Contrary to popular opinion, ladders and stepladders are not banned under health and safety law.
Yes, there is little denying that they can present a significant risk of incident or injury if not used properly. However, ladders and stepladders can be a sensible and practical option for low-risk, short-duration tasks.
This guidance is for employers on the simple, sensible precautions they should take to keep people safe when using ladders and stepladders in the workplace. This will also be useful for employees and their representatives.
Following this guidance is normally enough to comply with the Work at Height Regulations 2005 (WAHR).
There are many different scenarios where ladder use may be a viable option.
This ladder safety guide will help you determine whether you can control the risk effectively, or if you need to consider other options.
Introduction to Ladder Safety
AIthough they may not automatically be your first choice, ladders can be the best option is many circumstances.
It’s not just as simple as using any old ladder though. You need to make sure you use the right type of ladder for the job and how to use it safely.
The law calls for a sensible, proportionate approach to managing risk, and further guidance on what you should do before deciding if a ladder is the right type of equipment for a particular task is provided in our Working at height podcast.
If your risk assessment indicates that a ladder can be used, then our guide will help you control the residual risk.
When we refer to ‘ladders’ in this guide, unless otherwise indicated, we are talking about leaning ladders (sometimes known as extension ladders) and stepladders. Most of the ladder safety hints and tips can be applied to all types of ladders.
More specific requirements that only apply to a leaning ladder or a stepladder are covered in detail under the relevant headings.
When is a Ladder the Best Choice?
The law says that ladders can be used for work at height when a risk assessment has shown that using equipment offering a higher level of fall protection is not justified because of the low risk and short duration of use; or there are existing workplace features which cannot be altered.
As a guide, if your task would require staying up a leaning ladder or stepladder for more than 30 minutes at a time, it is recommended that you consider alternative equipment.
Ladders can be ideal for short-duration, light tasks that are spatially constrained or require continuous movement.
It goes without saying, you should only use ladders in situations where they can be used safely. Sounds easy, doesn’t it!
You need to decide when it is acceptable method e.g. for low complexity tasks where the ladder can be easily secured.
If you require the use of heavy or high-risk tools or equipment, it’s likely not suitable to opt for using conventional ladder.
Who Can Use a Ladder at Work?
To use a ladder you need to be competent, i.e. have had instruction and understand how to use the equipment safely. Appropriate training can help and on-the-job training can often be a great option. If you are being trained, you should work under the supervision of somebody who can perform the task competently.
Pre-use Ladder Safety Check
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. For optimum ladder safety, 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 (check the state or condition of the feet).
How to Do Ladder Safety Checks
- Check the stiles – make sure they are not bent or damaged, as the ladder could buckle or collapse
- Check the feet – if they are missing, worn or damaged the ladder could slip. Also check ladder feet when moving from soft/dirty ground (eg dug soil, loose sand/stone, a dirty workshop) to a smooth, solid surface (eg 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.
How to Check a Stepladder
- 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 employe
Using a Ladder Safely
Once you have done your ‘pre-use’ check, there are simple precautions that can minimise the risk of a fall. Let’s look at the two main distinctions of ladders, and how we can use each of them more safely.
Using Extension Ladders Safely
- only carry light materials and tools – read the manufacturers’ labels on the
ladder and assess the risks;
- don’t overreach – make sure your belt buckle (navel) stays within the stiles;
- make sure it is long enough or high enough for the task
- don’t overload it – consider workers’ weight and the equipment or materials they are carrying before working at height. Check the pictogram or label on the ladder for information;
- make sure the ladder angle is at 75° – you should use the 1 in 4 rule (ie 1 unit out for every 4 units up) – see Figure 1;
- Always grip the ladder and face the ladder rungs while climbing or descending – don’t slide down the stiles;
- Don’t try to move or extend ladders while standing on the rungs;
- Don’t work off the top three rungs, and try to make sure the ladder extends at least 1 m (three rungs) above where you are working;
- Don’t stand ladders on moveable objects, such as pallets, bricks, lift trucks, tower scaffolds, excavator buckets, vans, or mobile elevating work platforms;
- Avoid holding items when climbing (consider using a tool belt);
- Don’t work within 6 m horizontally of any overhead power line, unless it has been made dead or it is protected with insulation. Use a non-conductive ladder (eg fibreglass or timber) for any electrical work;
- Maintain three points of contact when climbing (this means a hand and two feet) and wherever possible at the work position – see Figures 2 and 3;
- Where you cannot maintain a handhold, other than for a brief period (eg to hold a nail while starting to knock it in, starting a screw etc), you will need to take other measures to prevent a fall or reduce the consequences if one happened;
- For a leaning ladder, you should secure it (e.g. by tying the ladder to prevent it from slipping either outwards or sideways) and have a strong upper resting point. In other words, do not rest a ladder against weak upper surfaces, such as glazing, plastic gutters etc. See image);
- To add further protection, you could also use an effective stability device. These can give the ladder additional structural integrity at the base, but may not be needed if your ladder is adequately fixed and secured.
Using Stepladders Safely
When using a stepladder to carry out a task, there are a few basic safety ladder safety guidelines that you should be aware of;
- check all four stepladder feet are in contact with the ground and the
steps are level;
- only carry light materials and tools;
- don’t overreach;
- Don’t stand and work on the top three steps (including a step forming the
very top of the stepladder) unless there is a suitable handhold;
- Ensure any locking devices are engaged;
- Try to position the stepladder to face the work activity and not side on. However, there are occasions when a risk assessment may show it is safer to work side on, e.g. in a retail stock room when you can’t engage the stepladder locks to work face on because of space restraints in narrow aisles, but you can fully lock it to work side on;
- Try to avoid work that imposes a side loading, such as side-on drilling
through solid materials (eg bricks or concrete);
- Where side-on loadings cannot be avoided, you should prevent the steps
from tipping over, eg by tying the steps. Otherwise, use a more suitable
type of access equipment;
- Maintain three points of contact at the working position. This means two feet and one hand, or when both hands need to be free for a brief period, two feet and the body supported by the stepladder (see image).
- When deciding if it is safe to carry out a particular task on a stepladder
where you cannot maintain a handhold (e.g. to put a box on a shelf, hang
wallpaper, install a smoke detector on a ceiling), this needs to be justified.
To help you make a decision on whether it is reasonable, you may want to consider the following important ladder safety aspects…
Can you Avoid 3 Points of Contact?
If you are considering performing a task that requires you to remove 3 points of contact and/or remove a hand hold of the ladder, think about these points when assessing the risk;
- the height of the task;
- if a handhold is still available to steady yourself before and after
- if it is light work only;
- if the task requires side loading;
- if the worker can avoid overreaching;
- whether the stepladder can be tied (eg when side-on working).
Safe Environment for Ladder Use
There is no black and white rules as to the type of environment that is suitable for ladder use, but there are a few aspects that can help guide you decisions when assessing risk and suitability. As a guide, only use a ladder:
- on firm ground;
- on level ground – refer to the manufacturer’s pictograms on the side of the ladder. Use proprietary levelling devices, not ad-hoc packing such as bricks, blocks, timbers etc;
- on clean, solid surfaces (paving slabs, floors etc).
- where they will not be struck by vehicles (protect the area using suitable
barriers or cones);
- where they will not be pushed over by other hazards such as doors or windows, ie secure the doors (not fire exits) and windows where possible;
- where the general public are prevented from using it, walking underneath it or being at risk because they are too near (use barriers, cones or, as a last resort, a person standing guard at the base);
- where it has been secured.
Options for Securing a Ladder
- The main options are as follows:
tie the ladder to a suitable point, making sure both stiles are tied, see image.
- Where this is not practical, secure with an effective ladder stability device;
- If this is not possible, then securely wedge the ladder, eg wedge the stiles against a wall;
- If you can’t achieve any of these options, ‘foot’ the ladder.
Footing the ladder means that another person physically holds the base of the ladder in place. While the user ascends and descends it, the person footing it should maintain a secure grip of the stiles.
Footing is the last resort. Avoid it, where ‘reasonably practicable’, by using other access equipment.
Using Access Ladders
A couple of additional points to remember when using ladders for access purposes on your project;
- Ladders used to access another level should be tied (see Figure 9) and
extend at least 1 m above the landing point to provide a secure handhold.
At ladder access points, a self-closing gate is recommended;
- Stepladders should not be used to access another level, unless they have been specifically designed for this.
Employers need to make sure that any ladder or stepladder is both suitable for the work task and in a safe condition before use. As a guide, you should only use ladders or stepladders that:
- have no visible defects. They should have a pre-use check each working day;
- have an up-to-date record of the detailed visual inspections carried out regularly
by a competent person. These should be done in accordance with the
- Ladders that are part of a scaffold system still have to be inspected every seven days as part of the scaffold inspection requirements;
- are suitable for the intended use, ie are strong and robust enough for the job. HSE recommends British Standard (BS) Class 1 ‘Industrial’ or BS EN 131 ladders for use at work
- have been maintained and stored in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions.
A detailed visual inspection is similar to ‘pre-use’ checks’, in that it is used to spot
defects. It can be done in-house by a competent person (pre-use checks should be
part of a user’s training) and detailed visual inspections should be recorded.
When doing an inspection, look for:
- twisted, bent or dented stiles;
- cracked, worn, bent or loose rungs;
- missing or damaged tie rods;
- cracked or damaged welded joints, loose rivets or damaged stays. Make pre-use checks and inspect ladder stability devices