There is still a mystique about the use of stilts on British construction sites but there is growing evidence that they offer a real and safe option to boost productivity. Adrian JG Marsh reports

“A two-and-one gang completed a high quality skim on seven flats within nine day!” says Steve Cunningham of C&G Plastering. The productivity advantages, in the right place and at the right time, are huge but many UK main contractors are sceptical about the use of stilts.

Plasterers’ stilts are used as a working platform during the finishing of plasterboard on domestic sites but their use is often frowned upon on bigger commercial sites. However, there are plastering contractors and builders who accept their use.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says that there is no issue with people using stilts if they are trained to use them. They would advise that the best environment for their use would be on a dry and level floor that is clear and free from tripping hazards.

Currently CITB doesn’t have a course for training people to work using stilts, because demand to date hasn’t justified the development of one. However, CITB say that if companies feel that delivering such training is required for their business needs, then they are able to claim grant to develop an in-house training course.

Steve Cunningham adds: “We’ve recorded more than 15,000 accident-free hours since April 2011 and the HSE has told us that it acknowledges that stilts or leg extensions are an acceptable item of equipment for work at heights. There is no specific information regarding their use as it comes under the Work at Height Regulations; however, their use should be risk assessed and appropriate control measures put in place.

“Stilts are used by our operatives to gain access to high level areas in place of an expensive fully decked scaffold platform or an impractical mobile tower. In some instances the use of stilts reduces risk of injury as there is no lifting of decking required.

“Currently most of our stilt work is on residential contracts. Stilts give easy access to areas up to three metres high and our gangs work in threes: a senior plaster on stilts, a plaster working at lower levels and a labourer. We’ve measured that well organised stilt gangs are at least twice as quick as a conventional gang. You definitely can’t mix different trades in the same work area as a stilts gang. So long as the work area is cordoned off it is perfectly safe. Gangs work on more than plastering walls and ceilings. Some gangs use stilts to install MF and Armstrong ceiling grid.”

Today modern stilts are designed to allow normal walking action to take place and, when fitted correctly and after suitable training, usually prove manoeuvrable and comfortable. Perhaps the biggest issue blocking wider use is that there is no recognised training for stilts in theUK,IrelandorEurope. So C&G worked with DURA-STILTS to develop in-house competency training for its stilt users.

Richard Woolard from Carobyn Products, the UK distributor of DURA-STILTS, says: “Stilts training and certification is available either on site or at our offices inEast Sussex. Training includes model sizing, the correct way to adjust and set up stilts, basics walking method, and correct maintenance procedures.”

Time saved from setting up working decks and then moving from room to room, or floor to floor, means the use of a lightweight stilt device can offer significant savings. And new clients are open to considering stilts on site, especially when the potential programme benefits are outlined. But C&G must demonstrate that stilts are safe to use.

Steve Cunningham says: “We mitigate the risks through our risk assessments and we’ve also put in place a series of control measures and procedures. Work areas and ‘stilts’ zones are set up and segregated from other trades with barriers and signage by us.

“We’re working hard with a number of house builders and main contractors to use stilts more often. The only reason I found out about the seven flats in nine days was that I couldn’t believe we were paying someone so much for just over a week’s work!”

Paul Little at Coen’s in Birmingham said: “We use stilts regularly but some customers don’t like them (stilts) and we have to provide a method statement and risk assessment. The one issue we do have is how plasterers can prove that they are competent in the use of stilts. There needs to be an approved skill test that can demonstrate that they’re competent.

“We’ve noticed a trend to higher ceiling of 2.7 metres on some residential jobs and as these become more common, the use of stilts may increase.”