There's an old saying, "It's as easy as falling off a ladder." Despite its folksy ring, the sentiment is dead serious. In fact, 50 people lost their lives in 2014 following a ladder-related accident, according to reported fatalities from the Consumer Product Safety Commission. And more than 185,000 people ended up in the E.R. last year with an injury involving a ladder, according to CPSC's national injury estimates.

Fortunately, it's easy to stay safe on a ladder, too, if you take the following precautions. It all starts with the right equipment. Relatively light A-shaped stepladders are best for tasks only a few feet off the ground. Consumer Reports recommends a Type IA model, especially if you're over 180 pounds. For around-the-house projects that are 17 feet high or higher above the ground, use a conventional Type IA or Type IAA extension ladder.

Once you have the right ladder for the job, here’s how to handle it safely.  

Step One: Inspect the Ladder

Before you set foot on any ladder, especially one you've never used before, inspect it for signs of damage or weakness, such as splits and cracks on wooden ladders. On aluminum ladders, look for things like bent steps, sharp edges, and loose rivets. Cracks, chips, and missing components are red flags on fiberglass ladders (which should be used instead of aluminum if there’s any chance you'll be coming into contact with electricity.)

If the extension ladder has a lanyard, look for wearing or fraying. Make sure the ladder is clean and dry. Wipe away water, oil, and other slippery substances from steps and rails, and wipe the ladder clean after each use to prevent deterioration.

Step Two: Ensure a Stable Set-Up

Always set up your ladder on a firm level surface; use a leg-lever (like the one shown on the ladder in this video) on uneven ground or pointed ladder shoes on unstable surfaces, such as loose gravel. If there’s a door nearby, make sure it can't swing open into the ladder. Never attempt to use a ladder in high winds or a storm.   

Proper angling is critical with extension ladders to prevent them from slipping. The base of an extension ladder should be 1 foot away from the wall for every 4 feet the ladder reaches up—that's 3 feet at the base for a 12-foot ladder, or roughly a 75-degree angle. If reaching the 75-degree angle is difficult or the feet feel unstable on the ground, have someone hold the ladder, especially when transitioning from a roof or scaffold to a ladder.

When raising an extension ladder, watch out for power lines and be careful not to place your fingers between sections. And if you do intend to climb off the ladder and onto the roof or other surface, be sure it extends 3 feet beyond the contact point.

For stepladders, use them only in the open, A-shaped position, never when folded. Make sure the spreaders are fully open and locked into place.

Step Three: Keep it Steady

If you’re climbing up near a roof or eaves, inspect the work area for insects and bird nests, using binoculars if necessary. Climb and descend slowly, facing the ladder and holding the side rails with both hands. Always maintain three points of contact with the ladder—one hand and two feet, or two hands and one foot. And never allow a second person on the ladder with you.

Center your weight between the ladder rails at all times, and avoid sudden, jerky movements. Never extend your reach more than 12 inches outside the rails. It's safer to move the ladder than to reach too far. And don't try to move the ladder when you're standing on it or try to "walk" it into a new position.

With stepladders, never climb on the bucket shelf or rear supports. And don't step above the labeled maximum height. Beyond that point, the chances of having an accident increase significantly.

When lowering or closing a ladder, watch out again for pinch points. Protect the ladder from the elements by storing it in a sheltered area away from moisture and heat; keep a fiberglass ladder out of direct sunlight. Storing your ladder indoors denies burglars easy access to the upper floors of your home.