Health and Safety

Tinus Boshoff 

Accidents involving ladders leads to an alarmingly high amount of work related incidents. The use of ladders is usually associated with the perforce of work or tasks from an elevated position. Just last week while visiting a shop at the mall, I saw a pregnant lady on a step ladder placing items on shelve. When I walked closer to her to discuss the matter, I saw that the ladder she was standing on was defective and poorly maintained. 


Working on heights is traditionally labelled or classified as a high risk activity. Incident records include numerous accounts of workers killed in falls from ladders. Serious head injuries and broken bones are frequent outcomes from ladder mishaps. Many electrocution deaths are caused by ladders that accidentally make contact with electrical sources like high power lines.

Typical questions asked in this regard include questions like:


What is meant by ‘‘working on heights’’? How high is a height? From what height should a ladder or scaffolds be used? What are the requirements set for ladders?  Let’s turn our attention to ‘‘General Safety Regulation 6’’ of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (Act 85 of 1993). This regulation deals with ‘‘work in elevated positions’’. No specific height is mentioned by this regulation; in fact, anything off ground should be considered as a height or elevated position. Just to re-emphasis, anything above ground level is an elevated position


This regulation stipulates that no person may work or be allowed to work in an elevated position (above ground level) unless such work is performed safely from a ladder or scaffolding, or from a position where such person has been made as safe as if he or she were working from scaffolding. How many times do we climb on items like a chair or drum to reach an item from a shelf or cupboard?


When we look at construction work you will find that ‘‘Construction Regulation 4(b)’’ stipulates that no person may work in an elevated position, unless such work is performed safely as if working from a scaffold or ladder. It is clear from the above mentioned regulation that a ladder must be used for this purpose. This prescription applies from the office environment to more hazardous workplaces like construction sites. Ladders and scaffolds are basically used when you can't reach the work above you safely from the ground or from a solid structure. Please note that these devices are meant as temporary work platforms. 


For the purpose of this article we will focus on the proper or safe use of ladders at work. Many different types of ladders are available on market. Each type is designed to perform a certain kind of work. Examples include stepladders for industrial, commercial and household use. There are single ladders, sectional ladders, extension ladders and rolling ladders just to mention a few. Ladders may be made of wood, fiberglass or metal, and they may be portable or fixed. 

In order to lay down the conditions for the safe use of ladder at work it would be appropriate to look at the factors that mainly contribute or lead to ladder accidents. The following are the major causes of ladder accidents: 

(a) Defective or poorly maintained ladders. 

(b) Ladders are not correctly held, tied-off or otherwise safety secured. 

(c) Slippery surfaces and inclement weather conditions cause workers to lose footing on rungs or steps. 

(d) Workers fail to grip ladders adequately when climbing up or down. 

(e) Workers take unsafe positions on ladders (such as leaning out too far). 

(f) Incorrect placement; poor footing or at improper angles cause ladders to slide.

(g) Ladders are toppled by high winds.

(h) Ladders are carelessly handled or improperly positioned near electrical lines.

(i) Workers not properly informed or trained in the correct use of ladders.

(j) The lack of safe working procedures or safe systems of work.

(k) Inadequate supervision.


In order to deal with the above mentioned we need to look at the legal prescriptions pertaining to ladders. General Safety Regulation 11 refers. According to this regulation, a ladder must be constructed of sound material and should be suitable for the purpose for which it is used. Each ladder must be fitted with non-skid devices at the bottom ends.


It should have hooks or similar devices at the upper ends of the stiles to ensure the stability of the ladder during normal use. If not fitted with hooks or similar devices at the upper ends to keep it stable; it should be lashed, held or secured whilst being used as to ensure the stability of the ladder under all conditions and at all times.

No ladder may be used or permitted to be used, if it has rungs fastened to the stiles only by means of nails, screws, spikes or in like manner. The same applies to rungs which have not been properly let into the stiles. In the case of welded ladder or ladders of which the rungs are bolted or riveted to the stiles, the rungs need not be let into the sides. No ladder may be used if it has damaged stiles, or damaged or missing rungs. 


The employer may not permit the use of a ladder, when a ladder which is required to be leaned against an object for support be used which is longer than 9 m. The reach of a ladder may not be extended by the fastening of two or more ladders, in other words be joined together. These provisions shall not apply to extension of free-standing ladders. 


In the case of wooden ladders the employer must ensure that the ladders are constructed of straight grained wood, free from defects, and with the grain running in the length of the stiles and rungs. Wooden ladders may not be painted or covered in any manner, unless it has been established that there are no cracks or other inherent weaknesses. Ladders may however be treated with oil or covered with clear varnish or wood preservative.  


When work is done from a ladder, the employer must take special precautionary measures to prevent articles from falling off and provide suitable sheaths or receptacles in which hand tools shall be kept when not being used.  


In the case where a fixed ladder is used; which exceeds 5 m in length and is attached to a vertical structure with an inclination to the horizontal level of 75 or more, the ladder must be least 150 mm away from the structure to which the ladder is attached. It must be provided with a cage which extends from a point not exceeding 2.5 m from the lower level to a height of at least 900 mm above the top level served by the ladder. It must be able to provide firm support along its whole length for the back of the person climbing the ladder, and for which purpose no part of the cage shall be more than 700 mm away from the level of the rungs. This shall not apply if platforms, which are spaced not more than 8 m apart and suitable for persons to rest on, are provided.


Please ensure that you do make use of ladders where required. Never use a ladder other than its intended purpose. Remember that lives could depend on the proper use of this piece of equipment at work. Through this article I would like to encourage you to take the time to ensure that all ladders on site are in a good condition and properly used by workers or contractors at work. Prevention is better than cure.


For more information contact Tinus Boshoff on [email protected]


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