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How to Use a Ladder Safely

Every day, around two million ladders are used around the UK – that’s an awful lot of climbing up and down ladders on all kinds of sites, both indoors and out.

Thankfully, there are only a handful of ladder deaths each year, but working from height remains a common cause of accidents and knowing how to use a ladder safely is a must for anyone planning to use one.

HSE has some useful things to say on the subject1, and we’ve drawn on their advice for this article, which looks at when a ladder is the best option, how to choose a ladder, how to check a ladder is safe to use and how to use a ladder or stepladder safely.

When is a ladder suitable for the job?

There are a number of options for working safely at height apart from ladders, including scaffolds, scissor lifts, cherry pickers and mobile elevated work platforms.

Ladders and stepladders are a good option when:

  • the job is low risk
  • it can be done in a short time frame (under 30 minutes).

Even if the job is low risk, you may still need to assess and manage the risks. Common sense will tell you when you don’t need any particular precautions – using a stepladder to change a light bulb in a well-lit room on a flat surface with no clutter is one thing. Using a ladder outside, with changeable weather or ground conditions, will need more thought.  

And do you even need to use a ladder? Could extendable tools do the job instead?

If you do, here’s the next big question:

What ladder should I choose?

Step Ladder

HSE recommends using BS EN 131 ladders for use at work, as they meet stringent standards for safety.

Knowing which ladder is right for the job is crucial. Do you need the ladder to be made of fibreglass (to avoid electrical accidents), for example, or warehouse steps – often a safer bet than stepladders for warehouses and storerooms. Check out, too, the ladder for:

  • strength
  • rigidity
  • stability
  • extra safety features such as stabilising bars and ladder levellers.

First Mats has a wide range of ladders to allow you to choose the safest ladder for the job, including combination ladders, extension ladders, fibreglass ladders, stepladders and warehouse steps.

How do I check the ladder is safe to use?

It’s good practice for the person who’s about to use the ladder to check it for defects before they start work:

  • are the stiles bent or damaged?
  • are the feet missing, damaged or worn, or do they have any soil or stones embedded in them?
  • are the rungs bent, missing, worn or loose?
  • are the locking mechanisms bent, worn or damaged, and are any locking bars engaged?

For stepladders, there are two things to look out for: check that the platform isn’t split or buckled, and that the steps or treads on stepladders aren’t loose or slippery.

Fibreglass ladders on the ground

How do I use a ladder safely?

Let’s assume the ladder is sound, and you’re planning to use it on firm, level ground, on a clean and solid non-slip surface, and where you won’t be hit by vehicles. There are a few golden rules that will keep you safe:

  • Make sure the ladder is long enough and high enough for the task
  • Check that the ladder angle is 750 – a good way of doing this is to use the ‘one in four rule’: the distance from the ladder feet to the wall is one unit and the distance from the base of the wall to the highest point the ladder reaches is four units
  • Keep three points of contact with the ladder when climbing (a hand and two feet) and, if possible, when you are working too
  • Grip the ladder and face the ladder rungs when climbing up or down
  • Secure a leaning ladder, for example with a tie, and rest it on a strong point. Windows or plastic guttering won’t do
  • Consider using a stability device.

And if you want to avoid a nasty accident:

  • Don’t over-reach (make sure the spot where your belt buckle would sit stays within the stiles)
  • Don’t overload the ladder
  • Don’t work off the top three rungs
  • Don’t hold items when climbing (a tool belt is a good option here)
  • Don’t work within 6m horizontally of any power line, unless it has been made non-hazardous

And although it might seem daft to try it, don’t try to move or extend ladders when you’re standing on the rungs, and don’t stand the ladder on movable objects such as pallets or vans.

Using a stepladder safely follows similar principles. No overreaching or working on the top three steps; engage any locking devices; and only carry light materials and tools. Work that could cause the steps to tip over, such as side-on drilling through bricks or concrete, should be avoided. If it can’t be, see if you can tie the steps or find another way to work safely.

For more information, check out the HSE guidance Safe use of Ladders and Stepladders INDG455 [https://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg455.pdf]. The Ladder Association [https://ladderassociation.org.uk/] is another great source of information and guidance.

First Mats Ladders

The range of ladders offered by First Mats has been carefully put together to ensure the safest products are offered, which conform with the BS EN 131 standards. For more information on our ladder ranges, please see the links below;

     Combination Ladders

     Extension Ladders

     Fibreglass Ladders

     Step Ladders

     Warehouse Steps

See our full range of Industrial Ladders for more heavy-duty access products.


Richard O'Connor's Headshot

Richard O'Connor is a Director at First Mats. He has deep knowledge in areas like Manufacturing, Warehousing, Marine, and Health & Safety. Richard's insights have been featured in well-known publications such as Bloomberg Business, The Sun, and Reader's Digest. His blend of industry expertise and passion for sharing makes him a sought-after voice in his fields.

Contact Richard


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