How to Use a Ladder Safely
LESLIE: Well, if you’re heading outside for home repairs up high, a sturdy ladder is a must. But besides having a ladder, you actually need to understand how to use it properly, to make sure that gravity doesn’t get the best of you.
TOM: Well, that’s right. Ladder falls send hundreds of people to emergency rooms every year and some falls can even be fatal. Joining us now with both the ups and the downs of ladder safety is Tom Silva, the general contractor from TV’s This Old House.
And Tom, I’ve got to tell you, as the once victim of a ladder that left its imprint on me from head to toe, I’m sure you may have known a few from your own experience.
LESLIE: Oh, no.
TOM: It doesn’t take much for a ladder to turn against you, does it?
TOM SILVA: Definitely does not take much for a ladder to turn against you. I had one break on me once.
TOM SILVA: Yeah, yeah.
TOM: So, I think the most common mistake folks make with ladders is setting them up improperly. They’re too vertical, they’re not vertical enough.
LESLIE: They’re not actually ladders.
TOM SILVA: Yeah, I want to step back and say one thing. I think the biggest mistake people make when buying a ladder is they buy the cheapest one they can find.
TOM: Right. And that is a critical mistake.
TOM SILVA: And that’s a big mistake.
But yeah, knowing how to set up a ladder is very, very important. You want to make sure that it extends correctly. You want to make sure that it’s the right angle: not too steep, not too shallow, should I say?
TOM: Mm-hmm. Yep.
TOM SILVA: So the idea of it is number one, to also make sure it’s not inside-out. Some ladders could be set up different than others and if you have a good-quality ladder, you’ll notice that the round rung – there is a flat side.
TOM SILVA: The flat side, you should be standing on; it’s easier on your feet.
The other thing is you want to make sure that when you set the ladder up at the correct angle, on some of the ladders there’s actually a square on the side of the ladder that you …
TOM: Like a triangle.
TOM SILVA: That’s right. You line that up, almost like a small framing square.
TOM SILVA: And you set that framing square up at the right angle so it’s plumb and level on the bottom. And that tells you that. If you don’t have one, if you stand with your feet against the ladder bottom and you run your hand out shoulder-height, the palm of your hand should sit flat on the ladder rung.
TOM: That’s a good sort of rule of thumb.
Now, where that ladder sits on the ground is important.
TOM SILVA: Right.
TOM: Now, if it’s on the soil, a good idea to flip out those stakes, so to speak, at the bottom of the ladder so it really presses down into the ground?
TOM SILVA: Yeah. Yeah, if you look on a ladder, you’ll see that these are flappers or the feet. A lot of people leave them down on the ground flat. You basically want to flip them up so that the teeth will dig into the ground.
It’s also important that you try to level the ground. So if you have a – I always carry a claw hammer with me; that’s just who I am.
TOM SILVA: I actually have one with me right now, though.
But I basically take a claw hammer and I dig out a section of the ground, just big enough to get the leg of the ladder in it, and make sure that the ladder is running up the building plumb.
LESLIE: Now, what about when you’re leaning your ladder against your home? I mean a lot of times, you’re encountering gutters and they’re not really the most sturdiest of structures to be leaning against.
TOM SILVA: No. If they’re an aluminum gutter and it’s – basically, the type of brackets on that aluminum gutter can make a big difference. If you have a spike-and-ferrule gutter …
TOM: Now, that’s the type of – when you say “ferrules,” those are sort of the little tubes that the long nails go through, correct?
TOM SILVA: Yeah. And those spikes and ferrules actually don’t allow the gutter to get compressed if you lean a ladder against it. But if you can’t see those nail heads – the little circles on the face of the gutter – you don’t have spikes and ferrules and by leaning the ladder against an aluminum gutter, you can actually pop the gutter out of those fasteners and compress the gutter.
So you want to take something up the ladder with you. Again, you have to be careful when you walk up, because you don’t want to pop it. Slide a 2×4 in there against the inside edge and the fascia board and that will stop the ladder from compressing the gutter.
TOM: A couple other things to look out for: overhead wires, of course. You always need to look up. Every once in a while, we hear about someone who’s been electrocuted because they didn’t do that.
TOM SILVA: Right. You don’t see an electrician with an aluminum ladder, by the way. You see …
LESLIE: No way.
TOM: For good reason.
TOM SILVA: That’s right, fiberglass. Because he knows. If you hit a wire, you’re going to get electrocuted. And also, tree limbs.
Another thing that’s handy is you want to make sure – you could also use these stand-offs that actually hold the ladder away from you. So if you’re painting a window, the stand-offs go on each side of the window and you can paint right in there. Because you don’t want to be too low; the ladder should always be higher than you need it to be and you work through the rung of the ladder. So if you’re going up to a roof, the ladder should go up past the roof 3 or 4 feet.
TOM: And those stand-offs are very handy, because they do allow you to sort of work around the ladder. Invariably, if you’re on a ladder and you’re trying to do something – this happens every year when I’m hanging holiday lights.
TOM SILVA: Yeah.
TOM: You get to that point where it’s just almost too close to work behind it.
TOM SILVA: Yeah, yeah. You get up to the top, you’re right on – you’ve got to stand back and that’s not smart.
TOM: No, not a good idea.
TOM SILVA: The stand-offs are actually – I actually love a stand-off; I think they’re great.
LESLIE: Now, what about step ladders? I think people really just get complacent about it because, you know, it’s a couple steps off the ground. “How dangerous could it be?”
TOM SILVA: It’s a big, wide step, yeah.
TOM SILVA: Yeah, it can be very dangerous.
TOM: It’s a dare, too, when it says, “Don’t step above this step.”
TOM SILVA: Yeah, they tell you right there. It’s always in big – right, big letters. What are people doing?
TOM: Right. Big, red letters, right?
LESLIE: Which means: “Stand right here.”
TOM SILVA: Yeah. And that’s what people think: they stand there.
TOM: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
TOM SILVA: I don’t even like to see people standing on the top or the second one down. You should be down a third and lower, because you don’t have any balance, you don’t have anything to hold onto. You could be hanging a light fixture and think about it: you’re in the air on the top of the ladder?
TOM: My favorite step ladder is one that’s a two-sided step ladder. I have a fiberglass two-sided. It’s great for father-son projects.
TOM SILVA: Yeah, absolutely.
TOM: And it’s very stable.
TOM SILVA: And they’re stable on both sides. There’s lots of times when you want to get on the other side of that ladder.
TOM SILVA: Those steps are really great. I agree with you.
TOM: So a ladder is a great tool but you’ve got to be really careful to make sure gravity always remains your friend.
TOM SILVA: And buy a good one.
TOM: And buy a good-quality one. Great advice. Tom Silva from TV’s This Old House, thanks so much for stopping by The Money Pit.
TOM SILVA: As always, it’s my pleasure.
LESLIE: Alright. You can catch the current season of This Old House and Ask This Old House on PBS. For your local listings and some great step-by-step videos on home improvement projects you can tackle this weekend, visit ThisOldHouse.com.