Unlike Santa’s reindeers, you can’t fly, so avoid a fall from a ladder this Christmas.
Whether you’re planning to deck the outside of your house like Clark Griswold (from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation), string up just a few strands or decorate a tall tannenbaum in the living room, chances are you’ll need a ladder at some point to do your holiday decorating. And that’s when, if you’re not careful, your holiday could suddenly look less like a picture print by Currier and Ives (cue the sleigh bells) and more like the inside of an ER. Bah humbug.
Even construction workers who know their way around ladders can make a costly mistake. Avoid one with these tips, and let the caroling begin.
Use a tall-enough ladder. It should extend at least 3 feet over the roof or other working surface. If it’s not tall enough, don’t make the huge blunder of placing it on top of something for extra height. Get a taller ladder — borrow one from a neighbor or drive to the home improvement store if you have to. If you’re using an extension ladder, tie it off to the roof.
But not too tall. According to the American Ladder Institute, a straight ladder is too tall if the ceiling height prohibits you from setting up the ladder at the correct angle. An extension ladder is too tall if it extends more than 3 feet beyond the upper support point.
Get the angle right. Straight, single or extension ladders should lean at about a 75–degree angle. How do you know what 75 degrees looks like? The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission advises standing up straight with your toes touching the front feet of the ladder and reaching your arms out in front of you. Your palms should touch the top of the rung that’s at shoulder level. Or, use the 4-to-1 rule: For every 4 feet of ladder height, the base should be 1 foot from the wall.
Place it on firm, level, non-slippery ground. Frozen ground that’s covered with snow makes for a slippery and uneven surface that must be leveled, de-iced and covered. Soft ground can also be a problem. Try using plywood or particleboard as a base. If the ladder lacks slip-resistant feet, you can buy rubber feet covers for it at the home improvement store. Ladder levelers are also available.
Have someone hold the bottom. Ask one of Santa’s bigger, stronger helpers to hold the ladder steady.
Wear slip-resistant shoes. Leather soles don’t cut it. If you had to walk through snow to place or access the ladder, wipe your soles dry before climbing on. Wipe the rungs dry, too, if necessary.
Stay off the top of the ladder. Don’t stand on the top three rungs of a straight, single or extension ladder, and stay off the top step and bucket shelf. You don’t want the ladder to tip over while you’re on it.
Know when an old ladder is too old. Wood ladders decay over time, and decayed ladders can break while you’re on them. Check for cracks, loose rungs and missing bolts, nails or screws.
Check the maximum load, aka duty, rating. If you’re shaped like Santa, the ladder may not be strong enough to hold you and your sack of toys.
Don’t put it near a door. Your family members aren’t mind-readers; they may not know there’s a guy or gal on a ladder on the other side of the door. If you have to put the ladder near a door, block or lock the door or have someone guard it.
Lock it down. Make sure the ladder base is fully opened and the spreaders are locked.
Watch the wires. Metal ladders and live wires or power lines don’t mix.
Stay centered. Keep your belly button between the ladder rails. Lean off too far to one side and you could find yourself on the floor (possibly with the ladder on top of you). To prevent over-reaching, you’ll need to place the ladder close to your work, and move it when necessary.
Use the “three points of contact” rule. That means keeping two hands and a foot, or two feet and a hand, on the ladder when you climb. If you’re carrying tools, put them in a tool belt. If possible, have someone hand you the lights or decorations while you’re up there instead of carrying them up. (But remember, only one person on a ladder at a time.) For two-handed tasks, a platform ladder, which has a platform meant for standing on, is ideal.
Once the job is done — and the ladder is safely put away — have some eggnog. You deserve it.
Marianne Wait is an editor and writer who creates content for Fortune 500 brands.