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Ladder safety often misunderstood

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Disturbingly, there appears to be a general lack of awareness of the fact that a fall protection system must be provided on fixed ladders over 6.0m in height. Workers lives depend on it – after all, if they fall or drop from an unsecured system, they can be dead in a matter of seconds.

The provision of a safe working environment as required by the OH&S Acts includes access to work locations via ladders. In fact, there are OH&S regulations in some states, which are more definitive and some state authorities - such as NSW Workcover - publish Codes of Practice and Guidelines that should be followed.

The process that should be followed to establish management’s “duty of care” then becomes:

• Define obligations under OH&S Act.

• Review OH&S Regulations for definitive statements.

• Review state WorkCover Codes of Practice and Guidelines for the nuts and bolts.

• Refer to AS 1657 for the design criteria.

There are two distinct areas of concern:

Fixed Rung Ladders inclined between 70° and 75° to the horizontal. These ladders are covered by AS 1657. In this case the maximum length of an individual ladder is 6m before a landing or change in direction is required. AS 1657 makes provision for the use of ladder cages where a ladder length is over 6m, however, irrespective of the length of the ladder – AS 1891.4 requires fall protection to be provided where a person could fall a distance greater than 2m.

Fixed Rung Ladders between 75° and vertical. These ladders are not covered by AS 1657. These ladders should be structurally designed in accordance with AS 1657 but require specific approval of the Regulatory Authority. Again, irrespective of the length of the ladder – AS 1891.4 requires fall protection to be provided where a person could fall a distance greater than 2m.

Fall Prevention

It is often considered that the fitting of a ladder cage offers protection in the event of a fall. This is not the case, as a ladder cage will not arrest the fall in a satisfactory manner.

A fall within a cage will certainly cause severe injuries to the victim as he descends down the cage in an uncontrolled manner. In fact, ladder cages could be considered to increase the number of falls, as they appear to provide the climber with a sense of security, effectively reducing the concentration applied and resulting in additional falls.

Ladder cages also add significant restrictions if tools or equipment need to be moved and cause great obstruction should a rescue be required.

Restrained Fall is the Key to Safety

To offer complete fall protection, a constant connection must be maintained between the climber and the ladder at all points.

The standard dictates that the connecting lanyard must be no longer than 300mm. To allow freedom of movement and unrestricted use of the climber’s hands on the ladder, the connecting link must freely move both upwards and downwards, including passing any intermediate supports. However, it must also immediately lock in the event of a slip, thereby preventing a free fall by the immediate fall arrest action.

The point of connection by the climber must be near the base of the ladder to allow connection before ascending begins and also provide continuous connection to the disconnecting point when at a safe higher level.

Similarly, the connection must be made at the safe descending point and remain in place until the base disconnecting point is reached. There should be no possibility of accidental disconnection during ascending or descending.

Three Main Types of Systems

Firstly there is the basic Fabric Or Synthetic Rope System with connection via a rope grab to the climber. Such systems have no connection between the rope and the ladder other than at the top position with the rope hanging freely and the top connection acting as an anchor point.

The rope is subject to deterioration by the weather and is subject to vandalism. Many rope grabs can be disconnected at any point on the rope, increasing the risk of a fall through accidental disconnection.

Should a slip occur, the fall will be arrested by the rope grab but the climber may swing away from the ladder and sustain injury as he swings back.

Secondly there is the Solid Rail System which eliminate the problems associated with the fibre or synthetic rope systems.

Rail systems also offer continuous connection to the ladder through intermediate connections and allow the free use of hands at all times. However, they are generally restricted to straight-line climbs and are complex and time consuming to erect. The running connector is also heavy, causing “drag” or “pull” and contains moving parts.

Thirdly, the Wire Rope System offers all the advantages of the rail systems and also overcome the navigation of curves. They are easy to install and can be provided in weld-on or bolt-on kits. The slide is also light, offering greater ease of movement. A distinct advantage of a flexible wire rope is that it can be installed around corners and other generally difficult to navigate contours.

These systems assure complete safety and security when climbing fixed ladders on poles, towers, tanks, etc, and provide far greater safety than conventional ladder cages.

They offer fall protection when climbing a fixed ladder, allowing users to ascend or descend, unhindered. The systems are available in kits and are suitable for straight or curved ladders and for connection to wood, concrete or steel structures.

All competent wire rope systems should feature:

• cable sleeve;

• dual function top bracket;

• UV protected cable guides;

• robust cable;

• easy tensioning; and

• professional installation.

Where a fixed fall prevention device is installed, a guard should be fitted over the first 2.5m of the ladder, which should be locked to prevent unauthorised access.

The correct signage, indicating that this ladder should only be used by personnel using the correct approved connection device is normally supplied by the installer.

One final point should be noted. All installed systems require annual re-certification by the manufacturer or his accredited representative.

The date of last inspection and the date of next inspection should be clearly marked on a plate close to the connection point on each system and an update certificate of conformance should be provided by the manufacturer.

Under the requirements of “duty of care” imposed on employers, it is essential that correct safety systems are installed and maintained to correctly protect employees using fixed ladder systems.

* Michael Biddle is the MD of the Capital Safety Group .

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