My uncle John fought in the infantry during World War II, but it was a simple ladder that defeated him. The ladder slid out from under him when he climbed too high while hanging up holiday decorations, throwing him 8 feet to the concrete below. With two broken legs, he dragged himself inside the house called a nearby my aunt for help.

An ambulance rushed him to the hospital, where he revived after doctors worked to stop the swelling in his brain. Late that night, hooked up to machines, he looked up at the loving, distraught faces of my relatives who were keeping a non-stop vigil by his hospital bed. “Now you girls go on home and get some rest,” he said. “I’ll either be fine in the morning, or you can bury me.”

The next morning, when my relatives poured back into the room, he was unresponsive. Minutes later, he died.

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My uncle was not the only one to be felled by holiday décor. More than 90,000 people get emergency room treatment for ladder-related injuries every year. Equally troubling, falls from ladders account for nearly 700 work-related deaths annually.

I was reminded of ladder safety again when talking with a close friend who fell from a ladder when we were in college. Painting her house in anticipation of her mother’s visit, she slipped and fell on concrete. Her back was so badly injured that she had to spend weeks in a wheelchair. Talking with a friend at the YMCA, I found his ladder had fallen sideways at his construction job and he had to throw himself sideways to avoid landing on a concrete block; he was still recovering from his injuries. And a few weeks ago I received an email from another dear friend who had fallen off a ladder while working on his gazebo. Fortunately, he only broke his wrist.

So how can you protect yourself on this tricky piece of equipment? Here are some ladder tips from the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Related: 6 Things Not to Do in an Emergency

Use the right ladder

The ladder should be:

  • Not too short. Lots of injuries result from using a ladder that’s too short for the job. The right ladder should extend at least 3 feet over the top of the roof or work surface. Never put a ladder on top of something to extend its reach, and never stand on the top rung. Both are extremely dangerous.
  • Not too old. Do not use an old, worn-out ladder. After being climbed on for a few years, ladders tend to break down. Inspect the ladder carefully before using it, and do not one with cracks or loose rungs. This is a common cause of serious injuries, since the ladder can break while you’re standing on it.
  • Strong enough. Make sure the ladder can support both you and your load. You can do this by checking the label on the ladder that describes the maximum load rating. If the ladder’s “duty rating” is 200 pounds and you weigh 250, find another ladder.
  • Slip-resistant. Make sure your ladder has slip-resistant feet. Talk with employees at the hardware store if you’re not sure what this means.

Set it up right

Even if you’re using the right ladder, you can still get hurt.

  • Put the ladder on firm, level ground. A tilting ladder has a good chance of falling. If the ground is uneven, you can buy “leg levelers” — devices to make the ladder level on soft or uneven ground — at your local hardware store.
  • Don’t place it near a door that may open. It may seem obvious, but people have done it.
  • Test for the correct angle. Straight, single or extension ladders should be set up at a 75-degree angle. Here’s how to test for it: Stand straight with your toes touching the front of the ladder, where it leans away from you. Stretch out your arms in front of you. If your palms touch the top of the rung that’s at shoulder level, the angle is correct.
  • Keep away from wires. Don’t use a metal ladder near power lines, electrical equipment or a live wire. If you need to work near one, use a wooden or fiberglass ladder that doesn’t conduct electricity.
  • Check the spreader braces on your stepladder to make sure they arelocked. The spreader braces — two little bars that you see on the side of a step ladder — are what keep the ladder from buckling on you, so they need to be locked in place to secure it.

Use it right

While you’re on the ladder:

  • Have someone hold the bottom of the ladder. Too seldom done, this is one of the easiest ways to stay safe.
  • Go solo. Only one person on a ladder at a time.It may seem intuitive to climb up and hand someone above you a tool, but don’t do it.
  • Stay between the rails of the ladder — don’t lean out and reach for that paint can further down the roof. Instead, take the time to climb down, move the ladder and climb back up. Also, keep three points of contact with the ladder at all times, either two feet and one hand or one foot and two hands, and always face the ladder while climbing up or down.
  • Stay off the top shelf and bucket shelf. The shelf where you store your buckets can’t support your weight and will almost certainly break.
  • Don’t stand on the top three rungs of a straight, single or extension ladder. Those should be above the roof or work surface.

When you’re finished with a ladder, put it away immediately.This will help keep someone else from being injured.

Workers are required by federal safety agencies to tie off an extension ladder to the roof so it won’t slip. If you’re working on your roof, you should secure the ladder, too.

My uncle was buried with a full jazz funeral, as he had requested. I don't know how much he knew about ladder safety. I do know he told my aunts that just before he fell, he had climbed up to the very top rung to string more lights. If he hadn't, he might have lived to decorate the house — and our lives — for many more years.

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Diana is an award-winning writer and editor with more than 20 years' experience in magazine, video, book and digital journalism, with a specialty in health coverage. She was a longtime writer and news editor at the Center for Investigative Reporting; has written for publications from the Washington Post to the Times of London syndicate; and has served as a senior and/or consulting editor at Time Inc. Health, Hippocrates, HealthDay News Service and Reporting on Health. She was also editor in chief of Consumer Health Interactive, a national health and medical web site, and has reported on finance for Blueshift Research and PBS Frontline. Before joining SafeBee, she was editor of Bioenergy Connection, a national magazine about bioenergy at UC Berkeley. Her favorite safety tip: Wear a bike helmet.