a single pad.
  • Don’t erect the ladder in trafficable areas such as of doors unless they’re locked closed.
  • Don’t stand or climb above the second highest step – this makes the ladder unstable.
  • Always work face on to the ladder and not off to the side.
  • Only one person at a time to be on the ladder.
  • If you plan to use tools, get a tool tray fitted to the top-cap of the ladder.
  • Make sure the ladder is rated to support the combined weight of yourself and the equipment being used.

Single Side Ladders

These ladders are less stable than step ladders and while some of the safety requirements are the same there are other things that must be in place to ensure the safety of those using these types of ladders.

  • Inspection of the condition of the rungs sidebars and feet is needed as well as the condition of the extension locks and cams on extension ladders.
  • The angle of the ladder should be 1:4, that is 1 unit away from the supporting structure for every 4 units of height.
  • A portable ladder should not be used at heights greater than 6 metres or about 20 feet.
  • The top of the ladder should be least 3 rungs above the top surface of the support structure and should be securely fastened.
  • The base of the ladder should be fixed to prevent the ladder from slipping away from the supporting structure. This is particularly applies when the top of the ladder is resting against a vertical surface and cannot be securely fastened there.
  • Adjust the feet of the ladder so that it doesn’t lean to the side.
  • Be aware of movement of people or other traffic (cars, forklifts) around the area and block off access if necessary.
  • Face the ladder at all times while working from the ladder.
  • Tools and other equipment should not be carried while climbing the ladder in order to maintain 3 points of contact.
  • Don’t climb above the top supported rung of a ladder that extends beyond the top surface of a support structure or the third lowest rung where the top of the ladder is resting against a vertical surface.
  • Don’t extend your body from the side of the ladder more than half its width.
  • Only one person at a time should be on the ladder.

While there are no guarantees in life, following these basic precautions will significantly reduce the risk of falling from a ladder and being injured.