More than 500,000 people a year are treated for ladder-related injuries in the U.S., according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.
The notion that ladder safety begins when you place your foot on the first step is wrong. Ladder safety begins when you shop for a ladder--a daunting task considering all the choices.
First is ladder style--step or extension? Often you will need both. A stepladder can be used indoors and outdoors but has height limitations. An extension ladder is used primarily outdoors where extra height is needed, as in the case of a two-story home. An extension ladder can be useful indoors when there are unusually high ceilings.
Next is size. When it comes to ladders, size matters. For stepladders, the ladder's height plus 4 feet equals the total reach. For example, a 4-foot ladder can be used to reach an 8-foot ceiling. Use a 6-foot ladder to reach a 10-foot ceiling, and so on.
For an extension ladder, the base and upper sections must overlap. So, a 20-foot extension ladder is only good for about 17 feet. The ladder must extend beyond the roofline 2 to 3 feet so that it can be used for balance as you climb onto the roof.
Ladders are sold by "duty rating"--the weight a ladder is rated to carry. The more weight it will hold, the stronger it must be.
The American National Safety Institute establishes duty rating. The five ratings and their respective load capacities are Type IAA special duty--375 pounds; Type IA extra heavy duty--300 pounds; Type I heavy duty--250 pounds; Type II medium duty--225 pounds; and Type III light duty--200 pounds. When in doubt, always err on the side of a heavier duty rating.
The final consideration in choosing a ladder is construction material. The choices are wood, aluminum and fiberglass. The oldest and most familiar material is wood.
Wood ladders have a sturdy feeling. But their heaviness makes them cumbersome and somewhat difficult to transport. Also, wood must be regularly maintained to prevent cracking, splitting and rotting.
Wood is economical and, when clean and dry, does not conduct electricity. If you do electrical work, you should choose a fiberglass ladder.
Ladders made from high-strength aluminum are a lightweight, rot-free alternative to wood. But aluminum ladders don't last longer than wood. Salt air or chemicals can corrode and weaken them.
Fiberglass has become as popular as aluminum was when it first replaced wood. Fiberglass ladders are lighter than wood but heavier than aluminum. They aren't subject to rot, they don't bend easily and they come in several colors. Manufacturers say that they will last generations.
But plastics and resins oxidize in the same fashion as all other carbon-based materials. Only time will tell whether fiberglass will last longer than the others.
Choosing the right ladder is only part of the safety equation. Proper use and maintenance are also important. Always read and abide by the instruction labels and stickers on a ladder before setting foot on it.
Make a thorough inspection to be sure the ladder is safe and in good working order. Even a perfectly good ladder can be unsafe if not used properly.
Here are some rules and a few tips that could help prevent a ladder accident and perhaps serious injury:
* Never use a worn-out ladder. In some instances it can be repaired, but more often it is advisable to get a new one.
* Never use a ladder unless it is rated to carry your weight. If the salesperson at the store can't tell you the weight that the ladder is capable of carrying, don't purchase it.
* Use a ladder that is the right length for the job. For stepladders, the ladder's height plus 4 feet equals the total reach. And that warning at the top, "This is not a step," means just that.
* Rest the ladder properly. Don't rest the high leg on a block of wood or a brick. Instead, dig a hole for the lower leg. Also, don't stand the ladder up at too little or too great of an angle. The safe angle is about 75 degrees.
Remember, too much angle reduces the ladder's strength, and not enough angle could cause you to tip backward.
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