Ladder to success02 November 2018

Working at height is one of the main causes of industrial fatalities, so using the right access equipment is imperative. What are the most important considerations to be made when choosing, and using, a ladder for access or work at height?

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) released its provisional annual data for work-related injuries in July ( Although the headline figure was that 144 workers were fatally injured between April 2017 and March 2018 (an increase of nine fatalities from 2016/17), the data also revealed that ‘falling from height’ was the most common cause of fatal injuries (35), ahead of ‘being struck by a moving vehicle’ (26) and ‘being struck by a moving object’ (23).

Engineers may be required to work at height during their work, and there is a variety of equipment available to aid workers, from scaffolding and cherry pickers to cradles and suspended platforms. The ladder, a favoured piece of kit for centuries, is also a popular choice.

The Work at Height Regulations 2005 says that ladders can be used for work at height when a risk assessment has shown that using equipment offering a higher level of fall protection is not justified because of the low risk and short duration of use, or if there are existing workplace features which cannot be altered ( So, what do operations engineers need take into consideration when they decide to use a ladder for a job?

Pre-use checks

Before starting a task, users should always carry out pre-use checks on the equipment to spot any obvious visual defects, according to the HSE’s ‘Safe use of ladder and stepladders’ guidance (

On that point, Katharina Busch, content writer at health & safety consultancy Arinite (, adds: “This should happen at the beginning of every working day and during the day when it’s likely that the state of the equipment might have changed, for example, due to the weather.

“Paying close attention to the stiles, feet, rungs, locking mechanisms, stepladder platforms and steps or treads of the ladder can make the difference between smooth going or a fall.

“Stiles need to be in pristine condition, as bent or damaged ones can cause the ladder to collapse easily. The feet need to be clean before placing them on a smooth surface, so make sure the foot material is in direct contact with the ground and not covered by dirt, for example. Rungs and locking mechanisms should not be damaged or look worn.”


A revised set of EN 131 ladder standards were released to the European market on 1 January 2018, replacing previous British standards for portable ladders and stepladders, BS 2037 and BS 1129. The updated standard contains two categories: EN 131 Professional, for industrial and trade, and EN 131 Non-Professional, for domestic and DIY use.

Melissa Albeck, chief executive officer of materials search engine Matmatch, explains that the EN131 standard was revised to introduce a classification of use, to bring clarity on whether the ladder is intended for use in a workplace or domestic use only.

Safety company Arco says that there are a number of changes that both companies and employees should be aware of. All ladders now have to adhere to the same minimum weight capacity of 150kg, whether used in domestic or professional environments, and cycledurability tests have been introduced to check that products will last. Extension ladders over 3m in size also need to be wider at the bottom than at the top to reduce the risk of the ladders slipping or toppling, and manufacturers are therefore using a stabiliser bar to achieve this.

The new standard does not apply retrospectively, so ladders built to the previous standard will still be legally available on the market during the transition period and can still be used thereafter until they need replacing. The target transition date for the Ladder Association and reputable suppliers is 31 December 2018. However, Arco is encouraging companies to update their purchasing policies, ensuring EN 131 professional ladders are specified when replacing existing units.

Material type and durability

Albeck says that plant workers and managers should understand that material choice can impact ladder safety and durability. “Depending on the user’s requirements, there are four materials commonly used to construct ladders,” she explains. “Historically, most ladders were made from wood. Now, wooden ladders tend to be made of softer woods, which are not resilient enough for outdoor use due to their proclivity to splinter and warp.”

Albeck explains that if work is primarily completed outside, workers and managers can opt for aluminium ladders as they’re “strong, durable and lightweight”. However, those working with power tools or other electrical devices should avoid using it as aluminium is highly conductive, making anyone using the ladder vulnerable to electric shocks.

“Electrical engineers and technicians can instead safely use fibreglass ladders to help carry out their work,” Albeck explains. Designed to be sturdy and structurally sound, fibreglass is reported to endure between 80 and 100 years before reaching the end of its life-cycle.

However, while it may be a favoured material for constructing safe ladders, it would not be a suitable choice for warehouses. Instead, a hard-wearing and strong material, such as steel, would be a better choice.

“Resistant to corrosion and staining, steel ladders can also be steam-cleaned, making them easy to maintain and ideal for a range of sectors, including food and pharmaceutical plants, as well as industrial,” Albeck concludes.

Working on the ladder

Finally, you’re on the ladder, and climbing up and down it might seem like child’s play, but workers need to learn to use a ladder correctly from a completely different perspective.

Once the pre-use checks have been carried out, there are simple precautions that can minimise the risk of a fall, according to the HSE. These include:

● Making sure the ladder angle is at 75° – you should use the one in four rule (see diagram p18).

● Only carrying light materials/tools and not overloading – consider worker weight and the equipment or materials being carried.

● Always gripping the ladder and facing the ladder rungs while climbing or descending.

● Maintaining three points of contact when climbing (this means a hand and two feet) and wherever possible at the work position. Where you cannot maintain a handhold, other than for a brief period, you will need to take other measures to prevent a fall or reduce the consequences if one happened.

● Never working off the top three rungs and trying to make sure the ladder extends at least 1m (three rungs) above where you are working.

● Never overreaching and making sure the ladder is long enough or high enough for the task – unlike the user pictured left.

Busch says that “appropriate training” on how to stay safe when working at height is mandatory, and a training day can help understand how to use equipment safely.

She also warns that knowing what ground the ladder will be standing on is important, as ladders should only ever be used on firm and level ground. “To check that the ladder is indeed level with the standing surface, using a levelling device can erase any uncertainty,” Busch explains. “Surfaces need to be clean of oil, moss, leaf litter, sand, and packaging materials to ensure the feet grip the floor.”

The working area also needs to be protected from passing vehicles and people, as well as doors and windows that could potentially push over the ladder when opened.

Busch concludes: “Ideally, a co-worker should stand guard at the bottom of the ladder to make sure precautions are implemented correctly and continue to do their job. If any conditions, such as the weather, change, they can help with making sure the correct action is taken immediately.”

BOX OUT: Tips for carrying out a ladder inspection

● Feet, tips and end caps should all be present, secure, clean and undamaged

● Fixings need to be tight, present and have little wear

● Rungs and tread should be present, undamaged, secure, clean and effective

● Labels are securely attached, legible and readable

● Stiles/frame sections need to be undamaged, secure and clean

● Locking catches are in place, tight, undamaged and can lock/unlock

● Rung hooks need to be secure, all present, undamaged, and fit positively on the rung

● Restraint devices are undamaged and open and close well

Source: Werner Ladder Inspection Guidance (

BOX OUT: Learning the hard way

Two companies were fined a total of £230,000in July for causing a life-threatening injury to a worker whilst he was working on a flat roof. Southwark Crown Court heard how, on 1 December 2014, after a leak had been identified on a roof at London-based Downsell Primary School, facility managers Kier Facilities Services requested action to be taken by its subcontractors, JHH Engineering.

While undertaking the repair work, the JHH Engineering employee fell, suffering a life-changing head injury. The worker has since been left with severe cognitive effects and a reduced ability to care for himself.

An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), found that site-specific planning was not requested from JHH Engineering, nor provided, and that the work was not monitored. Kier Facilities Services also failed to implement its own work at height procedures and ensure subcontractors were vetted.

The investigation found that the roof was accessed by an employee of JHH Engineering using an unsecured, damaged ladder of insufficient length, which was missing its rubber feet and stability bar. No harness for fall restraint was found, and the employee had not used the fall restraint system provided by Kier whilst on the roof.

JHH Engineering pleaded guilty to breaching Section 2(1) of HSWA 1974 and was fined £30,000 and ordered to pay costs of £5,967.12. Kier Facilities Services pleaded guilty to breaching Section 3(1) of HSWA 1974 and was fined £200,000 and ordered to pay costs of £5,923.72.

HSE inspector Charles Linfoot said: “All work at height, including that of subcontractors, should be properly planned, organised, and monitored to ensure that it is undertaken by workers who are sufficiently trained and supervised using appropriate equipment.”

Source: HSE

Adam Offord

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