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Stairways and Ladders

Learning Objectives

  • Identify the definitions and terms associated with stairway and ladder work.
  • Recognize common hazards associated with using stairways and ladders in the workplace.
  • Identify the general requirements for using stairways and ladders safely on the job.
  • Identify fall prevention requirements for working with stairways and ladders.
  • Recognize how to inspect stairways and ladders before and after use.

Available in English

30 minutes


635 deaths in 2010 because of falls from elevated work surfaces, and 129 of these fatalities came as a direct result of a fall from a ladder.

Bureau of Labor Statistics


As simple as using a ladder seems to be, the injury statistics indicate that the ladder is one of the most abused tools we have. Accidents, particularly in the domestic setting, are frequently caused by overreaching or overextending from ladders to complete certain tasks, rather than doing the safe thing—climbing down and moving the ladder to a better access point. The same is also true for the high-risk workforce.

Ladders are used in many jobs for cleaning, painting, changing light bulbs, accessing storage areas, reaching platforms, and more. Because going up and down a ladder all day can cause fatigue, when performing these tasks workers will naturally want to maximize the effort they’ve spent to climb the ladder and will occasionally stretch themselves or their tools to accomplish little jobs a little faster, which is when an inherently risky situation may become even more dangerous.

Hazards associated with ladder use include slips and falls, ladder tip-over, electric shock, ladder failure due to defects and damage, ladder failure from overloading. Examples of improper ladder include using a ladder that is too short, using the wrong ladder, not using a ladder when one should be used, reaching too far to the side, and using a ladder as it was not intended to be used.

Overloaded ladders can break or collapse, sending workers and materials tumbling onto floors or other workers. Even if a ladder is used properly, if it’s defective in some way there’s always the possibility of a fall injury. Always examine ladders for defects before using them.

Here are basic precautions for avoiding real hazards typically associated with ladder use.

OSHA’s “Fatal Four” Hazards

  • Falls
  • Electrocution
  • Caught-in-between
  • Struck-by incidents

Hazards Associated with Ladder Use

  • Slips and falls from a ladder
  • Ladder tip-over
  • Electric shock
  • Ladder failure due to defects and damage
  • Ladder failure from overloading          

Examples of Improper Ladder Use

  • Using a ladder that is too short
  • Using the wrong ladder
  • Not using a ladder when one should be used
  • Reaching too far to the side

If you have to stand on the top step of a step ladder, consider using a taller ladder, a mechanical lift, scaffolding, or some other safe means, as this practice is not allowed.

Additional Ladder Hazards

Electric Shock

  • Is greater with conductive metal ladders than with wooden ladders;
  • Any ladder (except the electrically insulated fiberglass ladder) can become an electric shock or electrocution hazard if it comes in contact with, or close proximity to, a power line or other electrical conductor.
  • Make sure that neither you nor the ladder will come in contact with, or in close proximity to, electrical wires.
  • Maintain at least a 10 foot clearance from any overhead power line.

Overloaded Ladders and Stairs

Can break or collapse, sending workers and materials tumbling onto floors or other workers;
If defective in some way, there’s always the possibility of a fall injury.

Hazards can also exist because of some defect in the ladder. A quick examination often easily identifies a defective ladder. Identifying a wobbly stepladder, an extension ladder with broken or missing rungs, or a painted ladder that may be concealing serious cracks or rot can be accomplished simply by paying attention to the equipment you’re using. 

In a few cases, a manufacturing defect or weakness may not be obvious just by observation. Stairs should also be inspected periodically to ensure that the tread, riser, and handrail components are in good working condition. Temporary stairs are particularly suspect as they likely receive heavy boot traffic and may shift away from their landing. If exposed to rain, wooden stairways become slippery and in time can become weak and rot.

Some ladders develop structural defects over time due to age or misuse, which render their continued use as hazardous. Ladders with structural defects, such as broken or missing rungs, cleats, or steps, broken or split rails, corroded components, frayed or torn ropes on extensions, or other faulty or defective components, must immediately be tagged or marked with the words “Do Not Use”, or similar language. They must be withdrawn from service until repaired, provided that repair is possible. Ladders judged to be beyond repair, must ultimately be disposed of.

Reducing Risk of Serious or Fatal Injuries from Ladder Falls

  • Identify ladder fall hazards
  • Conduct ladder safety inspections
  • Train employees to recognize and avoid unsafe ladder conditions
  • Provide appropriate protective equipment and train employees in its use
  • Never coerce a worker with vertigo, dizziness, or other height-related disability to climb

Safe Practices for Climbing and Descending a Ladder

  • Face the ladder and maintain at least one hand on the ladder at all times
  • Do not carry any load that causes you to lose your balance and fall
  • If the ladder is within 6 feet of a guarded edge, use some form of personal fall arrest
  • Maintain your balance at the top of a ladder by holding on to the adjacent structure
  • When using power tools on a ladder, be mindful of the reactive forces on the body which may cause you to be knocked off

Safe Practices for Placing an Extension Ladder

  • Place the bottom section at an angle resulting in a 4 to 1 ratio of height to foot distance from the supporting wall
  • Approximate this angle by placing your feet at the bottom of the ladder and reaching your arms straight out and parallel to the ground

Additional Fall Prevention Measures

  • Dismount before moving a ladder
  • Keep top and bottom ladder areas clear
  • Face ladder when climbing
  • Carry no unbalanced loads
  • Carry tools on belt or hoist
  • Make slow and cautious movements
  • Wear skid-resistant shoes
  • Lock one leg around rung when work requires use of both hands  
Course Outline
  • Introduction
  • Definitions and Terms
  • Hazard Recognition
  • Safety Requirements
  • Preventing Falls
  • Inspections
Regulations
  • 29 CFR 1926.1050 -1060 Stairways and Ladders