How to Choose and Use the Right Ladder for Safe Work

extension ladder

Mint Images / Tim Pannell / Getty Images

If you are like most people, using some kind of ladder around the house is a weekly, if not daily event, ranging from tasks as basic as retrieving can goods from a top cabinet shelf to checking roof gutters for leaks. And because so many household accidents involve ladders (studies have shown more than 2 million people have sought treatment for ladder-related injuries in recent years and the number is growing), you'll be wise to read on to learn about all the various types of ladders used around the home, and how to use them correctly. 

Consider just how many different ladder types there are: stepstools, stepladders, extension ladders, telescopic ladders, convertible multi-function get the point. Safe ladder usage depends largely on using the right type of ladder for the job. 

Today’s ladders are available in lightweight and strong materials, not like the wood ladders of yesterday. Modern ladders typically come in aluminum and fiberglass and usually have rungs that are serrated for slip resistance. In addition to the advantage of being light, fiberglass ladders have non-conductive side rails for added safety when working around electricity.

Given the frequent need for this tool, it is worth taking a little time to review how to safely choose the right ladder for the job at hand. This tutorial will outline and expand on some of the recommended considerations involved in selecting the right ladder as suggested by Marc Marini, director of product management at Werner Co, an industry leader in the manufacturing and distribution of ladders and climbing equipment.

Let’s look at five key considerations in proper ladder selection:

  • Selecting the right ladder type.
  • Selecting the right ladder height and reach.
  • Selecting the right ladder weight capacity.
  • Selecting the right amount of maneuverability.
  • Ladder safety.

Selecting the Right Ladder Type

Ladders have come a long way in terms of convenience and safety. The first step in selecting the correct ladder is to choose the right ladder style. Ladders come in five main types although there are some variations within these styles. These five types include:

  • Single-section ladder
  • Stepladder
  • Extension ladder
  • Telescopic ladder
  • Multi-function ladder

Single Section Ladder

Yes, this is your grandfather’s ladder. Used for thousands of years, the single-section ladder is useful for simple, level-ground applications where the top of the ladder is leaned directly against an object. The advantage of this ladder is that it is the lightest ladder available for a given length. The disadvantage is that because it is a single section, it is also the longest ladder for that length.


The stepladder is a single-section, fixed-length ladder with built-in stabilizing legs allowing applications for freestanding use. The legs fold compactly for storage. Stepladders are available in aluminum, fiberglass, and wood.

Extension Ladder

An extension ladder is a design that allows a series of single-section ladders to be deployed in a cascading manner, allowing higher ladder reach in a ladder that requires less storage space. Typically, an extension ladder has two single sections, but the compact extension ladder, such as that made by Werner, Co. comes with a three-section design providing easier storage and requiring less storage length. Standard extension ladders are available in aluminum, fiberglass, and wood. Compact extension ladders are available in fiberglass and aluminum.

Telescopic Ladder

The telescopic ladder is the newest innovation in ladders and is similar to an extension ladder, except that the rungs collapse for an even smaller storage footprint. Telescopic ladders are available in aluminum.

Multi-Function Ladder

The multi-function ladder uses lockable hinge joints and extension ladder design to function in a number of ways, including a step ladder with even or uneven side lengths, a single- section ladder, or as a support for scaffolding functioning like a sawhorse.

Selecting the Right Ladder Height and Reach

Selecting the right length ladder is not as simple as determining the required vertical height. The ladder length must include several factors including:

  • The angle of the ladder.
  • The highest standing point on the ladder (which is four rungs down from the top).
  • Required overlap of ladder sections.
  • Extension above the roofline.

The chart below will show you the recommended ladder height for your gutter height or top support point of the ladder. If you use the ladder to access and go onto a roof, say for an inspection, then the ladder must be long enough to extend three feet beyond the roofline. The same is true if the ladder is going to be leaned against a roofline or against gutters when you are cleaning the gutters.

Ladder chart

Selecting the Right Ladder Weight Capacity

As you would expect, ladders are designed and constructed to safely hold a specific amount of weight borne by a person and any load they are carrying (approximate potential material weights are shown in the diagram below).

Ladders come in different duty ratings, identified by their grade and type. The Duty Rating is the maximum safe load-carrying capacity of the ladder, which includes both a person’s fully clothed weight plus the weight of any tools and materials that are carried onto the ladder.

Duty ratings include the following categories:

  • Type III (200 lbs. load limit)
    Economical design for lightweight use.
  • Type II (225 lbs. load limit)
    The basic design for simple projects.
  • Type I (250 lbs. load limit)
    Designed to handle most projects and jobs.
  • Type IA (300 lbs. load limit)
    Rugged performance designed with professional use in mind.
  • Type IAA (375 lbs. load limit)
    Maximum performance and durability for the toughest professional or home use jobs.
Approximate material weights
Werner Co.

Selecting the Right Amount of Maneuverability

The larger the ladder, the bigger, bulkier and heavier they usually become. When selecting your ladder, consider how easy it will be to store or transport. The compact extension ladder goes a long way to improving maneuverability and ease of storage. Instead of two overlapping sections making up a standard 16-foot extension ladder, a compact extension ladder uses three shorter overlapping sections, making it easier to store and transport.

Ladder Safety

The CDC (Center for Disease Control) reports, "Falls remain a leading cause of unintentional injury [deaths] nationwide, and 43 percent of fatal falls in the last decade have involved a ladder. Approximately 34,000 ladder-related nonfatal injuries were treated in hospital emergency departments during 2011."

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, each year finds about 165,000 ladder-related injuries occurring. Many are preventable with some common sense and following basic ladder safety.

Ladder top step
Keith Getter / Getty Images
Article Sources
The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Stairway and Ladder Safety. National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.

  2. Portable ladders not extending 3 feet above upper landing must be secured. Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

  3. Occupational Ladder Fall Injuries — United States, 2011. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  4. Portable Ladder Safety. California Department of Industrial Relations.