Climb This Ladder

By David H. Glabe, P.E. / April 1, 2004

Last month, the use of attachable ladders was discussed as a method for gaining access to scaffold platforms.  Of course, this isn’t the only way to get to the top of a scaffold, or for that matter, somewhere in between.  Portable ladders are a popular choice for many users since they can be easily moved to various locations as the work requires.


Portable ladders, as the name implies, are intended to be a temporary means of access that can be used in a variety of applications.  Portable ladders are categorized as either “self-supporting” or a “non self-supporting” ladders.  Non self-supporting ladders can be further described as fixed length ladders (not to be confused with fixed ladders) and extension ladders.  While self-supporting ladders, such as step ladders, can be used to gain access to a scaffold ladder, they are infrequently used due to their limited height.  Consequently non self-supporting ladders are used and more specifically, extension ladders are the most prevalent.  Therefore, let’s focus on the proper use of extension ladders in conjunction with a scaffold.


First, all scaffold platforms must have proper access.  This means that if you are going to use an extension ladder, you must have one for each platform of the scaffold that you are using.  All extension ladders, as is also true for the scaffold, shall comply with all applicable safety standards.  We’ll focus on theU.S.federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration, OSHA, standards,.  The primary regulations addressing the manufacture and use of extension ladders in construction is Subpart X of 29 CFR 1926.  However, since the ladder is being used for scaffold access, there are also several scaffold standards that also must be met.  Here are a few things you have to comply with when erecting the scaffold:


  •       The ladder must extend at least 3 feet above the top of the platform so you have something to hang on to as you get on and off the ladder.  Alternatively, you must supply a suitable handhold;
  •       The ladder shall be maintained free of oil, grease, and other slippery stuff;
  •       The ladder shall be used on only on a stable and level surface;
  •       The ladder must be at an angle such that the feet are a horizontal distance from the top support to the foot of the ladder that is one fourth the working length of the ladder.  The working length is described as the distance from the foot of the ladder to the bearing/support point at the top of the ladder, measured along the length of the ladder;
  •       The ladder should not be so placed as to knock over the scaffold;
  •       The ladder doesn’t have to be secured at the top although if the ladder will be there awhile, why not secure it;
  •       Always support the ladder on both rails, never just one, unless it is designed for that type of support;


Here are a few things that apply as you use the ladder:


  •       Only use a ladder for the purpose for which it was designed (i.e. don’t use it horizontally as a platform!);
  •       Keep the area around the top and the bottom of the ladder clear of obstructions;
  •       Don’t try moving the ladder while you are on it;
  •       Face the ladder while going up or down the ladder;
  •       Don’t carry anything that will cause you to lose your balance while climbing the ladder;
  •       Be aware of the limited strength of the ladder.  Typically, never have more than one person on the ladder at a    time;
  •       Don’t overload the ladder;
  •       Don’t use a single rail ladder;
  •       Have a competent person inspect the ladder on a periodic basis and after any safe use altering occurrence;
  •       Use at least one hand (and of course your feet) while using the ladder.


When using a portable ladder to access the scaffold, you have to contend with the guardrail system at the top.  Don’t be tempted to leave the rails off since this will surely lead to disaster.  Place the ladder so you can safely climb through the rails if possible, or better yet, provide a safe access at the platform level utilizing a guardrail system.  This guardrail should not permit a direct (straight line) access to the ladder access opening and consequently a direct access off the platform. In other words, force the ladder user to step sideways in order to access the ladder or platform. This will force the user to stop and think about how he/she will get on the ladder.


Finally, if you use a portable ladder to access a scaffold platform that can vertically adjust in a continuous manner, such as a mast climbing platform or adjustable scaffold platform, do so with caution.  Make sure the ladder is long enough for the maximum anticipated height of the platform!

Tags: Fall Protection Scaffolding Scaffolding Platforms ladder access ladder usage portable ladder guidelines Resources

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David H. Glabe, P.E.

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