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Elevating ladder safety in the electrical industry: key steps for preventing falls

David Gray, Managing Director of T.B Davies and Chair of the Ladder Association, highlights the key steps you need to know to ensure your safety when working at height. 

In an industry that thrives on innovation and precision, the electrical sector faces a persistent challenge in ensuring the safety of its workforce, particularly when it comes to working at height.

The latest statistics from the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) paint a concerning picture: over 5,000 people were injured last year due to falls from height, with 40 of these incidents proving fatal. While the data doesn’t provide an insight into what equipment was used, the number of non-fatal injuries resulting from falls from height has remained relatively static since 2014.

Thanks to NHS data, we know that approximately every 11 minutes of every hour of every day, people attend A&E after sustaining an injury involving a ladder. These figures represent lives, careers, and families blighted – and sometimes destroyed – by accidents that, in many cases, could have been prevented.

The enormity of work-at-height accidents extends beyond personal tragedies to impose substantial financial burdens on the self-employed, employers and the wider economy. Last year, nearly a million working days were lost, and the financial toll exceeded £770 million, demonstrating the serious implications of these incidents on productivity and the economy.

These persistently high figures serve as a clarion call for the electrical industry. They highlight the urgent need for comprehensive safety measures and practices in the use of ladders. They also remind us that we are all responsible for ensuring ladder safety practices are widely understood and followed.

Ladders are safety-critical equipment when used correctly. The risks of working at height can be substantially mitigated by following proper safety protocols, using the correct equipment, and ensuring all workers receive training on working at height from ladders and stepladders.

To help you navigate these precautions, here are some essential tips for safer practices that all electrical professionals should incorporate into their daily routines.

1. Proper equipment selection

Working at height is risky enough without the additional danger of unsafe equipment. The foundation of ladder safety lies in selecting the appropriate equipment for the task. Despite the sector’s familiarity with ladders and steps, they are still safety-critical equipment, so selecting equipment that fits the task – and not just what is available in the van – is crucial.

The specifics of the task – such as height, nature, duration, and environment – should dictate the choice of ladder or stepladder.

A key question to ask yourself is whether your ladders are certified as conforming to the EN131 European Standard. If so, this can help you prove that your equipment is fit for purpose; if not, it’s time to invest in a new set. The EN131 standard provides vital reassurance that your ladder has been rigorously tested for safety and reliability, as it offers an international benchmark for quality.

Taking the time to research and select the right ladder for the job maximises safety and will also enhance efficiency and effectiveness.

2. Material considerations for safety

When it comes to electrical work, the material of the ladder is paramount. Fibreglass, or glass-reinforced plastic (GRP), is the obvious safe choice due to its non-conductive properties, mitigating the risk of electrical shocks. Additionally, its thermal non-conductivity means it is less cold to the touch than metals, promoting a safer grip, particularly in colder conditions. 

While GRP ladders may often come with a higher price tag or additional weight when compared with their aluminium counterparts, their safety benefits are invaluable, especially in electrically hazardous environments.

3. Routine inspection and maintenance

You should never consider using a faulty, damaged or excessively worn ladder. Ensuring your ladders stay in prime condition extends their lifespan and significantly reduces the risk of accidents.

A critical yet often overlooked aspect of ladder safety is the routine inspection and maintenance of equipment. Formal, recorded written inspections are a legal requirement, and we strongly recommend that you carry out a brief, unrecorded visual inspection of your ladder before every use or shift. Doing so can identify potential issues – such as cracks, loose rungs, or worn feet – that could compromise safety. If you spot any areas of damage or concern, contact the manufacturer for their advice. A reputable and responsible manufacturer will always be happy to help, whether sourcing replacement components or offering a full repair service.

Taking the time to make regular formal and visual checks of your equipment is the only way to ensure that any gradual wear or damage is identified and addressed promptly.

4. Correct ladder setup and use

Proper setup is crucial for ladder safety. All work at height must be risk assessed, with common considerations including ground conditions and whether or not the product is designed for use on uneven surfaces. It can be tempting to overreach or climb too far up the ladder or stepladder, which are common causes of accidents, so your risk assessment needs to address these points. Keeping your belt buckle within the equipment’s stiles (the vertical uprights) is a surefire way to ensure you are not overreaching.

Another critical factor is maintaining three points of contact when working from ladders and steps, so it is vital to always maintain a firm handhold.

Access equipment is constantly evolving, and some of the latest designs to hit the market include integrated devices that ensure the ladder is level. Also of note are components that alert you when standing on the bottom tread. These reduce the likelihood of stepping down from the second step, an all-too-frequent cause of accidents.

Other innovative designs offer deployable structural features that allow you to secure a stepladder onto wall corners, with the back of the step pointing directly into the centre of the angle of the two walls. This provides a stable position, allowing you to install cabling and trunking quickly, effectively, and safely.

5. Training and awareness

Cultivating a safety-first culture through ongoing training and vigilance can dramatically reduce falls, fostering a safer work environment.

Comprehensive training on ladder safety is an indispensable tool in minimising ladder-related accidents. Education on selecting the right ladder, recognising and mitigating potential hazards, and employing safe climbing practices empower electrical professionals to navigate the risks of working at height. This is where the Ladder Association can support you.

In addition to its comprehensive LadderCard accredited training scheme, the Ladder Association publishes safety guidance, a Code of Practice and technical notes, all free to download from its website. Completing the available courses allows you to demonstrate the all-important competency to work at height when on-site.

Safety first

The statistics on falls from height serve as a sobering reminder of the daily risks electrical workers face.

By embedding these pillars of ladder safety into your work culture, you can safeguard your wellbeing and elevate safety standards across the electrical profession, ensuring that every climb is a step towards a safer future.

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