Safety Corner: Portable Ladders

A Step in the Right Direction

by Stephen Zasadil, WSRCA Safety Consultant, president, SNK Services LLC









(Editor’s Note: Stephen Zasadil spent ten years as a safety of flight operator with the United States Navy before beginning his career as a safety compliance consultant in 2009. He currently works with companies across the United States to provide OSHA compliance information, documentation, and training.)


Portable ladders are, in essence, simple tools. However, think about a hammer, possibly the simplest of tools. Swing heavy end at target, repeat. If you have ever used a hammer, the chances are high that you’ve hit your thumb. The point is that no matter the tool, simple or not, there is the possibility of injury. When you add in gravity, and the distance from the ground, the danger just multiplies.

The best thing contractors can do to prevent this type of injury is to choose the right portable ladder for the job. Once this is done, inspect the ladder to ensure it is in good working condition. Now, set up the portable ladder in a way that it can be used safely. Finally, use the portable ladder the way that it was intended, while following the safety guidelines that have been written through the trial and error of our predecessors.

Practically all falls from portable ladders can be traced to using them in an unsafe manner. Falls from ladders may result in serious injuries, long-term disabilities, and even death. In addition to the person falling from the ladder, other people around the ladder may also get hurt. Therefore, all users of portable ladders must know the rules of ladder safety and always observe these rules. Let’s dig a bit deeper.

Ladders need to be inspected by a qualified person for visible defects before each use. While in use, a ladder may go through conditions that may impact its integrity. A ladder with compromised integrity will not be safe for use. Employees should conduct inspections for general ladder safety for all portable ladder types by checking the following:



  1. The steps or rungs must be tight and secured to the side rails, and not cracked, bent, or chipped.
  2. Movable parts must be tested to see that they operate without binding or without too much free play.
  3. All labels should be intact and readable.
  4. Ladders shall be free of oil, grease, or slippery materials.
  5. A ladder that has been exposed to fire or strong chemicals should be discarded.
  6. All accessories such as leg levelers, paint shelves, stand-off shelves, etc. are in good condition.
  7. The ladder base shall be placed on a secure and level footing. When necessary, ladder levelers shall be used to achieve equal rail support on uneven surfaces.
  8. The ladder base must have slip-resistant material.


Safe Set up

  1. Ensure the ladder will be long enough and have sufficient weight capacity. Never use metal ladders near electrical hazards.
  2. Place the base of a straight ladder out away from the wall or edge of the upper level about 1’ for every 4’ of vertical height.
  3. Be sure the side rails of straight ladders extend at least 36” above the landing.
  4. Never try to increase the height of a ladder by standing it on other objects, such as boxes or barrels or by splicing two ladders together.
  5. Never separate an extension ladder to create two individual ladders.
  6. Secure portable ladders against movement, this is to prevent the ladder slipping while climbing, and to prevent it from falling and stranding a worker on an elevated area.
  7. Keep ladders away from doorways or walkways unless they can be protected by delineation or barriers.
  8. Check the ladder and your shoes for oil, grease, or mud.
  9. Never lean an A-frame ladder against a surface to be used as a straight ladder unless it has been specifically designed to function this way.


Climbing & Use

  1. Climb the ladder carefully, facing it and using both hands. The user should always maintain three points of contact while climbing a ladder.
  2. Never climb a ladder while carrying materials or tools.
  3. One person on a ladder at a time.
  4. Do not lean out to the side when you are on a ladder.


Portable ladders are a simple and useful tool, and when we use them correctly, and take proper care of them, they will take care of us.