Ladder and Scaffold Safety For Painters


Falls from ladders constitute one of the leading categories of home injuries, and it’s likely that many occur because users don’t treat ladders as they do other tools—with respect for their inherent risks. Common sense dictates the basics. Make sure both surfaces that support an extension ladder, at its feet and upper end, are stable. Set up a ladder at an angle that prevents backward tipping or sliding forward, and watch for overhead power lines. Never climb a ladder bare-foot, don’t stand on the top few rungs, and if you need tools or materials, haul them up in your tool belt or with a rope and bucket. Wood, aluminum and fiberglass are the common materials for ladders, with quality and price typically increasing in that same order. For general use, fiber-glass ladders offer strength and rigidity and don’t conduct electricity, a nice safety bonus.

Ladder Hook

Extension ladders don’t provide a place to set a paint bucket, but you can improvise. Simply insert a length of 3/4-in. plastic pipe or a wood broom handle through a rung and notch the end to create a hook for the pail or paint-can handle.

Walking a ladder.

To walk a ladder upright, set the feet against a solid base and work your way under from the top end. Switch your hands onto alternating rungs as you move forward. Avoid overhead power lines.

The right angle. Check for a correct, stable angle by placing your toes against the feet of the ladder and extending your arms for-ward and level to grip a rung.


A ladder stabilizer, also called a standoff, is a bolt-on accessory that provides a wide stance at the top of the ladder, allowing it to straddle windows and other obstacles you can’t lean against. It also provides a setback from the surface, so you have access for painting or other work, making it easier to work on roof overhangs with less fear of falling backward.

Spiked feet. To prevent unwanted movement on soft surfaces, pivot the lad-der feet so the spiked ends are down. Then step on the bottom rung to drive them into the ground. Cleats. On wood decks or other surfaces that might a flow ladder feet to slide, use screws to fasten a wood cleat or stop– block against each foot.


Available at most rental centers, scaffolds provide a stable, elevated work platform where you can stack materials and set up tools. They’re great for proj-ects that require a lot of detail work or extended completion times.

Assembly. Start by laying the end frames on the ground and installing the adjusting screws and baseplates or casters.

Positioning. After you have the crossbars attached and the baseplates sitting flat on wood blocks, use the adjusting screws to level the frame.

Safety. Use a guardrail sys-tem on any open sides to prevent falls. Fit toe boards elsewhere to keep materials and tools from dropping off.

Ladders and Scaffolding

Few painting assignments can be undertaken without ladders. Of course, if your house has two stories, you will need an extension ladder to reach high windows and shutters. But even interior painting requires at least a stepladder. Because you will spend lots of time on ladders no matter what you paint, this chapter shows you how to use stepladders, extension ladders, and planks safely and effectively.

Ladder Safety

Because you’ll be above the ground, your first consideration must be safety. Walking a wide scaffolding plank poised in the air or bouncing on extension ladder above concrete doesn’t sound like much on paper, but I promise that these heights will win your respect on your first ascent. Even the lowly stepladder seems awfully high when an inadvertent shift in body weight threatens to topple you. So before you climb any ladder, you must be aware of the dangers: falling from ladders can cause irreparable damage to your hips, back, neck, and head. The vertical distance itself is irrelevant: we have all read about babies who tumble from fifth-story windows unscathed and homeowners who suffer fatal injuries from slipping off footstools. No matter how high you are off the ground, exercise the highest degree of caution. Always observe the ladder manufacturer’s recommendation on proper use as well as your own common sense.

Your equipment should be supremely dependable, and you should be highly familiar with its limitations. For this reason, I suggest you use your own equipment rather than renting or borrowing it. You never know the history of a ladder that belongs to someone else, and many flaws aren’t readily visible: a solid-looking rung may have been weakened when the ladder fell or suffered a strong blow, or the ladder legs may have been bent and later straightened in a way that fatigued the metal. Other dangerous flaws include loose rubber shoes on the ladder feet, poorly anchored hooks on extension ladders, and steps weakened by corrosive liquids such as paint removers.

Use only all-aluminum extension ladders. Today, most extension ladders are manufactured with aluminum, so by purchasing aluminum you are certain to get a strong and new product. Aluminum ladders are also far lighter and easier to handle compared to wooden ladders. Keep in mind that wood is rarely used in extension ladders nowadays, with the exception of specialty ladders used around power lines where weight is a secondary consideration. Therefore, chances are that if you come across a wooden extension ladder, it will be many years old and probably weakened with time and use.

Use only all-aluminum ladder jacks (ladder jacks are hooks that hang on ladder rungs to sup-port a walking plank set between two ladders) for the same strength and weight reasons cited for extension ladders. Do not use jacks made of iron or steel, as these materials show the jacks’ age. Because jacks are so critical to safety (jack failure causes the plank and you to fall), they should be brand new and of the highest quality.

Use only all-aluminum planks. Quality scaffolding planks are either 100 percent aluminum or have a plywood walking surface supported by a reinforced aluminum frame—either variety is fine as long as the plank is brand new Never use wooden planks; not only are wooden planks very heavy and thus more difficult to position on jacks, wooden planks warp over time and can snap in their middles because of invisible weak spots. Wooden planks also don’t have end handles for easy carrying up and down ladders.

Stepladders may be either wood, if new, or aluminum. In my opinion, a new wooden stepladder is sturdier and tougher than a new aluminum stepladder; stepladders are an exception to my “aluminum only” rule.

Do not subject ladders, jacks, and planks to undue stress. For example, never let go of a ladder and let it crash to the ground; set it gently on the ground. Do not drop ladder jacks to the ground from their ladder settings; walk them down the ladder. Treat planks with the same respect. By being careful with your equipment, you eliminate the shocks and stresses that could weaken the aluminum’s structural integrity.
Extension ladders are sold in three grades according to their ability to support weight: residential, commercial, and industrial. Because you will be placing fairly high stresses on your extension ladders, go with the commercial grade. Residential ladders will support you and a plank but will also bend in their centers when fully extended with a full load. Industrial ladders have more strength than you require, and consequently are harder to move around because of their greater weight.

In shopping for ladders, ladder jacks, and planks, consult your local hardware store or lumberyard to determine what is best for your particular project, and check the yellow pages under “Scaffold.”

Some people suggest that homeowners can save money by renting ladders and planks rather than purchasing them. This is really a judgment call on your part: rental equipment ranges in quality from excellent to miserable. I would say that it’s fine to rent equipment on which safety does not depend—paint sprayers and disk-sanders, for example. But I feel that purchasing new ladders, jacks, and planks from a reputable dealer is the best insurance you have against equipment failure.

Why all this discussion about ladder quality? Because safety can never be overemphasized. When you are confident that your equipment is the best, you need be concerned only with doing a good job and not whether your ladders will support you one more time.

Carrying a Ladder

With the ladder resting on the ground, col-lapse it, make it as short as possible and engage the ladder hooks. Next, make sure the ladder hooks are pointed away from your body—that is, with the base of the ladder closest to you. Grab the rungs near the fulcrum, or center point, and lift. (You may want to mark the center point with tape.) Although most heavy objects should be lifted by squatting with your legs and keeping your back straight, this method won’t work very well here—your knees would get in the way of the ladder, and you would have less balance.

If you grab the ladder by the rungs, you have a great deal of control when walking and are in position to throw up the ladder against the house. This hold is easy on your fingers, too. The ladder is now more an extension of your body than a thing you are carrying.

Ladder Throw Up

I use this curious-sounding term to describe lifting the ladder to a vertical position, rather than confuse this move with raising the ladder’s extension. The term is actually pretty accurate, because you literally throw the ladder up into the air in order to lift it vertically.

Holding the ladder at its midpoint, plant a ladder foot into the ground. Your lower arm pulls the ladder down while my upper arm pushes it up. The ladder pivots at my body. Even though I’ve planted one ladder foot on the ground, my lower arm continues to press down to prevent the foot from slipping.

I “throw” the ladder a bit, that is, I exert a lot of effort in pulling down with my lower arm and pushing up with my upper arm. The momentum this creates allows me to release my upper grip and, as the ladder becomes vertical, grab a lower, more comfortable rung while my lower arm continues to hold the ladder. Once the ladder is vertical, it can be steadied with just one hand.

Ladder Drop

How do you get the ladder back down? Essentially, you catch it as it falls. I lift the top of the ladder away from the house until the ladder is vertical, then grip a rung below the midpoint. I pull gently to start the ladder falling sideways, to my left. I walk with the ladder as it falls, so that the midpoint and my body move together at the same speed . I then raise my free hand to catch a rung on the far side of the mid-point.

Both arms are now needed to stop the ladder’s fall: my right arm pushes down, and my left arm pushes up. The ladder back in the carrying position.

Vertical Carry

There will be times when, because of tight corners, trees, or short distances, you will want to carry the ladder vertically without the hassle of dropping it and throwing it back up. With the ladder vertical and resting on the ground, grab it at the second and fifth rungs, or third and sixth rungs (make sure there are two rungs between your hands), with the hooks pointed away from your body. My lower hand curls under the lower rung, and my upper hand curls over the upper rung; my lower arm lifts the ladder up, and my upper arm balances the ladder side to side. When walking toward a new spot, take care not to move so quickly that the ladder top lags behind and causes you to tumble.

Extending the Upper Section

Extension ladders have a pulley system to raise and collapse the upper section. It’s as easy as holding the base with one hand and pulling the rope with the other.

Keep in mind that the ladder should be vertical when you are either raising or collapsing it. Also, quick movements disturb the ladder’s balance and you should raise and collapse the extension slowly. Do not let go of the rope when collapsing the ladder, you’d be surprised how the upper section can fall like a guillotine. Keep your fingers and arms away from the extension track, and make sure the ladder hooks are pointed away from your body.

Two-Person Walk-Up

If the ladder is too long or too heavy for you to lift, perhaps because the the pulley system has jammed and the ladder can’t be collapsed, use a partner to help you “walk” it up. With the ladder resting on the ground, position the feet close to the work so that the ladder can be easily guided into its location when vertical. Have your partner stand on both ladder feet while you lift the top of the ladder over your head.

Then walk toward your partner, grabbing each successive rung with locked arms. When your partner is able, he reaches down for a rung while you continue walking. He pulls on the rung to help you with the weight of the ladder. Once the ladder is vertical, both of you balance it. Because of its height, an extended ladder will be difficult to steady and could easily get away from you and fall, so be extra careful to hold it precisely vertical.

Use the same technique in reverse to drop an extended ladder. But clearly, it’s best to collapse the ladder if possible.

One-Person Walk-Up

This technique is the same as the two person method, only you use a sturdy shrub or small tree as a surrogate partner to anchor the bottom end. The ladder should be positioned close enough to the work that, once it is up, you can let it fall gently into the spot you need to reach. But even so, the ladder can be tough to balance all by yourself. Remember that the higher a ladder is raised, the more difficult it is to balance and carry vertically.

Ladder Positioning and Use

The ladder feet should be positioned so that the ladder does not lean to either side. If the ground isn’t level, put wood blocks or flagstones under the feet in the air, or dig out the ground with your heels and toes. The distance of the ladder feet from the wall should be approximately one-quarter of the distance to the top of the ladder. If the ladder is substantially closer than this, you run the risk of tipping backwards; if it is substantially farther, the feet might slide out from under you.

For the sake of stability, do not rest the lowest rung on top of shrubs, bushes, stumps, or steps so that they support the ladder’s weight. Similarly, take care to position the ladder so that its midpoint is not supported on an immovable object such as a chimney outcrop, or the ladder could pivot like a seesaw once you climb above that point. Avoid setting up the ladder on oily, wet, or sandy ground—the feet should rest on a solid, dry surface.

Use rope to anchor an unsteady ladder. For example, if you need to position a ladder to reach a second-story corner window, but ground conditions and the closeness to the edge of the house make you uncomfortable, try this system. Tie a rope to the ladder either at the top or at the spot that seems to have the most sway. Then pull it until taut, and secure the other end to a tree or sturdy structural portion of the house. This is a valuable safety move, provided you have a good anchor for the loose end. There’s the story of a man who tied his rope to the family car, and his wife dragged him right off the wall on her way to the store.

Be sure that both ladder hooks are securely connected to the ladder’s lower section and that they evenly distribute the extension’s weight on the rung. And remember that the hooks should point away from you, whether you are carrying, collapsing, or climbing the ladder. This is a matter of safety: rungs are constructed so that they provide a flat surface when the ladder is leaning against a wall. So, if the ladder is used backwards, the rungs will be slanted, and your feet will be apt to slip off them.

Hold on to the ladder rungs at all times. Take a step up, then grab a rung, step up, then grab a rung. It’s very boring, and very safe. Keep your body weight between the ladder legs to keep from tip-ping or flipping the ladder. If you want to lean out and paint that occasional far piece, rather than taking the time to climb down and position the ladder, take this precaution: make certain that you keep your hips inside the ladder legs and extend one of your legs out in the other direction as a counterbalance. And make no quick movements that could disturb the ladder’s balance. Move slowly on your ascents and descents, for the sake of your footing.

Be careful that you are not attached to a cord, rope, or wire that, if pulled, could yank you off the ladder. For example, you might be tempted to tie the sander’s extension cord to a belt loop so that the cord won’t slip out of your hands and fall to the ground. This works great until someone on the ground trips over the wire, tugging you by your belt loop and perhaps pulling you over.

Be extremely cautious around power lines. Power lines are fully insulated when installed, but over time the insulation can fray. One touch with an extension ladder on a live wire, and it’s instant electrocution. So walk around the house before raising your first ladder, and drive an orange-flagged stake into the ground beneath the power lines.
Another source of voltage is lightning. Do not paint in threatening weather. Lightning is attracted to both ladders and electric machinery such as spray guns and sanders.

Finally, do not stand on the top platform of a stepladder. It’s too easy to lose your balance. Stand on a middle step and hold on to the top platform with a free hand.

These cautions sound so obvious that it seems almost silly to cite them. And yet as soon as people become comfortable on ladders, they become care-less on ladders. It’s natural to want to get the job done as fast as possible and forget the hazards of what you’re doing. That’s how accidents happen. So, you may want to review this section halfway through your painting project to remind yourself of safety.

Jacks-and-Plank System

Here is a simple, inexpensive way to create scaffolding—an elevated work platform, that is using ladders, ladder jacks, and a plank. It’s by far the best setup for the house painter. You can easily raise, lower, and transport it. And it makes elevated jobs safer and easier than if you used ladders alone.

The system is made up of these parts:

Two aluminum ladder jacks: Two commercial-grade
extension ladders: One reinforced, walking plank

Use quality equipment. I can’t overemphasize the importance of this. The same safety and purchase considerations outlined for ladders apply doubly here which I’m certain you will understand after your first walk across a midair plank. Review the material before purchasing a plank and jacks.

Make sure the equipment is compatible. A very sturdy plank is not worth much if the ladder jacks supporting it won’t hold 300 pounds. The en-tire system is only as strong as its weakest component.

As when climbing a ladder, be conscious of where you are and what you are doing. The plank is only 1 foot wide and does not forgive errors, so don’t become so engrossed with your painting that you take a step back to admire your handiwork.

Keep your toes on the inside edge of the plank at all times. This lets you feel the plank through your sneakers without having to glance down, mean-ing that you can maintain a safe footing without having to look away from your painting. This speeds up the job.

When you’re up on the plank, walk with “sea legs.” If you’ve been on a small boat, you know that walking with straight legs is a fast way to fall overboard.

To compensate for the deck’s movement, old sea dogs walk with a slight bend in their knees. This same bounce in your knees can insulate you from the plank’s bending as you walk across it.

Get into the habit of leaning slightly toward the wall when on the plank; when walking along it, place a hand against the wall. Then, if by remote chance you should slip, you will fall toward the wall and not into space.

You can sit, stand, and even lie down on the plank to work under an eave, for example. Sitting is probably the easiest way to work: preparation and painting seem much less like work, and you’re not as apt to lose your balance. To scoot along on the plank while sitting, “crab walk” by lifting your seat with your arms.

When sitting down or standing up on the plank, hold the ladder with one arm and the plank or the wall with the other. Your balance is most vulnerable when changing positions, so have a tight grip throughout the transition. Always rest your sander, paint bucket, and tools on the plank before changing position so that you have both hands free to hold on.

Keep the plank as level as possible. Ideally, you should be able to put a tennis ball on the plank without it rolling off. Practically speaking, the plank should not be noticeably higher on one side than the other (make sure jacks are placed on corre-sponding ladder rungs), and it shouldn’t be tilted toward or away from the wall. Ground conditions such as heavy bushes and chain link fences, however, hamper ladder positioning. This means jacks can-not always be adjusted to be perfectly perpendicu-lar to the wall, because the ladder feet cannot always be pushed toward or pulled away from the wall. If the plank must be tilted, adjust the jacks so that the plank tilts in (so that a tennis ball would roll toward the wall), rather than out.

Do not load the plank beyond its stated weight capacity. I suggest that no more than two people work from it; the rest of the crew (if you’re lucky enough to have the help) can work on ground level.

Talk. Whenever you are on the plank with someone else, always announce your movements and always wait for confirmation before moving. Your shifting weight will cause the plank to move. If your partner isn’t expecting this, even the slightest shimmer may confuse him enough to cause him to lose his balance. For example, I would say, “Getting off,” and wait to hear, “Okay,” before moving.

Raising the Plank

This is how two people work together to raise the plank. To lower the plank, use this procedure in reverse.

Position the ladders apart. Haul up the ladder jacks, as shown in Photo 7-24, and hook them on the ladder rungs. Positioning is important. You need to keep two things in mind.

One is the jacks’ distance from the wall. Ideally, the end of the jacks should be about 2 feet from the surface being prepped or painted, which means the plank also will be about 2 feet from the surface. A 1-foot gap between the jacks and the wall is too cramped; you wouldn’t be able to hang your legs over the edge without banging your knees against the siding. And a gap is too far away; you’d have to reach out so far that you might lose your balance.

The second point to consider in positioning the jacks is your reach, the height you can com-fortably reach while standing on that rung. The jacks should be set so that your work is no higher than eye level. This way, you won’t have to sacrifice your balance by reaching too far up to work. Also, position the jacks so that you have a full plank’s worth of work. For example, if you set the jacks so that the work does not extend above your waist, you are forced to move the system more often, which wastes time.

As your partner climbs up, you feed the plank. Be careful you don’t feed it so fast that you push him off his ladder. When you come to the end of the plank, begin carrying it up your ladder. Your inside hand holds the plank and your outside hand grips the ladder rungs. Your partner then rests his end of the plank on his jack. The plank slides along his jack as you continue to climb.

When you reach your jack, lean your chest against the ladder rungs. While continuing to hold the plank with your inside hand, release your grip on the rung, curl your free arm around the outside of the ladder, and grab the plank with your outside hand. Pull the plank across your jack.

Adjust jack settings, if necessary. If the plank is not resting evenly on the jacks, lean against the ladder rungs so that the plank is at your chest and loosen the jack’s butterfly nut. Place your palm under the plank and lift. With your other hand, adjust the jack setting. Then place the plank back on the jack and tighten the butterfly nut.

Ladder options from Bunnings Warehouse. If the ground is irregular, it may be impossible to manipulate the ladders and the jacks so that the plank is perfectly level. Enter a simple device my brother named the Rhino. It starts with a piece of thick wood. Hammer two common (flat-head) nails into the wood block just far enough apart for them to straddle the support bar of the jack; these nails prevent the Rhino from slipping off the support bar. Place the Rhino on the support bar and under the plank to level the plank. This is how the Rhino fits on the jack.

Adjusting the Plank without Dropping the Ladders

After you become comfortable with the scaffolding rig, you will look for ways to minimize moving it. For example, if the jack is hung on the wrong rung or if you want to lower the plank, it’s a great bother to carry the plank to the ground, reset the jacks, and put the plank back in place. Below, I describe a method for making these adjustments while up on the ladders. But first, a word of caution. This maneuver takes strong arms and a bit of practice. Experiment with the plank and jacks set up only a few feet from the ground before trying the real thing. You won’t want to discover that your strength isn’t quite what it should be when you’re in the air and there’s no turning back.

To adjust the plank, begin by leaning your chest against the rungs. Using your inside arm, place your palm under the plank and lift. Your partner on the other ladder helps control the plank. The plank should be mid-chest before attempting to move it.

Lift the jack off the ladder rung with your outside arm (your inside arm is now supporting the plank in midair). Lower the jack, and hook its upper curl (the semicircular piece of metal behind the support bar) over the lowest rung you can reach—two or three rungs down. Allow it to fall into place. Grab the plank with your outside hand (you’re switching plank hands now), then grab a ladder rung with your inside hand. Descend the ladder, and rest the plank on the jack. Your partner now goes through these steps until the plank is at the desired level.

Keep in mind that as you lower the plank, you will be working farther from the wall, perhaps too far to reach safely. You can adjust your extension ladder’s length to bring the plank closer without taking the plank system down, as follows.

Stand on a rung so that the bottom end of the ladder’s extension is chest high. Grip the legs of the extension—the left leg with your left hand and the right leg with your right hand. Yank the ladder backwards to pull it off the wall momentarily. (You aren’t strong enough to pull the ladder so hard that it will fall backwards to the ground!) At the instant the ladder lifts off the wall, push up the extension so that the ladder hooks become disengaged from the rung. With the ladder top back on the wall, yank the ladder backwards again but pull the extension down so that the ladder hooks go past the rung they had been resting on.

Next, with the ladder again resting on the wall, step down a rung or two, then repeat the above procedure until you get to a rung that allows the plank to be close enough to the wall. Be sure the ladder hooks are securely set on the new rung.

Finally, descend the ladder, lift its feet off the ground using the vertical carry grip described ear-lier in this chapter, and walk the ladder toward the wall. The plank will be closer to the wall, and you’ll approach the ideal one-to-four ratio of distance from wall to ladder height.

Plank Setups

The plank can he arranged in a variety of ways to allow you to reach different areas. In the conventional plank setup, one plank simply rests on two ladder jacks, with the ladders apart. Here are a few variations:

Plank-to-roof. By resting one end of the plank on a roof ridge, you can avoid potential problems with positioning the ladder. You need to feed the plank to your partner, who should ascend a second ladder (not shown) to the roof to pull it up; then you climb up the first ladder to rest your end on the jack. The Rhnio, described earlier in this chapter, will probably be needed to level the plank.

Reversed jack. A forward jack on the left ladder (placed on the roof) and a reversed jack on the right ladder (placed on the ground). You can tellthat the second-floor peak would be difficult to reach without this variation of the plank system. Note that the roof ladder is angled so that the top of both legs will rest on the roof; because this requires the ladder feet to be at different heights, you have to nail a piece of wood into the roof under the short leg. Another piece of wood is nailed in just below the other foot to keep it from slipping down the roofs pitch.

This setup is clearly dangerous because of the sheer height involved. You can imagine how hard the patio is at the base of the right ladder. Use extreme caution when on the high end of this plank setup.

Double reversed jacks. At times it’s easiest to reach wall space by reversing both jacks and resting the plank on the outer side of the ladders. Do not hook double-reversed jacks above the second-highest ladder rung, because you’ll need to grab the top rung when getting on and off the plank.

When you reverse the jacks while high off the ground, be extra careful. It’s trickier to work on this setup because the plank is farther from the wall. There should be no more than two workers on the plank at any time. Move slowly, and always lean toward the wall in case you have to reach out to it for balance. Only one person at a time should climb on or off the plank.

How do you get on and off this thing? The only way is to climb over the plank. Take it slowly. This is a demanding move. It can be scary because you’ll feel as if you’re going to fall off. But the only way this could happen is if you lose your grip or if you put too much weight on the outside of the plank and flip it back on yourself.

First, climb the ladder until your head bumps the bottom of the plank. Place your materials and equipment on the plank, pushing them toward the center to make room for your climb up and over. While holding on to the rung directly under the plank, step up and reach over to grab the rung directly above the plank. Then let go of the lower rung, and reach up to grab the above-plank rung with your free hand. Step up one rung. Your stom-ach should be rubbing against the plank edge, and you’ll feel cramped. Lift your inside leg up to the plank, resting the inside of your knee on it, while continuing to hold on to the rung with both hands. It may be more comfortable to put your foot on the plank rather than your knee.

Now just pull yourself up with your arms, rocking forward on your knee and kicking up your other leg behind. You still should be holding the same rung with both hands, with both knees on the plank. You’ve made it! To get down, simply do this in reverse.

Ridge jack. For surer footing on an unusually steep roof, you can lay down the ladder’s extension. The extension is kept in place by a ridge jack. One hook of the jack secures a ladder rung, and the other hook goes over the ridge.

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