Ladder Work to Die For? by Andrew Willis


Let me tell you where I stand.

Amongst those who know me, I have a reputation as a straight talker. Perhaps at times I’m too straight for some people. But when it comes to working at height in general, and to ladder safety in particular, I don’t think anyone could deny that I know my stuff.

Thousands of words have been written about working at height. However, it seems to me those words are often written by people who lack a clear understanding of statutory law: people who also sometimes appear to lack basic common sense!

I have common sense, and I feel comfortable with my knowledge of the current statutory legislation. But when it comes to writing an article, I feel myself immediately slipping into self-preservation mode. What if I misquote or get a fact incorrect? I’m only human after all.

But that isn’t my real problem. My real problem is, although I’m confident and I know my stuff, the sheer mass of information and legislation on working at height makes writing this article a daunting task. So let’s focus. Let’s look at one particular area: the legislation covering the subject of safe access and egress to a flat roof or balcony.

Recently I read an article about this in Window Talk, published by the Federation of Window Cleaners. The article is by Simon Brownlee (who has the title of policy advisor / Environmental Health Officer) and it’s nicely written – but it left me with several unanswered questions. From what Simon says, it seems to me that if you’re a window cleaner accessing flat roofs, you’re likely to be breaking the law!

Mr Brownlee says: “Where a leaning ladder is being used to access another level (e.g. a flat roof) it should be long enough so that it extends sufficiently (at least a metre) beyond the landing point to provide a handhold, unless other measures have been taken to provide a firm (secure) handhold. The balcony or flat roof also needs to be safe. (i.e. measures are taken where necessary to prevent falls from or through the roof or balcony). Leaning ladders used as a means of access should be tied. Where tying is not possible, alternative access equipment should be used. Where it is not reasonably practicable to tie a leaning ladder or use other equipment, then as a last resort the leaning ladder stiles could be wedged (against a wall or a heavy static weight). Each situation would need to be assessed on its merits.”

He also stresses that ladders should only be used if working from the ground is not reasonably practicable. That is, if the use of more suitable work equipment “is not justified because of the low-risk, short duration of use.”

I‘d like to shout something from that unprotected roof. My issue is this. I can’t see how we can possibly comply with statutory law when we’re climbing off a ladder onto a flat roof, then returning back to the ladder. At that time, we are not complying with statutory law! Think about the practical implications of the comment: “measures are taken where necessary to prevent falls from or through the roof or balcony.”

For window cleaners to comply with this they would need to secure the ladder, tie off or weight the ladder at the bottom, tie and secure at the top – then have a fall protection system in place to allow the operative to be able to step onto the roof and back onto the ladder! What fall protection systems might we use? If you cannot prevent the fall then legally you need to mitigate the effects of the fall.

Well, the Work at Height Basics Information Sheet 1 advises the use of “Airbags and Safety Nets” amongst other examples. Airbags?

Imagine Tommy and Bert, two domestic window cleaners, cleaning Mrs Brown’s house for £20. “OK, Bert,” says Tommy. “It’s a flat roof job. Get the Airbags!”

Likely? I don’t think so!

Let’s imagine Tommy and Bert access the roof safely. They immediately have to assess additional hazards and risks like unprotected roof edges. What’s the composition of the roof? Has it been checked to make sure it’s structurally load-bearing?

It seems to me we will have to tell domestic residential window cleaners they can’t access flat roof situations, because they are simply not going to apply the controls required. Commercial cleaners? Sorry, guys. If you can’t apply all the controls, same thing applies.

We need simple advice, and perhaps this will come out of the Government’s Löfstedt Review, which is to receive evidence on health and safety law reform. The Working at Height Regulations are, I’m glad to say, being re-examined.

For window cleaning these issues should be collectively debated and shared. Decisions should be driven by our trade association on behalf of members and general window cleaners.

Is it really that hard?

Let’s look at the information we have to refer to so we can make sensible decisions. Imagine you have a bookcase in front of you with lever arch folders on it. You have one labelled Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

Go to General Duties of Employers to their Employees Section 2 (d):

“So far as is reasonably practicable as regards any place of work under the employer’s control, the maintenance of it in a condition that is safe and without risks to health and the provision and maintenance of means of access to and egress from it that are safe and without such risks.”

It’s important to know that the definition of ‘reasonably practicable’ involves weighing risk against the money, time or trouble needed to control it.

I want you to put that folder back and take the next one, which has The Work at Height Regulations 2005 on the front.

Go to section six. Avoidance of risks from work at height (3):

“Where work is carried out at height, every employer shall take suitable and sufficient measures to prevent, so far as is reasonably practicable, any person falling a distance liable to cause personal injury.”

Reading on, you will find if you can’t prevent a fall you need to provide sufficient work equipment to minimize the consequences. You must also: “provide additional training and instruction, or take other additional suitable and sufficient measures to prevent, so far as is reasonably practicable, any person falling a distance liable to cause personal injury.”

Just this month a video clip went virile on YouTube showing a safety trainer for the maintenance group Morrison’s demonstrating a ladder fall protection system. He ended up in a neighbour’s front garden on his arse!

Work at Height Regulations 2005 clearly state you must possess suitable and sufficient means for preventing a fall. You should also look at Schedule 6 (Requirements for Ladders).

Now put that folder away and go to the next one: Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 (PUWER).

Part II General (4) Suitability of Work Equipment

“In selecting work equipment, every employer shall have regard to the working conditions and to the risks to the health and safety of persons which exist in the premises or undertaking in which that work equipment is to be used and any additional risk posed by the use of that work equipment.”

You also read: “Every employer shall ensure that work equipment is used only for operations for which, and under conditions for which, it is suitable.”

Under PUWER the key is that the equipment should be suitable for its purpose and you should be trained to use it:

“Regulation 9 —(1) Every employer shall ensure that all persons who use work equipment have received adequate training for purposes of health and safety, including training in the methods, which may be adopted when using the work equipment, any risks, which such use may entail, and precautions to be taken.

(2) Every employer shall ensure that any of his employees who supervises or manages the use of work equipment has received adequate training for purposes of health and safety, including training in the methods, which may be adopted when using the work equipment, any risks, which such use may entail, and precautions to be taken.”

Before sole traders challenge me, saying that I am referring to Employers and to their Employees, the reader should refer to Part I Introduction (3) Application:

“The requirements imposed by these Regulations on an employer shall also apply to a self-employed person, in respect of work equipment he uses at work.”

Over the last three years IMPACT43 has provided training and workshops to over 1500 candidates under the City and Guilds QCF (NVQ) Level 2 qualification and certification. A general survey of those candidates has shown 90% have not attended ladder training before, and therefore have not been certificated in the safe use of ladders. Moreover, 80% have not attended a water-fed pole training course before, so under PUWER 98 they were also trading illegally. We have noticed a positive change to the service delivery of those that complete the QCF certificate in the way they begin to manage risk.

So why risk personal injury for want of training?

Let’s all get trained and certificated. Let’s work safely. Let’s remove liabilities on all and help to make window cleaning what it ought to be: a recognised, respected, professional occupation.