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Working Safely at a Height on Ladders and Roofs

Updated on June 19, 2017
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Eugene, an avid self taught DIYer, has acquired 30 years of experience with power/hand tools, plumbing, electrics and woodwork.

Photo courtesy of Kevin Rosseel
Photo courtesy of Kevin Rosseel | Source

Using Your Head

I don't claim to be a safety expert but I have been up and down ladders regularly for the last 30 years doing all sorts of maintenance and have also learned from a neighbor who spent most of his life working with ladders. This hub is about some common sense things to consider when doing DIY and working at a height.

Wear Proper Footwear and Clothing

Proper clothing is essential when working at a height. Wear shoes or boots with good grips to avoid slipping. Steel toe caps will prevent injury if you drop something on your toe. If there is a risk of something falling on top of you from above, wear a safety helmet. Don't wear loose clothing which could get caught in something as you move around a roof or climb a ladder.

What Are the Parts of a Ladder?

Stiles The two vertical sides of a ladder that carry the rungs

Rungs The horizontal struts that you climb and stand on

Feet These are like "shoes" on the bottom of the stiles. Their function is to stop the ladder slipping and also act as a broad surface to spread load so that the stiles won't sink into soft ground. Feet are usually plastic or rubber with treads to increase friction

How to Check a Ladder is Safe Before Use

Ladders should be inspected before they are used to ensure that they are in good condition and trustworthy. So here's a checklist:

  • The shoes on the feet of the ladder should be in place, not worn and free from any debris such as mud or leaves
  • Make sure the treads on the rungs are dry. Remove any mud, oil or other material that could make them slippery
  • Rungs on the ladder should be checked to ensure that they attach firmly to the stiles or sides of the ladder. Sometimes rungs are spot welded to the stiles on step ladders and these welds need to be checked
  • Ensure the bolts or rivets holding the guides which keep the sections of an extension ladder together are in good condition and not loose, worn or corroded
  • Wooden ladders should be checked for cracks in the stiles and rungs


Erecting a Ladder

When erecting a ladder, place the feet of the ladder tightly against the base of the wall where it meets the ground, then walk towards the wall while rising the ladder. When the top of the ladder is near the wall, you can pull the end of the ladder out from the base of the wall and allow the top of the ladder to rest against the wall surface. This gives you better control than just pushing the ladder up against the wall.

Place the ladder on ground which isn't wet or slippery. Avoid areas with loose stone or gravel which can slide. If one of the feet of the ladder doesn't touch the ground, try to re-position it. If this is not possible, place a flat rough board under one of the feet to make it level. Get someone to stand at the base of the ladder to put pressure on it and stop it moving. An alternative is to use bags of sand or several heavy blocks to weight the base and increase friction. If the feet are placed on a lawn, jump up and down a couple of times on the bottom rung to dig the feet into the lawn. You can also hammer a couple of pegs or iron bars down into the lawn while keeping them tightly in contact with the bottom rung to prevent slipping.

Avoid placing a ladder against gutters which can result in damage. If this is not an option, when climbing and working on the ladder, be extremely careful as it is possible for the ladder to slide sideways along the edge of the gutter. This is more likely to happen with cast iron gutters which don't deform. A better solution is to use a standoff which keeps the ladder away from the wall. Don't leave a ladder resting on a gutter. I did this once and a light gust of wind blew it into the neighbors garden. Luckily it didn't do any damage.

Working at Height on a Ladder

When working on a ladder, roof or on scaffolding you need to think ahead. A simple mistake can be fatal. Don't make any impulsive movements. You need to think "If I move this way or that way or stand here, or turn around or take my hand off that, will I fall?" If you are on a ladder, don't try to lean too far to one side as the ladder could slide or you could overbalance.

Ideally you should keep one hand on a rung of the ladder because if your foot slips, you may not be quick enough to grab the ladder to save yourself. You should never work so high on a ladder that you can't hold onto a rung in front of or above you. The same goes for step ladders. It is essential that you are able to hold onto something to brace yourself. The exception is when you're working against a tree with lots of branches in front of you to hold onto.

Use hooks to hold tins of paint or a bucket in which you can place tools. If using a ladder to access a flat roof, don't step on rungs above the point at which the ladder rests against the edge of the roof. Otherwise it may pivot or "see-saw" at this point, the feet of the ladder will rise off the ground and it could end up slipping.

Don't ascend higher than about 4 or 5 rungs from the top. You should be able to reach the top rung to steady yourself.
Don't ascend higher than about 4 or 5 rungs from the top. You should be able to reach the top rung to steady yourself. | Source
Watch out for any vegetation lying on the rungs. It's very easy to slip on this, especially if it's wet. Cut back vegetation or reposition the ladder if possible.
Watch out for any vegetation lying on the rungs. It's very easy to slip on this, especially if it's wet. Cut back vegetation or reposition the ladder if possible. | Source
An 'S' hook is useful for holding cans of paint, buckets etc
An 'S' hook is useful for holding cans of paint, buckets etc

Using Tools at a Height

Some tools can be dangerous to use at a height. Examples include chainsaws, reciprocating saws and high torque drills without slip chucks. All of these can get stuck and once this happens, you can be pushed or pulled and knocked off balance. If the bit of a powerful drill without a slip chuck gets stuck, the drill will tend to spin around in your arms. Not very nice if you are up a ladder! Wrenches can also slip and you can lose your balance.

Working on Scaffolding

When you are working on scaffolding you are generally safer because you have a broad flat surface to stand on. However scaffolding is not without its hazards.

Scaffolding should be properly leveled and braced and all bars hammered securely into place. Wet scaffolding boards are a slip hazard, especially if they have been left out in the weather and algae has grown on them. They should be stored indoors and kept dry if possible.

Working on a Roof and Walking on Tiles

When walking on a pitched apex roof, use a roof ladder if possible. If you have to walk on the tiles, to avoid breakage, walk on the middle of the tile at the bottom edge where it overlaps the next tile below it. This is supported by a wooden batten underneath. Avoid the overlapping left or right edges of the tiles. Try not to put all your weight on one leg but spread it equally. Walk slowly to avoid impact. Don't walk on a wet roof or on moss and it is important that you have good grips on boots or shoes and they aren't wet. You can see some pictures here:

Avoid Overhead Power Lines!

Sometimes power is supplied to buildings via overhead lines. These lines attach on to the building structure near chimneys, at the gable end, or just underneath the soffit. Lines aren't always insulated and even if they are, insulation can be wet and the moisture may be making contact with any jointing in the cables at the support point. So it's wise to steer clear of these cables and don't let an aluminum ladder come in contact with them. Never use a power washer close to a power line. Water conducts enough electricity and a shock can be fatal!

Further Reading....

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You may also be interested in another hub:

An Idiot's Guide to Power Tools!

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© 2012 Eugene Brennan


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