Extension Ladders: How to Use and Secure Them Safely

Extension ladders are indispensable items when it comes to carrying out tasks at height in residential, trade and commercial settings. But like any tool that’s used to work at height they can be dangerous if they’re not set up and used correctly.

Here are some alarming numbers: in recent years, falls from height have become the most common type of accident that results in fatality. Every year, more than 50 people are killed in such falls. The injury statistics aren’t much better. Annually, HSE reports that nearly 2000 people suffer an injury related to a fall from height. Although this dismal statistic has declined from an alarming 2631 injuries in 2001-02, HSE still cautions users to be very careful when using ladders. In that spirit, we’d like to offer some tips and hints for using an extension ladder, which is one of the most popular types available today.

Extension Ladders: How Are They Different?

An extension ladder is a fixed type of ladder that consists of two or more sections. In a two-section extension ladder, for example, the sections can be slid together for easy storage. In use, one section is raised above the other, effectively doubling the ladder’s safe reachable height. This is accomplished by an inbuilt system of clips that locks the ladder’s sections together once it’s raised.

Extension Ladders: Choosing the Right Length

Many people who use extension ladders are unaware that there’s a set formula for determining the ideal length needed to perform a specific task. Here’s how to do it.
First, measure the maximum height you need to reach. The maximum height is the height of the wall or surface you’re scaling. You then need to consider the ratio of 1 unit out from the wall for every 4 units up. Here is an example below using Pythagoras Theorem:

With an extension, it’s also important to understand its dimensions. An important dimension is a ladder’s maximum extended length, which also can be thought of as its maximum usable length. When figuring maximum extended length, be sure to leave plenty of overlap between the sections. The minimum overlap should be listed on the ladder’s label, but a good rule of thumb is to allow at least three feet of overlap. Do be aware that the closer you get to an extension ladder’s maximum length, the greater the chance that the ladder will wobble. It’s also important to check the ladder’s maximum safe load limit, which is the combined weight of the user, plus and tools or materials being used or transported up or down the ladder.

Extension Ladders: Rules for Safe Use

Perform a thorough inspection before using an extension ladder. Take it out of service if any parts or components are missing or excessively worn. Always place an extension ladder on a dry and level surface. When erecting this type of ladder, take care to ensure that the horizontal distance between the feet and the top support measures 1/2 of the working length (usable length) of the ladder. Put another way, the ladder should be leaning at a 75-degree angle from the ground. Setting the right angle is critically important. If the angle is too steep, there’s a chance the ladder will tip over backwards. Too much of an angle can result in the ladder being bent or in the bottom sliding out. Tie the top of the ladder to sturdy and reliable support points. Tie off or brace the ladder near the base. Without an available object or structure, drive a long stake deep into the ground and use that for tying off.

Extension Ladders: More Safety Considerations

Never use metal ladders around electrical sources. Only set up or take down an extension ladder when the sections are nested, not extended. Don’t climb higher than the fourth rung from the top. Never leave an extension ladder unattended, especially if there are children about. To deploy an extension ladder safely, lay it on the ground close to where you’ll be using it. Brace the ladder’s feet against something solid. Grasp the topmost rung in the centre, and lift the top of the ladder overhead. Then, walk the ladder to a vertical position by grasping the rungs in succession. Lean the ladder against the wall at the recommended distance. Before setting up an extension ladder, thoroughly clean its feet to remove any dirt or other materials that might cause slipping. When working on an extension ladder, keep at least three points of contact, i.e., two feet and one hand. Always keep your feet on the same rung and wear sensible, non-slip footwear.

Extension Ladders: About Stabilisers and Caps

A ladder stabiliser bar is a component that’s fitted to the bottom of the ladder. It is a bar that is much wider than the ladder itself. This additional width lends an extra measure of safety to an extension ladder. The feet on the stabiliser help to spread the load of the ladder, and because they’re finished with a non-slip material, make the ladder much more secure and prevent it slipping sideways. Stabilisers are essential if you must work at height for extended periods. Another device for ensuring ladder stability is plastic or soft rubber caps / mitts / pads that slip over the top of each stile to improve contact.

To get the most from extension ladders, follow all manufacturers’ directives for safe and effective use.

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