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March 19, 2008

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Working at height explained

Since the Work at Height Regulations 2005, there remains some confusion over the correct use of ladders and access equipment. David Wilson separates the fact from the fiction, and offers some practical advice on working at height.

Let’s start by making one thing crystal clear: ‘ladder’ is not a dirty word. The Work at Height Regulations 2005 (WAH) never introduced a blanket ban on ladders. There are no teams of inspectors scouring the land in a ladder ‘witch hunt’, and ladders are not yet condemned to the annals of history, doomed to live out their days as peculiar curiosities in museums.

The WAH are not ‘anti-ladder’, per se. Initial confusion led to a dip in popularity for ladders and steps during late 2005, and early 2006. But a strong demand for them returned in 2007, once understanding of the Regulations had filtered through the market to all users.

The reasons for the Regulations

Official HSE figures showed 46 fatal injuries and 3350 serious injuries were attributed to falls from height in 2005/06, making it the single biggest cause of workplace deaths.

So, all the ‘elf and safety bunkum’ jibes which tend to follow the ‘this country’s gone PC mad’ chides must be silenced by numbers: 46 deaths equate to 46 families losing a loved one. The figures of those affected multiply rapidly, and the ramifications of falling from height suddenly become rather bleak.

This doesn’t sound like ‘bunkum’ to me, and I urge all people to support the HSE’s Shattered Lives Campaign, targeting not only those industries traditionally associated with work at height (construction), but also other sectors, such as office work, catering and plant/facilities.

The WAH were put in place to help reduce the number of fatalities and serious injuries resulting from falls from height in the workplace. They allow people, who do not work safely, to be prosecuted — even when no injuries result. This should be a serious deterrent to all those who continue to flout the law.

A pragmatic approach

Let’s not forget that pragmatism is at the core of health and safety. Getting bogged down in form filling and bureaucracy does not guarantee accident prevention. By all means, keep your filing up to date, but you also need to make sure that health and safety works for you in a practical sense. If it does, employees and employers will be able to reduce the chilling number of deaths and injuries.

So will the numbers ever reach zero? I very much doubt it. Unfortunately, accidents really do just happen. We cannot stop work at height, and we cannot let industry grind to a halt by deciding not to undertake certain jobs and tasks that involve working at height. It is simply not practical to do so.

However, we can take care to protect our workforce from injury and death, simply by taking a sober and measured approach to potentially risky working situations. Using robust and reliable equipment, and providing workers with ongoing (general and niche) training are just two aspects of work management that are critical to anyone working at height — be it in the construction, facilities management, retail, outdoor advertising, or rail sectors.

Before the first rung

Working at height refers to both above and below the ground, so that includes manholes, shafts, and other confined areas. Furthermore, the old two-metre threshold no longer applies. Before any work at height commences, there is a three-pronged hierarchical thought process, which should be considered when conducting a risk assessment:

– work at height should be avoided where possible;

– but, if it is unavoidable, use specific equipment and control measures to prevent falls, and;

– if risk elimination is not possible, use measures to reduce the consequences of a fall.

This is simple and effective advice, but obviously it is not being strictly followed in every UK workplace, otherwise the figures would be drastically lower. The points above should be considered the absolute bare minimum in work-at-height best practice, and should form the basis of all risk assessments undertaken.

So, taking these three questions as your basic starting point, what additional elements inform a comprehensive risk assessment? Factors such as weather conditions, equipment suitability and state of repair, and the length of task and level of training needed, must all be taken into account. Being aware of you own personal safety, as well as the safety of others, should be second nature to those who work at height.

The HSE states categorically: “You must do all that is reasonably practical to prevent anyone falling”. OK, fine, so how do we go about that? Firstly, let’s remember that health and safety is a two-way stream. Employers must take responsibility for employee training and competence, provision of suitable equipment, plans for emergencies, and ensuring that the overall conditions for work are safe. On top of that, employees should also report any potential hazards, follow official procedures and instructions, use equipment properly, and be mindful of their actions — not only for themselves, but for those in the vicinity. If employees are asked to do a job in a way that they are not comfortable with — because of lack of training, or inadequate equipment — they should be able to raise these concerns without fear of reprisals.

Training requirements

Asking for training shouldn’t be an obstacle for employees. It shows a willingness to learn and improve existing skills — qualities that should endear you to any HR professional. Training can be anything from generic, broad-brushed health and safety courses, to bespoke programmes designed to deliver task-specific tuition that can be practically applied. Formal training and certified assessment is indispensable in the fight against fatality and serious injury figures, and it’s hard to believe that some companies just do not make provision for these preventative measures in their budgets.

The numbers speak for themselves, as do the compensation costs when bad practice ends in death. Employers need to understand the scope of courses and qualifications available (ladder access safety, mobile elevated work platforms (MEWPs) and harness safety, to mention just a few). An ‘introduction to health and safety’ simply isn’t enough to have under your belt when you work at height — tailored courses are needed for better results.

Any training schedule should cover a number of aspects that are involved in working at height. These should include: overall use, maintenance, auxiliary equipment, erecting and moving any access equipment. Knowledge of all these areas should be seen as standard.

The Outdoor Advertising Association’s (OAA) training programme is a good example of what is required. The course comprises the association’s precise specifications, and takes into account, hazard spotting, working in public places, ladder safety and environmental issues. It is compulsory for all OAA members to take the course and certification is only valid for two years, after which members need to go on a refresher course.

Ladder best practice

Before using a ladder, a number of factors should be taken into consideration:

– make sure the ladder is in good working condition, with no: cracks, corrosion, distortion, broken rubber feet, or missing rungs;

– the user needs to maintain three points of contact on the ladder, i.e. both feet on the rungs, and one arm on the side;

– the ladder should be positioned on a clean surface, free from leaves, moss, sand, or any other substances that could interfere with the resistance of its feet;

– never use the top four rungs when using a ladder, they will not provide enough support, and;

– ladders should not be used where the user has to overstretch themselves, and any work performed up a ladder should be done face-on, without having to twist the body and compromise safety.

If it isn’t possible to adhere to all of the above basic rules, then alternative means of access should be considered. That needn’t mean an expensive capital outlay for one-off jobs, as you can hire the necessary access equipment.

It is also important to remember that workers should not use ladders for long periods — ideally no more than 30 minutes at a time. Furthermore, ladders should only be used to get to a workplace, and are not a workplace in themselves. This means that you can use a ladder to get to a secure piece of scaffold, or any other access area.

Lifting awkward or heavy (over 10kg) materials is also warned against, as this affects the worker’s ability to balance, and endangers those passing underneath. The possibility of falling by overloading a ladder is not the only hazard to be conscious of. Ladders can be knocked by open windows or passing vehicles, which can also lead to injury.

As with the three-pronged approach to risk assessments when deciding whether working at height is absolutely necessary, there is also a hierarchy of safety for ladder use, which is as follows:

– Tie the ladder to a stable structure — this is compulsory when attaching a ladder to other elevation equipment.

– Use equipment such as a stability device, supplied by the manufacturer.

– Wedge the ladder against an immovable object.

– Use a foot to steady the ladder.

The fourth point on this list should be an absolute last resort as it offers the least ballast for the worker, and therefore affects their overall safety.

When mounting a ladder against a surface, the 75°/one-in-four ratio (one unit away from the wall: four units up the wall) should be followed. In the case of using a stepladder, the base should always be opened to full capacity, and when ladders are used, they should be of the correct industry standard, i.e. Class 1 ‘Industrial’ for heavy-duty work, or EN131 for light work.

As with any other piece of equipment, ladders must be checked and maintained on a frequent basis, in accordance with the manufacturer’s guidelines.

A definitive answer?

In the end, the humble ladder is — and will always be — an integral part to working at height. However, with the range of access solutions on the market today, workers and supervisors must ask themselves whether or not it is necessary to use a ladder when carrying out a particular job. Ladders and stepladders should only be used to get to another mode of access, or when there is no other means of safe access. For light use, and for access to a tower or scaffold, a ladder is perfectly serviceable, as long at is properly maintained, secured properly and used correctly by someone who is trained to use it.

I cannot stress enough the importance of accredited and assessed training when working at height. It is an indispensable in the fight against the fatality figures. There’s no such thing as too much training, and refresher courses should be seen as an achievable industry-wide standard from today, not just for the future.

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