Ladders at work

April 29th, 2011

After a plumber sustained serious injuries when he was impaled on a steel post, all businesses in the construction industry are being urged to review their risk management approaches when using ladders in order to prevent more accidents.

The Sutherland worker was installing pipes when he fell 1.2 m from a ladder and on to the post of a nearby metal frame. The employer and the site controller got off with a notice to improve safety when working at heights, but consequences can be far worse and the matter requires attention by reviewing ladder safety.

Simple prevention strategies can significantly improve conditions for employees, resulting in less accidents and better customer service.

Prevention Strategies

Safe systems of work recommended by WorkCover begin with ensuring the ladder is suitable for the task, in good working condition and fitted with feet made of rubber, or a similar non-slip material.

Once work has commenced, employees should ensure there is always three points of contact while ascending, descending or working from the ladder. WorkCover also recommends making sure the supporting surface is adequate, that it is level and the ladder will not sink into or slide on it.

Access systems can be the difference between safe ladder use or dangerous practice, which means ensuring appropriate scaffolding and elevating work platforms are in place. The ladder itself must have a height to horizontal distance from wall ratio of 4:1 when leaned against the wall or edge and devices are available to secure the ladder at the top and bottom.

Appropriate signage should also be in clear view, and includes all ladders on a construction site being marked for industrial use involving weights of 120kg or more. This is crucial if there are other domestic ladders on site, which are only designed to support weights of up to 100 kg, and could be confused with the industrial variety resulting in the ladder collapsing.

Ultimately, employers and those in control of the work site should consider that the use of ladders is a last resort when other safer alternatives, such as scaffolding or elevating work platforms, are not reasonably practicable.

Outcomes and Further Resources

While the development of new safety strategies can require an initial investment, the cost of new equipment, signage and worker education is still outweighed by possible legal costs incurred in the event of an accident. Legal procedures are also lengthy and involved, while the worst possible outcome can be the death of an employee and colleague.
Ultimately, it is far cheaper, safer and easier to create a safe work environment than to deal with the negative consequences of dangerous practice.

Further ladder safety and related information is available at workcover.nsw.gov.au in documents such as the Code of practice Safe work on roofs: Part 1 – commercial and industrial and Part 2 – residential buildings.

There is also a guide available discussing safe working at heights. The National code of practice for the prevention of falls in general construction and the National code of practice for the prevention of falls in housing construction are available at safeworkaustralia.gov.au.