Buying, selling or running a home – everything you need to know about your home and garden!

Don’t be a ladder lamebrain

Now that the summer months are here (ha, ha) it’s time to get cracking on all those outdoor jobs you’ve been saving up over the winter. Many of the jobs most commonly taken on during the summer – exterior decorating, replacing guttering, repointing brickwork, making good exterior timbers – involve the use of ladders.

Convenient things though ladders are, they need to be treated with respect and used with care. The Health & Safety Executive reckon that on average 14 people are killed and 1,200 seriously injured every year through work-related falls involving ladders – and that the misuse of ladders at work is partly a result of the way they’re used at home.

You don’t even have to fall from a great height to be killed or seriously injured – the Health & Safety Executive has some nasty stories, including one of a man whose foot slipped off the second rung of a ladder and through the rungs, causing him to fall backwards and hit his head on the ground, killing him. No wonder warehouses and DIY stores use those cherry-picker platforms.

So here are ten tips on how to use ladders safely.

  1. Make sure your ladder is safe to use.
    This means checking the stiles (the lengthwise members) are straight and in alignment, that the rungs are sound and that all the joints are secure. If it’s a wooden ladder, you’ll also need to check that the stiles aren’t split and that there’s no woodworm or rot.
  2. Look after your ladder.
    Keep it clean so that your feet don’t slip on the rungs. If it has end caps, check them for wear and replace them if needed (if you can). If it’s wooden, treat the wood regularly to ensure that cracks don’t develop. Don’t paint your ladder – you won’t be able to inspect it properly if you do.
  3. Make sure you’re safe to use the ladder.
    Make sure your footwear is clean and dry so that the risk of your feet slipping on the rungs is minimised. It ought not to need saying, but it’s a seriously bad idea to do DIY jobs when you’re tired, not well, or under the influence of judgment-impairing drugs or medication. That goes especially for jobs at the top of a ladder.
  4. Site your ladder securely.
    On hard surfaces, be sure that the ends of the stiles won’t skid by using anti-slip end caps, plus a sandbag or similar. If possible, anchor the ladder with stays tied to stakes in the ground. If you can secure it at the top as well, eg by tying it to a batten inside a window frame, so much the better.
  5. Don’t tempt gravity (1).
    Your ladder should be at an angle of about 75° to the wall. (An easy way of calculating this is that the base of the ladder should be about a quarter of its height away from the wall.) If it’s closer to vertical, you increase the risk of the ladder toppling backwards. If it’s further away, you put undue strain on the middle of the stiles (they’re supposed to transmit the force of your weight more or less down their length) and will cause them to bend or even break.
  6. Don’t over-extend the ladder.
    If your ladder’s capable of being extended, never extend it further than the manufacturer has designed it for – usually there should be an overlap of no less than a quarter of each section’s length. And don’t be tempted to use a ladder that isn’t tall enough for the job – you should never climb above the fourth rung from the top. (The last three rungs are your handholds.)
  7. Don’t tempt gravity (2).
    When you’re at the top of the ladder, it’s at its least stable. (Of course it is, you’re making it top-heavy.) So if you start stretching for things you can’t reach comfortably, your sideways force may be enough to topple the ladder over. Always keep both feet on the same rung while working, and never lean out so far that your belly-button goes past the side of the ladder. If you can’t reach, move the ladder.
  8. Get a friend.
    If you’re going to be high up an extension ladder, make sure you get someone to help you. (Be aware, though, that if the ladder’s more than about five metres long, a friend at the bottom’s unlikely to be able to stop it from slipping.)
  9. Don’t overdo it.
    You shouldn’t be carrying weights of more than 10 kg (22lb) up the ladder, or spending more than half-an-hour up there. Working up a ladder is tiring, and fatigue leads to accidents.
  10. Don’t abuse stepladders.
    In particular, don’t lean yours against the wall and pretend it’s a conventional ladder – it isn’t designed for that. It should be properly opened out, with all four feet firmly on the ground, and locked using the locking device, if there is one. (Purpose-designed multi-use ladders are OK, as long as they’re used in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions.) Don’t climb on the top two steps – or top three, if there’s a step at the very top of the ladder. And if the floor’s uneven, consider clamping one or two struts diagonally across the stile (the “back” section) to provide extra “feet” and stop the stepladder from tipping sideways (which they’re apt to do).

If you want to read more about how to keep safe on ladders, the HSE have two useful brief guides available for free download as PDF files:

Finally, don’t forget to keep your ladder stowed safely away. This will help protect it from the elements – and from thieves, who might at least nick your ladder and at worst use your ladder to get into your house and nick a hell of a lot more.

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