I hear this particular quote many times, each and every week. Because the asumption is so common, I think it’s time I take steps (yes, pun fully intended) to talk about why people think this is true and why they are wrong (sort of).
Let’s be very clear on an important fact first – work at height is extremely dangerous – it can kill you or permanently disable you if things go wrong. Work at height means “any type of work where you could fall down to a point lower than you’re standing at” – so it also includes falling into holes as much as it does off ladders or steps. It’s one of the biggest causes of workplace injuries and deaths, particularly in industries such as construction, maintenance and engineering. Gravity is an unforgiving and ever present workplace hazard, unless you’re Tim Peake of course. You can’t avoid it, so you’ll need to stop it from hurting you instead. As the saying goes, it’s not the fall that will kill you, it’s what you hit when you stop. The sudden deceleration is what causes the damage to your bones, tissues and organs.
It’s also worth mentioning another fact that’s often overlooked – some hazards affect you just as much at home as they do at work, and falling is obviously one of them! So, the precautions you take in the workplace – even if it’s simply because your boss makes you do it that way – should extend to everything you do outside of work too. I’ve read far too many sad stories of brothers, sons, fathers, sisters, friends or daughters dying or suffering life changing injuries following a fall from something. Even more sad is the fact that most of these stories would never have happened if just a bit more planning was done before starting the job.
So, back to the original question – can we still use ladders, and if we can, should we? All work at height should be approached with a methodical and hierarchical approach to risk management. This isn’t as complicated as it sounds – just take some time to think about the area you need to access and what you’ll do when you get there, then select the most appropriate access method for the job.
Here’s an example hierarchy for you to use – start at the first option and if that isn’t reasonable for your particular situation, try the next one down, and so on:
Avoid work at height in the first place – use alternative methods. Examples include long water pole kits for window cleaning or camera drones for rooftop inspections
Use ‘fixed collective’ fall prevention – this prevents everyone in the area from falling. Examples include installing railings around an excavation or scaffolding around the perimeter of a roof
Use ‘mobile collective’ fall prevention – this is similar to the option above, but less stable, so therefore more risky. Examples include cherry pickers or mobile scaffold towers
Use ‘individual fall arrest’ – this method doesn’t stop the fall, but safely catches the person in mid air. Examples include harnesses and lanyards. This is not as reliable as collective prevention for a variety of reasons. Recovering a fallen worker might be difficult too and personal harnesses are no use for anyone else in the area if they stray too close to the drop…
Use ladders or steps – this option doesn’t stop you falling, nor does it catch you if you fall. As such, it’s the least safe method and should be restricted to quick, low risk jobs where the other options would take longer to assemble than the job itself would take. If you do choose this option, refer to the guidance that is plentifully available on the internet – try the Health and Safety Executive ladders guide as a great starting point.
As you can see, a ladder is an appropriate means of access for some jobs, but you need to be aware that ladders have limitations, they are the least safe of all the access options (assuming the other options are used properly) and they must be used with care and respect.
You may have noticed that I’m not including a ‘don’t use any access equipment’ option in the list, because nobody would be that stupid these days, would they?
Unfortunately, as I travel around East Anglia, I see poor practice similar to this every week – the message is sadly still not getting through to everybody. A shortcut or minor cost saving might seem attractive in the short term, but can end up in death or disability – it just isn’t worth it.
Lastly, whichever option you choose, you need to be sure the equipment is:
- In good condition
- Working properly
- Assembled correctly
- Used correctly
- Installed level and on stable ground
- Only used by trained personnel
Director, Haysman Consulting Limited
Chartered Safety and Health Practitioner