MARSHFIELD, Mo. – Holiday decorating season is here, and that means hauling out ladders to place holiday cheer throughout the home and yard.

A ladder seems like such a simple tool, but ladder accidents are far too common and can happen in the blink of an eye.

“Most people’s reaction time is somewhere between a half and three-quarters of a second, so by the time they can react to something, they’re already well into a problem,” said Bob Schultheis, University of Missouri Extension natural resource engineering specialist.

On average, more than 300 people die from ladder-related accidents in the U.S. every year, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, and each year about 500,000 people in the U.S. receive treatment for ladder-related injuries.

Safe ladder use starts with choosing the right ladder for the job, Schultheis said. There are three general classes of portable ladder:

  • Type I - Industrial: Heavy-duty; rated for loads up to 250 pounds.
  • Type II - Commercial: For loads up to 225 pounds.
  • Type III - Household: Light-duty; for loads up to 200 pounds.

The two main kinds of ladder are stepladders and extension ladders. The height of the job will dictate which is the most appropriate to use.

Take care to set up the ladder properly, Schultheis said. “Set the ladder on a firm, level surface and avoid soft or muddy ground. On stepladders, make sure to lock the pivot arms before climbing the ladder. On extension ladders, make sure both locks are placed securely on the rung.”

The right ladder height is important, he said. Extension ladders should extend 3 feet past the area you’re trying to reach, and the base should be spaced 1 foot away for every 4 feet of height. Never use the top three rungs of an extension ladder and never go above the second step from the top on a stepladder.

Always climb with both hands on the ladder. If you’re carrying something, place or hang it on a step above you, climb to it, then move it to a higher step. Climbing a ladder one-handed is a recipe for an accident, according to Schultheis.

Another common cause of ladder accidents is overreaching on either side.

“That’s one of the things that cause a lot of the spills and injuries,” Schultheis said. “If you’re going to be reaching very far, it’s time to climb down the ladder, move the ladder over and climb back up again.”

Ladders and power lines are a bad mix, particularly with extension ladders. If you happen to bring a metal ladder into contact with a power line, you can easily be electrocuted. “When you go to move the ladder, it’s always best to retract the ladder, move it over to the next location and then extend again,” he said.

A good, sturdy ladder can be a bit pricey, but trying to save money by using an inadequate ladder is a gamble you probably don't want to make.

“When you start factoring in the cost of an emergency room visit, it gets inexpensive really quick,” Schultheis said. “And a good, well-cared-for ladder, stored out of the weather, can last for decades.”

More information, see the MU Extension guide “Portable Ladder Safety” (G1932), available for download at or from your county MU Extension Center.

Writer: Debbie Johnson