Gauging the new ladder guidance: a step in the right direction

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Ladders are a versatile and invaluable piece of workplace equipment, but, like all other forms of access equipment, there are some common sense rules for using them safely, and it’s all about sensible and proportionate management of the risks, which HSE’s new guidance spells out.

Earlier this year, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) launched two new pieces of guidance. Alongside its new brief guide to general work at height (INDG401) is INDG455: Safe use of ladders and stepladders – a brief guide. The new seven page document is devoted to summarising the simple, sensible precautions that ladder users and their employers need to know about.

The new guidance was published following a rigorous review in consultation with the Ladder Association, the Access Industry Forum, the British Retail Consortium and the Small Business Trade Association Forum. The review concluded the Working at Height Regulations were fit for purpose and where problems existed, they arose from the misinterpretation of the law rather than from the regulations themselves.

The need for new guidance
It is not hard to find examples of misinterpretation arising from the regulations. Over the last two years  HSE’s Myth Busters Challenge Panel has taken on over 260 cases of overzealous decisions made in the name of health and safety and a number of these are related to work at height. Even simple issues like footing ladders have confused health and safety consultants, with one case showing a consultant saying work could not be carried out without someone footing the ladder – something the HSE called “a last resort” and “over the top”.

The Ladder Association welcomes the HSE’s move to simplify and clarify its guidance while leaving the regulations themselves unchanged.

Ladders are a versatile and invaluable piece of workplace equipment but, like all other forms of access equipment, there are some common sense rules for using them safely. It’s all about sensible and proportionate management of the risks.

Fortunately, we now have some straightforward, easy-to-understand guidance from HSE that confirms and reinforces this message and, at the same time, provides advice on the often simple, but sensible precautions that those using ladders and step ladders should take to keep safe and avoid falls from height.

More often than not, these falls are caused by inappropriate or incorrect use. The Ladder Association manages and delivers a national training scheme for users, supervisors and managers wanting to equip themselves with the knowledge, skills and confidence necessary to use ladders safely and productively. Encouragingly, delegate numbers are now at an all-time high.

What the guidance says
At seven pages, the new HSE guidance is thorough in explaining the critical issues that employers and ladder users need to know, but it also keeps to its aim of being ‘simple’. The key message is placed in a box at the top of the document, saying in two short sentences that “ladders and stepladders are not banned” and can in fact be “a sensible and practical option for low-risk short-duration tasks”.

The main deciding factor is risk and short duration. The short duration guideline typically means that ladders can be a good choice if no one is expected to be on them for over half an hour at a time.

Next, the guidance explains when ladders should be inspected. It focuses on pre-use checks, which should be carried out by the user at the start of the working day, or after a change like the ladder being dropped or moved from a dirty area to a clean one.

These inspections involve checking the stiles, feet, rungs, locking mechanisms and steps; while for stepladders the platform and treads also have to be checked.

The guidance then goes on in bullet-point form to list a range of simple precautions for both ladders and stepladders that minimise the risk of falling. These include avoiding overreaching or overloading with equipment or materials, using the one-in-four rule so a leaning ladder is one unit out for every four up, and maintaining three points of contact when climbing and whenever possible while working.

After these tips, the next issue singled out in the guidance is securing leaning ladders. Various options are given – if possible, the ladder should be tied with both stiles to a suitable point, but if this is not practical it can be secured with an effective stability device. If this is not possible either, it should be securely wedged against something, for example a wall. If none of these options are practical, the ladder should be footed by another worker, although this is a last resort measure.

Finally, a section on ladders used for access explains that they should be tied, and that stepladders not specially designed for the purpose should not be used. The final section reiterates the need to check the ladder’s condition, going into more detail on what to look for.

The role of training
Early in the document, one vital issue is mentioned under the heading “Who can use a ladder at work?” This explains how the law requires that to use a ladder you need to be “competent”. This is defined as having had instruction and understanding how to use the equipment safely.

The guidance notes that “appropriate training can help”. Competence comes in three parts – having sufficient skills, knowledge, and experience – and as training ensures that at the very least the trained person has the required skills and knowledge, it is often looked for to help prove this competence in the workplace.

The Ladder Association has long advocated the need for professional ladder training for users, supervisors and managers wanting to equip themselves with the knowledge, skills and confidence necessary to use ladders safely and productively. Its message is clear: “If it’s right to use a ladder, use the right ladder and get trained to use it safely.”

Cameron Clow is the chairman of the Ladder Association.


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