Home Features A step too far – the use of stilts and step ladders

Work at Height Regulations (2005) have caused some of the largest waves through the construction industry, mainly due to misinterpretation. Alistair Moffat considers their application to the use of stilts and steps.

Often English words are kidnapped through constant misuse over time and their original definition corrupted. A case in point is ‘ambivalent’. I often hear it associated with indifference or apathy. Whereas, I believe its true definition is ‘the coexistence of opposing attitudes or feelings,

such as love and hate, toward a person, object, or idea’. If we opt for the latter definition then I am truly ambivalent towards the use of stilts. I have also noted a similar ‘marmite’ type reaction to step ladders.

Ironically the Work at Height Regulations (2005) are one of the smaller pieces of legislation but have caused some of the largest waves through the construction industry, mainly due to misinterpretation.

I have seen stilts used over many years without incident. Furthermore when plastering a ceiling they provide the simplest and most effective means of achieving a good finish. Obviously key control measures (clear and level floor, free from obstructions and well maintained stilts) need to be in place.

However, I acknowledge sometimes we are driven by the heart and not the head. A sobering thought of all safety advisers is standing before a judge following an accident. In the case of stilts I would need to answer to the basic principle of the WAH Regs – were stilts the safest means of access?

One of the arguments used against stilts is the lack of any formal training or recognized certificate of competece. But this could be countered by the lack of any formal training for podium steps (often principle contractors insist on PASMA – which does not cover podium steps).

I can hear the ‘stilt protection league’ shouting their defence, namely they are simple to use, have few component parts, cannot be assembled incorrectly (like podium steps or mobile tower) and do not have secondary hazards (manual handling etc). They will also say the stilts simply become an extension of the user’s legs. Conversely hop-ups are used extensively have no edge protection but do not create the emotive reaction of stilts.

Personally I do allow stilts to be used as a safe system of work but I treat every case on its own merits. I also restrict use to skim plastering only. Any ceiling work outside this scope I expect to be undertaken on podium steps. But having seen the diverse views of opinion on the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health website this is not clearly the view of all safety professionals. Ultimately a ‘suitable and sufficient’ risk assessment must be undertaken by a competent person.

There is a school of thought that podium steps were a knee-jerk reaction to the WAH Regs. This logic made step ladders the pariah of WAH access. I believe in certain circumstances step ladders are the simplest and safest means of access (short duration, limited access). They just need to be subjected to a risk assessment. Certainly towards the end of a project crashing podiums steps against new paintwork and doors is disastrous.

As an aside, the majority of site cranes are accessed by fixed ladders with hoops. Although not breaching legislation, I would be amazed how this means of access can possibly be risk assessed to an acceptable level. In any other WAH industry outside construction this practice

has been outlawed for years. In the mobile phone/high power distribution industry operatives wear a full body harness and are permanently attached to the fixed ladder on a sliding shoe. Although I am ambivalent regarding stilts I am utterly convinced crane ladder access on construction sites in nothing short of dangerous.

It is important we keep the hazards of stilts in proportion to the risk. Both steps and stilts have a role in the construction industry – if fully supported by a fully developed risk assessment.

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