The death of an electrical contractor in a fall from a stepladder at a bakery was a tragic illustration of a common but all too avoidable accident at work. Working at height demands a few simple but essential equipment safety checks to help you avoid becoming a statistic
The recent prosecution of a bakery following the death of a self-employed electrical contractor who fell from height only serves to highlight the importance of using ladders and stepladders safely.
The contractor was wiring a motor on the top of a machine while standing on a stepladder provided by the bakery, which was based in Hull.
However, the stepladder wasn’t high enough for the task, which resulted in him falling to the floor. He died in hospital from serious head injuries.
An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) identified that the stepladder was not suitable for the task, and the bakery had failed to plan the activity properly.
The firm pleaded guilty to breaching Section 3 (1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, was fined £1 million and ordered to pay costs of £30,000.
It subsequently installed a permanent working platform to allow cleaning and regular maintenance of the machine to be carried out safely. However, had such a platform been provided from the outset, the contractor’s death could have been prevented.
Speaking after the hearing, HSE inspector Denise Fotheringham said: “Falls from height remain one of the most common causes of work-related fatalities in Great Britain and the risks associated with working at height are well known.
“Work-at-height regulations require that all work at height is properly planned and appropriate access is provided.”
Portable ladder standards are changing
BS EN 131, the single product standard covering all types of portable ladders – step, extending and combination – has been substantially revised.
Ladders to the withdrawn British Standards BS 1129 and BS 2037 – often referred to as Class 1 and Class 3 for industrial and domestic types, along with those to the superseded EN131 - will no longer be available.
Existing ladders to the older standards can continue to be used, provided they are in good condition.
The use of telescopic ladders has become more popular due to their ease of storage and convenience.
However, due to the number of components involved in their construction, there are particular issues regarding the bending of their frames and stiles, and the fact that they might be rated for a lower load than more conventional ladders.
The HSE has been particularly concerned by the number of substandard telescopic ladders currently available in the UK.
In particular, these include some low-cost products imported from outside the EU, some of which have been implicated in serious accidents. When tests were conducted on 13 different types of such telescopic ladders by Trading Standards, they all failed to meet BS EN 131 and have subsequently been removed from sale.
Anyone currently owning and using a telescopic ladder is advised to inspect it thoroughly at regular intervals for any signs of damage or component failure. If you have any doubts about its condition, you should contact the supplier for advice.
The Ladder Association has published safety guidance on the changes to ladder standards and on buying, using and maintaining telescopic ladders. These are freely available at www.ladderassociation.org.uk
Following a number of recent fatal and serious injury accident investigations, and the concerns raised above, the HSE will also be amending its ladder guidance INDG455: Safe use of ladders and stepladders: A brief guide.
Top tips for using your ladder
Before starting a task, you should always carry out a pre-use check to spot any obvious visual defects to make sure the ladder is safe to use.
A pre-use check should be carried out:
by the user
at the beginning of the working day
after something has changed, e.g. a ladder has been dropped or moved from a dirty area to a clean area.
If you’re not sure if this has happened, check the state or condition of the feet.
Check the stiles – make sure they are not bent or damaged, as the ladder could buckle
Check the feet – if they are missing, worn or damaged the ladder could slip. Also check ladder feet when moving from soft or dirty ground, e.g. dug soil, loose sand and stone, or a dirty workshop, to a smooth, solid surface like paving slabs, to make sure the foot material and not the dirt, e.g. soil, chippings or embedded stones is making contact with the ground.
Check the rungs – if they are bent, worn, missing or loose the ladder could fail.
Check any locking mechanisms – if they are bent or the fixings are worn or damaged the ladder could collapse. Ensure any locking bars are engaged.
Check the stepladder platform – if it is split or buckled the ladder could become unstable or collapse.
Check the steps or treads on stepladders – if they are contaminated they could be slippery; if the fixings are loose on steps, they could collapse.
If you spot any of the above defects, don’t use the ladder and notify your employer.