Stepladders are typically labelled with a warning sticker that says:

⚠️ Danger: Do not stand on top step

or, sometimes on the second-from-the-top step:

⚠️ Do not stand on or above this rung or step. YOU CAN LOSE YOUR BALANCE.

Government agencies give similar advice:

Do no stand, climb, or sit on the stepladder top or pail shelf.

Employers agree that it's dangerous (← don't watch if you're squeamish).

So, why are stepladders designed with a top step at all?

  • For waist-height stepladders, I can understand the utility of a top step, as it lets you use the ladder as an improvised sawhorse. Besides, one-meter falls are usually tolerable. For two-meter ladders, though… I don't think so.
  • If it's just a place where you can rest your paint can, a fold-out shelf would be better.
  • If it's to serve as a hand-hold, then a cylindrical pipe would do — and it would be more obvious that you aren't meant to stand on that.
  • If it's for the structural integrity of the ladder, wouldn't a cross-brace serve that purpose without inviting temptation to step there?

Cost-effective structural integrity

The full depth step provides the hinge point for both sides of the ladder as well as rigidity to prevent twisting at those hinges when the user approaches the top. The only type of brace that would provide the same rigidity would require cross braces and could still function as a step for those determined to hurt themselves.

Many ladders do switch to a different material (usually reinforced plastic) at the top, which further reinforces the uniqueness of this step (and is cheaper than more aluminum). Combine that with the scary little illustration of a guy falling and you have a reasonably clear message.

enter image description here

There is also the issue of the non-load bearing tray on most full-size ladders. This is clearly not a step (though some still try) and provides a safer place to rest tools and supplies.


I don't know if the same logic applies, but back in high school, and speaking of wood ladders, we were always told to avoid steps that were below the knee line, since your knees won't fold to front (hence reducing the risk to fall forward) and you would have a handle in case you fall backwards.

However, wood ladders usually don't have this top step, so I think in steel/ aluminum ladders it's added for the same reasons plus an added layer of comfort since you can place objects on top of it, leaving your hands free and/or allowing user to place their elbows on these steps. The perception of risk is augmented by the use of plastic materials for this step, creating a visual diferentiation that acts as an affordance: " you should not stand here" .

You will also notice that this exists on ladders higher than 3 or 4 steps, otherwise you have small ladders without any "prohibited " step


Top steps are not really that dangerous. The warnings are there probably for the same reason welding cables have a "don't place in mouth" label. It's for self-protection in a litigious society.

I place it in the same category as the following:

DANGER: Do not hold the wrong end of a chainsaw WARNING: HIGH SPIN SPEEDS. DO NOT put any person in this washer. This Dremel tool is not intended for use as a dental drill… Do not eat iPod shuffle

People also use ladders as scaffolds by using two ladders and a plank (or planks) of wood; or 4 ladders, two planks of wood and a piece of plywood. Of course moving it to a new position is a bit of a pain.

In the above scenario using the top step is perfectly fine. Everything is well balanced; and there are other scenarios where using the top-step works safely as well.

All this doesn't mean that one should be careless and unaware of the risks at hand. But this holds true with all tools.


To respond to the comments below: Here are some professional images of using the top rung of step ladders

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Yes, this isn't the top step but if you need to go higher you'll place it on the next step without an issue.

  • 3
    Unlike those other dangers, though, the stepladder hazard can easily be eliminated by not having that step there at all. The question is not why there is a warning label, but why the ladder is designed with the not-a-step. – 200_success Nov 16 '15 at 21:48
  • 1
    My point is - that it is not really a danger. I've owned and fixed several buildings over the years and have used that top-step without problems. It's a CYA warning more than anything else. As you get higher the center of balance gets smaller and it's easier to over reach. Again. It's not a UX/design issue. It's a litigious issue. – Mayo Nov 16 '15 at 22:00
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    For all you kids following along at home: The top step really is riskier. You give up that small but important extra stabilizing point (the rung above you) greatly increasing the likelihood of your body and the ladder pivoting in opposite directions. But, to @Mayo's point, no reasonable society would honor a request for compensation if one were to make such a poor decision. – plainclothes Nov 16 '15 at 22:10
  • Is there data for the "not really that dangerous" statement? Is there data for "really is riskier" statement? Surely some workers compensation board somewhere has studied this. And published. In the UK it's "Don't stand on the top three steps." hse.gov.uk/Pubns/indg455.pdf – JeromeR Nov 17 '15 at 8:40
  • I don't have data. Only experience - a lot of it. Yes. It is riskier when you get use the top steps. The reason for this is that people tend to forget that they're on a ladder and tend to get "lazy". By lazy I mean that they will try to reach too far as opposed to climbing down the ladder; repositioning the ladder; and then climbing back up. Another example: one should use both hands while using a circular saw and have some one else (or a clamp) hold the piece of wood. If you do it yourself; one hand stabilizing the wood and one hand on the circular saw you are taking a greater risk. – Mayo Nov 17 '15 at 11:32

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