Ultimate safety guide to working at height

A waste management company has been fined £190,000 after a contractor died when he fell seven metres while carrying out maintenance work and our ultimate safety guide to working at height will help avoid similar accidents in your business.

The experienced maintenance contractor was part of a team under the control and direction of Wiltshire-based Hills Waste Solutions Limited. He sustained fatal injuries in the fall on 18 November 2020, while working on a mechanical screening and separating plant on the Hills Waste Solutions site in Stephenson Road, Westbury.

An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that Hills Waste Solutions Limited failed to ensure that work at height was properly assessed and planned. The company failed to consider and identify how the necessary work at height could be carried out safely to ensure that the risk of falls was controlled.

Hills Waste Solutions Limited, of Swindon pleaded guilty to breaching Regulation 4(1) of the Work at Height Regulations 2005. The company was fined £190,000 and ordered to pay costs of £14,816, with a victim surcharge of £190 at Aldershot Magistrates’ Court on 17 August 2022.

“Those in control of work have a duty to assess the risks and devise safe methods of working and to provide the necessary information, instruction and training to those undertaking the work”.

“This incident could have been prevented had the work been adequately planned.”

HSE inspector Matt Tyler

ultimate safety guide to working at height

Ultimate safety guide to working at height

The purpose of The Work at Height Regulations 2005 is to prevent death and injury caused by a fall from height. If you are an employer or you control work at height (for example facilities managers or building owners who may contract others to work at height) the Regulations apply to you, and you must take steps to eliminate or reduce the risks as far as reasonably practicable.

Employers and those in control of any work at height activity must make sure work is properly planned, supervised and carried out by competent people. This includes using the right type of equipment for working at height. Low-risk, relatively straightforward tasks will require less effort when it comes to planning.

Employers and those in control must first assess the risks.

Employees have general legal duties to take reasonable care of themselves and others who may be affected by their actions, and to co-operate with their employer to enable their health and safety duties and requirements to be complied with.

Step by step guide to working at height

Considering the risks associated with work at height and putting in place sensible and proportionate measures to manage them is an important part of working safely. Follow this simple step-by-step guide to help you control risks when working at height.

Can you avoid working at height in the first place?

Do as much work as possible from the ground. A health and safety manager who I worked with for many years always used to say, “the safest place to be when doing work at height is on the ground!” Some practical examples of this include:

  • using extendable tools from ground level to remove the need to climb a ladder
  • installing cables at ground level
  • lowering a lighting mast to ground level
  • ground level assembly of edge protection

If you cannot avoid working at height by the above measures, then you should put in place measures to prevent a fall.

Can you prevent a fall from occurring?

Falls can be prevented by taking measures such as (i) using an existing place of work that is already safe, e.g. a non-fragile roof with a permanent perimeter guardrail or, if not, using work equipment to prevent people from falling.

Some practical examples of collective protection when using an existing place of work such as a concrete flat roof with existing edge protection, or guarded mezzanine floor, or plant or machinery with fixed guard rails around it.

Some practical examples of collective protection using work equipment to prevent a fall:

  • mobile elevating work platforms (MEWPs) such as scissor lifts
  • tower scaffolds
  • scaffolds

An example of personal protection using work equipment to prevent a fall would be using a work restraint (travel restriction) system that prevents a worker getting into a fall position.

Can you minimise the distance and or consequences of a fall?

If the risk of a person falling remains, you must take sufficient measures to minimise the distance and/or consequences of a fall.  Practical examples of collective protection using work equipment to minimise the distance and consequences of a fall include safety nets and soft-landing systems, e.g. air bags, installed close to the level of the work.

An example of personal protection used to minimise the distance and consequences of a fall would be industrial rope access, e.g. working on a building façade, or a fall arrest system using a high anchor point.

Can I use ladders when working at height?

For tasks of low risk and short duration, ladders and stepladders can be a sensible and practical option.  However, ladders should not automatically be your first choice.  If your risk assessment determines it is correct to use a ladder, you should further minimise the risk by making sure workers:

  • use the right type of ladder for the job
  • are competent (you can provide adequate training and/or supervision to help)
  • use the equipment provided safely and follow a safe system of work
  • are fully aware of the risks and measures to help control them

There are simple, sensible precautions you should take to stay safe when using portable leaning ladders and stepladders in the workplace.  Employers must make sure that workers use the right type of ladder and that they know how to use it safely.

ultimate safety guide to working at height
Netting to prevent falls

When to use a ladder at work

Ladders can be used for work at height when an assessment of the risk for carrying out a task has shown that using equipment that offers a higher level of fall protection is not justified.  This is because of the low risk and short duration of use, or there are existing workplace features which cannot be altered.

Short duration is not the deciding factor in establishing whether use of a ladder is acceptable – employers must have first considered risk.  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 you use alternative equipment.

You should only use ladders in situations where they can be used safely, e.g. where the ladder will be level and stable, and can be secured (where it is reasonably practicable to do so).

Know how to use a ladder safely when working at height

To use a ladder, workers must be competent or, if they are being trained, they should be working under the supervision of a competent person.  Competence can be demonstrated through a combination of training, practical and theoretical knowledge, and experience.  In addition, training should be appropriate for the task, and this includes knowing:

  • how to assess the risks of using a ladder for a particular task
  • when it is right to use a ladder (and when it is not)
  • which type of ladder to use and how to use it

How to check your ladder is safe before you use it

Employers must have procedures in place to ensure that before using a ladder, employees have access to user instructions from the manufacturer in case they need to refer to them and that workers always carry out a ‘pre-use’ check to spot any obvious visual defects to make sure the ladder is safe to use.

A pre-use check should be carried out:

  • by the person using the ladder
  • 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)

The check should include:

  • the stiles – make sure they are not bent or damaged, as the ladder could buckle or collapse
  • the feet – if they are missing, worn or damaged the ladder could slip. Also check the ladder feet when moving from soft/dirty ground (e.g. dug soil, loose sand/stone, a dirty workshop) to a smooth, solid surface (e.g. paving slabs), to make sure the actual feet and not the dirt (e.g. soil, chippings or embedded stones) are making contact with the ground
  • the rungs – if they are bent, worn, missing or loose, the ladder could fail
  • any locking mechanism – does the mechanism work properly? Are components or fixings bent, worn or damaged? If so, the ladder could collapse. Ensure any locking bars are fully engaged
  • the stepladder platform – if it is split or buckled, the ladder could become unstable or collapse
  • the steps or treads on stepladders – if they are contaminated, they could be slippery; if the fixings are loose on the steps, they could collapse

If employees identify any of the above defects, they should not use the ladders and should report the faults to the person in charge of the work.

Types of ladder and how to use them safely

Ultimate safety guide to working at height: Leaning ladders

When using a leaning ladder to carry out a task:

  • Only carry light materials and tools – read the manufacturer’s labels on the ladder and assess the risks
  • Do not overreach – make sure your belt buckle (or navel) stays within the stiles
  • Make sure the ladder is long enough or high enough for the task
  • Do not overload the ladder – consider your weight and the equipment or materials you are carrying before working at height
  • Check the pictogram or label on the ladder for any advisory information
  • To help make sure the ladder angle is at the safest position to work from- you should use the 1-in-4 rule. This is where the ladder should be one space or unit of measurement out for every four spaces or units up (a 75° angle)
  • Always grip the ladder and face the ladder rungs while climbing or descending – do not slide down the stiles
  • Do not try to move or extend the ladder while standing on the rungs
  • Do not work off the top three rungs. Try to make sure that the ladder extends at least 1 metre or three rungs above where you are working
  • Do not stand ladders on movable 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)
  • Do not 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 (e.g. fibreglass or timber) for any electrical work
  • Maintain three points of contact when climbing and wherever possible at the work position.
  • Where you cannot maintain a handhold, other than for a brief period (e.g. to hold a nail while starting to knock it in, start a screw etc), you will need to take other measures to prevent a fall or mitigate the consequences if one happened
  • Secure the ladder (e.g. by tying the ladder to prevent it from slipping either outwards or sideways) and have a strong upper resting point (i.e. do not rest it against weak upper surfaces such as glazing or plastic gutters)
  • Consider using an effective stability device (a device which, if used correctly, prevents the ladder from slipping, some types of ladders come with these)

Ultimate safety guide to working at height: Telescopic ladders

Telescopic ladders are a variation of leaning ladders but remember that they do not all work in the same way.  They should always be used, stored and transported with care and kept clean. In addition to following this guidance, it is important you read and follow the user instructions provided by the manufacturer.

Before every use – in addition to the normal ladder checks – make sure they are operating correctly and that the mechanisms that lock each section are working properly.

Always follow the user instructions regarding the opening and closing procedure. Be aware of the potential for trapping fingers between the closing sections. Remember some of the important parts are inside where they cannot be seen. If you are in any doubt, do not use them.

Ultimate safety guide to working at height: Stepladders

Our ultimate safety guide to working at height would not be complete without mentioning stepladders. When using a stepladder to carry out a task:

  • Check all four stepladder feet are in contact with the ground and the steps are level
  • Only carry light materials and tools
  • Do not overreach
  • Do not 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 cannot 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 (e.g. bricks or concrete)
  • Where side loadings cannot be avoided, you should prevent the steps from tipping over, e.g., 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.

When deciding whether 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, or install a smoke detector on a ceiling), the decision needs to be justified, taking into account:

  • the height of the task
  • whether a handhold is still available to steady yourself before and after the task
  • whether it is light work
  • whether it avoids side loading
  • whether it avoids overreaching
  • whether the stepladder can be tied (e.g. when side-on working)

Ultimate safety guide to working at height: Combination and multi-purpose ladders

Combination and multi-purpose ladders can be used as stepladders, a variation of stepladders or leaning ladders. Combination ladders are sometimes referred to as ‘A’ frame ladders and these types of ladders can be used in a variety of different configurations. You should:

  • check to ensure that any locking mechanism is properly engaged before use
  • always recheck the locking mechanism if the setup of the ladder is changed
  • on three-part combination ladders, never extend the top section (the section extending above the A frame) beyond the limit marked on the ladder and specified in the user manual

Where ladders should be used

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). These need to be clean (no oil, moss or leaf litter) and free of loose material (sand, packaging materials etc) so the feet can grip. Shiny floor surfaces can be slippery even without contamination
  • where it will not be struck by vehicles (protect the area using suitable barriers or cones)
  • where it will not be pushed over by other hazards such as doors or windows, i.e., 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

Securing ladders and ladders used for access

There are various options available for securing ladders:

  • Tie the ladder to a suitable point, making sure both stiles are tied
  • Where this is not practical, secure the ladder with an effective ladder stability device
  • If this is not possible, securely wedge the ladder (e.g. wedge the stiles against a wall)

If you cannot achieve any of these options, foot the ladder – footing is the last resort.

Ladders used for access

In general:

  • Ladders used to access another level should be tied 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.

Inspecting the condition of ladders

An important element in our ultimate safety guide for working at height is inspections. 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, 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 manufacturer’s instructions. 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, i.e. are strong and robust enough for the job
  • 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 and can be done on site by a competent employee.  Pre-use checks make sure that a ladder is safe to use and are for the immediate benefit of the ladder user.  These checks do not need to be recorded. Any problems or issues should be reported to a manager.

Detailed visual inspections are the responsibility of the employer. They should be carried out at fixed intervals and recorded. Records of these inspections provide a snapshot of the state of the ladders over time.  When doing an inspection, look for:

  • damaged or worn ladder feet
  • 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

Pre-use checks and inspections of ladder stability devices and other accessories should be performed in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions.

Consider any trends in defect reporting which may suggest that they ladders are not being maintained or are not suitable for the work task being conducted. 

Ladder product standards

There are a number of recognised Standards that are relevant to ladders which include the EN131 standard for portable steps and ladders.

While BS2037 and BS1129 have been withdrawn, ladders originally made to these standards prior to their withdrawal may still be used (subject to following user instructions and guidance on safe use).


The success to any working at height activity is in the planning.  As an employer you should ensure that all working at height tasks are carefully planned, use the correct equipment and that workers are competent to carry out the activity.  This ultimate safety guide to working at height should help you plan for such work activities and, if you require advice or support for your business, please contact one of the Ashbrooke team.

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