Work at Height – Legal Ladders

Ladders are a simple piece of work equipment yet their use and misuse results in many serious accidents every year including some fatalities.

Of course is common sense to protect ourselves from the risk of falling!! Or is it?

A few prosecutions resulting from ladder falls.

 Failure to provide a safe system of work for repairing an auger which involved working at height. One worker was killed in a fall from a ladder. The casual worker was working on an asbestos roof without adequate protection.

A fatal accident occurred after employee fell off unsecured ladder. Subsequent investigations revealed unsafe systems for working at height putting this casual worker at risk.

Employee injured whilst using a loft ladder. The ladder was not adequately fixed in position or maintained. When the person climbed the ladder it failed.

One employee fell to their death when carrying out inspection, testing and remedial work from an unsuitable step ladder.

The following safety precautions can help to prevent these accidents easily and effectively.

Staff using ladders whether outside or indoors should be given some practical training to ensure they are aware of the basic steps which they must take to use a ladder safely.

There are a variety of legal requirements which cover the simple ladder, including the general provisions of the Health and Safety at Work Act. All ladders and step ladders provided for use at work are “Work Equipment” as covered by the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regs 1998 but the main requirements are established in the Work at Height Regulations 1995. (WAH)

What is “work at height”?

This is defined as work in any place, including a place at or below ground level; OR obtaining access to or egress from such place while at work, except by a staircase in a permanent workplace, where, if measures were not taken, a person could fall a distance liable to cause personal injury.

The 2 metre rule allowing work under this height not to be classed at work at height has been removed. As it is possible to fall a small distance and still injure yourself very seriously, especially where there are other significant hazards in the surrounding area.

WAH require all work at height to be planned and measures taken to either prevent falls or reduce the risk of a fall or falling objects.

There is not a requirement for risk assessment within the regulations. They do however remind employers of their duties under Reg 3 & 4 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regs 1999. Thus a risk assessment should always be completed for work at height.


The hierarchy of control measures must be considered to reduce the risk, i.e. elimination: is it possible not to work at height or not to use a ladder but another piece of more suitable work equipment such as a scaffold platform with guard rails.

Schedule six of WAH provides specific standards for ladder use.  Minimum standards include:-

· Place on firm level ground surface

· the ladder to be stable at all times,

· The ladder must be prevented from slipping

· The ladder must be long enough to stop over reaching or leaning

· If the ladder is over 9m there must be landings or platforms to allow access and agrees if required.

Users should have a secure handhold available, unless step ladder is used and this is not practicable.

The schedule also  clarifies that ladders are suitable for short duration work, light work and where two hands are not needed to complete the task, low risk etc.)

Class 3 – light and domestic use

Many people fall from ladders usually by over reaching or from the ladder slipping because the ground below it is unstable. Before you start:-

· Do you need to use a ladder, is there a safer alternative? If the work is going to require two hands then a scaffold or similar platform should be used.

· Visually check the ladder prior to use.

· Only use ladders for short duration tasks

· Where there is a risk to others use barriers and signs

· Do not use ladders over 6m unless they are attached or being footed by a second person.

· Check the ladder is suitable for the job – do not use aluminium ladders where there is a risk from electrical cables.

· Do not use damaged ladders or ladders which are painted – this may hide the defects

· Always use the ladder the right way up

· Rest the ladder on a firm level base.

· Angle the ladder so that the bottom will not slip – an angle of 1 in 4 is suitable (75o)

· Rest the ladder against a firm solid surface – not plastic guttering which may shatter

· Do not carry heavy items or long lengths of material up the ladder.

· Never over reach whilst on a ladder

What different types are there?

Pole Ladder (Class 1)

These are heavy duty and robust. These are best for frequent use, ideal to provide access to scaffolding. These are constructed from timber stiles and a long wood pole cut down the centre. The rungs  reinforced with wires or tie rods. Lengths can vary up to a maximum of 10 metres.

Single Section (Class 1 & 2)

These ladders have timber stiles and rungs which can be circular or rectangular. The two stiles may be made from joined wood and not out of one individual pole. Some are fitted with aluminium rungs. Ladders of over 5 metres should be reinforced to give them extra strength.

Extension Ladders (Class 1 & 2)

These are made up of two or three sections for easy handling and transportation. Ladders over 4.5 metres should be rope operated, they should never be over extended. Ladders of 5 metres (double) or 6 metres (treble) must be reinforced by wire

Aluminium Ladders

These are easy to handle as they are light weight but they will not withstand sudden shock or over-loading.  Metal conducts electricity well so they should never be used near over-head power cables or other electrical sources. These ladders are weather resistant but can be very slippery at the base if the rubber or wooden feet are not properly maintained.

Step Ladders

These are suitable for low level work, they need to be placed on a flat surface to ensure adequate support is maintained.  The rope stays and hinges should all be in good working order. Users must avoid side loading and over-reaching.

Class 2 and 3 ladders are not recommended for general use. All ladders should be marked with a unique ID number and the class or duty rating i.e. Industrial duty.

An example of poor practice snapped by one of Cambridge Safety’s eagle eyed delegates.