Ship ladders are a hybrid.  Part stair and part ladder, they make vertical circulation more comfortable in mechanical or service spaces.  Ship ladders are generally preferred to normal ladders since they are more like stairs. They are typically installed in mechanical spaces or on rooftops, and they are also sometimes used to access roof hatches.

Ship Ladder Dimensions Diagram

The dimensions of ship ladders vary based on available space so they are always custom fabricated.  The angle of the ladder is usually 60°-70° and the design should use the shallowest angle possible within this range.  Vertical rise between treads is generally around 9".  The width of ship ladders is usually 24" and the tread depth is 6".  Handrails are always provided. Of course, you should also check the OSHA codes as well as local building codes when designing a ship ladder.

The following diagram is a recommendation that combines the IBC and OSHA requirements. This diagram is general in nature so it may not apply to every possible situation. Use your professional judgement when finalizing your design.

Ship Ladder Dimensions - Be sure to check current OSHA and local codes
Ship Ladder Dimensions - Be sure to check current OSHA and local codes

OSHA Ship Stairs Requirements

OSHA provides ship ladders requirements (they call them ship stairs) in 29 CFR section 1910.25 (Stairways) under paragraph (e). OSHA is very clear that ship stairs should only be used where you can demonstrate that standard stairs will not work.

General Requirements: the general requirements of section 1910.25 must be met, including the need for guardrails, handrails, vertical clearance of 6'-8", uniform treads/risers, etc. Be sure you review all of the general requirements when designing a ship ladder.

Live Load: at least 5x the anticipated live load, but not less than 1,000 pounds point load.

Slope: 50 to 70 degrees from horizontal.

Risers: open risers with a vertical rise of 6.5" to 12". Note IBC code for I-3 spaces calls for maximum riser height of 9.5".

Tread: minimum depth of 4". Note that IBC code for I-3 spaces calls for 5" minimum.

Width: the clear width should be at least 18" wide.

International Building Code Ships Ladder Requirements

According to the International Building Code 2018, ship ladders cannot be used as a means of egress (with one exception.) The exception, per IBC 2018 1011.15 is:

Ship's ladders are permitted to be used in Group I-3 as a component of a means of egress to and from control rooms or elevated facility observation stations not more than 250 square feet with not more than three occupants and for access to unoccupied roofs.

Per IBC 2018 (1011.15), ship's ladders serving Use Group I-3 must meet the following:

Handrails: must be provided on both sides.

Treads: minimum depth of 5". The total of the tread depth plus the nosing projection must be at least 8.5".

Risers: maximum height of 9.5".

International Residential Code Ships Ladder Requirements

The 2018 version of the International Residential Code does not allow a ship ladder to be part of the means of egress with one exception. Per IRC 2018 R311.7.12:

Exception: Ships ladders are allowed to be used as an element of a means of egress for lofts, mezzanines and similar areas of 200 gross square feet or less that do not provide exclusive access to a kitchen or bathroom.

Residential ships ladders require the following elements per 2018 IRC R311.7.12:

Handrails: must be provided on both sides at a height between 30" and 34". Refer to R311.7.8.2 for handrail requirements.

Treads: minimum depth of 5". The total of the tread depth plus the nosing projection must be at least 8.5".

Risers: maximum height of 9.5".

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