Whether you're installing crown molding or hanging holiday decorations from your roof, your ladder is only as safe as you make it. Think balancing two stories above the ground is no big deal? Tell that to the nearly 247,000 people who landed in the ER last year because of ladder-related injuries—that's more than were hurt by any other piece of DIY equipment. To help you avoid spills, TOH general contractor Tom Silva weighs in on the dos and don'ts of ladder use.
Choose Your Ladder Wisely
Opt for fiberglass if there's any chance you'll be working with wiring or near power lines, since metal and dirty or waterlogged wood can conduct electricity, says Tom. And don't underestimate the maximum load capacity you need: Even if you weigh 150 pounds, carrying three 44s will put you over a 225-pound limit. A duty rating of I, IA, or IAA (250, 300, or 375 pounds, respectively) should do the trick for most home projects.
Get the Right Height
Standing on the top rungs or overreaching can be a fast track to a fall, says Tom. Stay off the top two rungs of a stepladder, and the top three of an extension ladder. If you're deciding between two ladder heights, opt for the taller one to give yourself some leeway.
Keep Your Hands Free
Here’s an essential ladder safety tip: Use a tool belt or rope to haul equipment up and down the ladder. To avoid tripping as you climb, "hold on with both hands, and pay attention to where the top section of the ladder meets the lower section," says Tom.
Angle it Right
Put the base of a ladder too close to a building and you could tip over; too far away and it could slip out from under you. Follow the 4-to-1 rule: For every 4 feet of ladder height, the base should be 1 foot from the wall.
Ensure that extension-ladder rung locks are secure and the fly section (the top portion) is slid in front of the base (the lower section) before climbing. For stepladders, fully extend the rail spreaders.
Never Climb on Shaky Ground
"If the ground at the ladder's base is uneven, make it level by digging out dirt and standing the legs on a wide plank," says Tom. "Make sure the ladder is firmly seated—it shouldn't rock or wiggle." And never use a ladder on icy ground.