Any work that involves working at height, including access to height as part of work, requires the safest equipment available. Workplace safety laws mandate it and industry standards set the type and quality of equipment that is acceptable and necessary in modern workplaces.
The growing awareness of falls as a hazard in building and maintenance trades, and in workplaces with elevated working levels such as mezzanines and warehouse storage levels, has seen the shift away from relying on portable ladders as a working platform to using engineering and technology that allows height to be reached with reduced risk.
The range of work at height equipment is as diverse as safety steps, extension ladders, platform step ladders, warehouse ladders, work platforms, maintenance platforms, mobile scaffolds, safety platforms and industrial ladders. Safety needs to be part of the decision about what is adequate equipment and whether elevated work or access for work is temporary or requires a fixture that is permanent.
In safety terms, fall protection and access equipment is classified, in order of effectiveness as a:
Suppliers of height access equipment are required to provide all the necessary advice for safe use such as recommended safe work procedures, safe sequencing of work and regular preventative maintenance.
LADDERS IN THE WORKPLACE
Ladders are among the most commonly used pieces of equipment, and potentially the most dangerous. A task requiring a ladder can be done safely but too many people fail to follow the basic rules for using a ladder for work.
Ladders are often the only solution to many day to day tasks, typically for temporary access or as a work platform for short term work. These tasks should be done with the right type of industrial grade ladder for the job, whether that be an extension type, a conventional single ladder or step ladder.
The safety rules are:
Setting up a ladder:
Using or working safely on a ladder:
Working at height is classified as high risk because of the prevalence of injury claims from falls. A ladder should not be the first choice unless it is the only feasible means of access to a work area and to work from for a temporary task. Even then the risk should always be assessed and basic rules of using a ladder strictly followed.
At the start select a suitable type of high quality, industrial grade ladder for the task eg. fibreglass ladder for electrical work, and follow the manufacturer’s use and safety instructions shown on the labels attached to the stiles.
Risk of a fall from a ladder can be reduced by:
What the laws say
Any work that is elevated and has a risk of a fall is subject to safety laws. The actual height is not relevant although the most recently updated laws in Victoria only applies to work at two metres or more because this is the threshold where the distance and impact of a fall, typically from a ladder, is potentially fatal.
OHS regulations that are in force in all states and territories commonly have a specific section on falls prevention. The regulations rate ladders as the least effective in reducing risk of a fall.
Some advice on safe ladder use can be found in Safe Work Australia’s 2015 code of practice, “Managing the Risk of Falls at Workplaces”, on which the codes of regulators are based:
WorkSafe Victoria has detailed advice in its ladders guide that is based on its own falls prevention compliance codes:
Most of this advice aligns with the requirements of Australian industry standard AS 1657 – “Fixed platforms, walkways, stairways and ladders - design, construction and installation” and complies with applicable building codes and regulations.
Falling from a ladder is one of the main causes of injury and death at work. More than 10 per cent of work-related deaths are the result of a fall and 30 per cent of those fatal falls are from ladders.
The golden rule is a ladder should only be used for access to a work area but for practical reasons ladders are also used as a working platform despite not being designed for it.
Working at height is classified as “high risk work”. While the task may be routine, each task is done in different sites and conditions that need to be taken into account. Industries that regularly do work at height eg roof work, make sure their workers are qualified, trained and experienced and know how to minimise the risk of a fall at any job site.
Working with ladders should be managed day-to-day by following this recommended procedure:
Pre-start check: A ladder should only be used if the location is safe and conditions and duration of the job make it impractical to set up a secure working platform.
Choose the correct ladder (straight type): Industrial grade only as specified on the label. Inspect before use. Must be in good condition and well maintained.
Setting up the ladder: The surface must be level, solid, dry and slip resistant. Placement should be at a one-in-four ratio to avoid collapse or over balance (eg approximately 750 mm out from the gutter line on a single-storey building). Ensure the top of the ladder is 900 mm extension above the roof edge to provide a safe step-off point. Secure the bottom of the ladder or have it held by another worker when climbing.
Safe use of the ladder. Always climb with three points of contact. Only one worker on the ladder at one time. Avoid carrying items when climbing or use lifting systems to get heavy or awkwardly-shaped materials or tools up to the work area.
If it is necessary to work off the ladder (but only for routine, light work of short duration) workers should stay at least 900 mm below the top of the ladder and work with the waist (ie belt buckle) between the ladder stiles to prevent losing grip, over balancing or dislodging the ladder.
Risk includes a fall from a ladder or the ladder collapsing as a result of unsafe set-up, excessive movement, lifting and handling tools and materials and application of force. Recommended fall protection and access equipment for reducing risk of working at height is classified, in order of stability, as a:
The greater the risk, the more effective the fall prevention measure that should be used.
What the laws says:
Falls prevention is an enforcement priority for all safety regulators. The national model workplace health and safety laws in place in most states require those running a business must manage risks of a fall by eliminating the risk. It this isn’t feasible, reduce the risk by providing and maintaining a safe system of work ie fall prevention control measure.