Advice & Guidance

Working at Height

The major issue encountered whilst carrying out maintenance tasks is working at height. The latest figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show that since 2001, an average of 50 people in Great Britain have died each year as a result of a fall from height and a further 8,702 are seriously injured.

Roof accessLadders and roofs are the most commonly cited factor associated with high falls (from 2m or above) whilst ladders and scaffolding are the most common factors for low falls (up to and including 2m). The risks associated with working at height should therefore be taken very seriously and you should make every attempt to implement safe working practices.

To help you do this the Health and Safety Executive has created a new website called WAIT.  WAIT has been developed to help you understand the key issues when working at height and the factors to consider when selecting the most appropriate and safest type of access equipment.

Tower scaffoldMany people mistakenly believe that the Health and Safety Executive has banned the use of ladders and stepladders. In fact, their advice is that for straightforward, short duration work stepladders and ladders can be a good option. However, they rightly point out that ladders and stepladders would not be such a good choice for complex tasks lasting for long periods. In this case, a short duration is taken to be between 15 and 30 minutes. It is always worth considering whether there is a better way of gaining access, perhaps by using a tower scaffold or mobile elevating work platform, although you might decide that this is not justified because of the low risk and short duration of the work.

Ladders can also be used for low risk work where the nature of the site is such that there is no suitable alternative. As a rule, you should consider employing a contractor for any tasks that require working from ladders above one storey in height.

Lead Also, be aware that in strong sunlight slates, tiles, masonry and lead can become exceedingly hot to the touch. Take care before placing a hand on such materials for support. You should also be careful when walking on lead roofs and gutters, as these can be slippery, especially where they are permanently in the shade. In wet weather, slates and tiles will also tend to acquire a slippery film of moss and moisture.

Top tips for working safely with leaning ladders and stepladders:

  • Check that a ladder or stepladder is right for the job. Ladders shouldn't be used for long periods or for tasks with strenuous movement and heavy loads.
  • Make sure that the ladder is in good repair. Ladders should be regularly checked to ensure that they are in a safe and workable condition. If you spot any defects, the ladder should be taken out of use immediately and replaced.
  • Use a ladder that is long enough for the task to avoid excessive reaching and make sure you place the ladder at a safe angle (75 degrees). Use the 1 in 4 rule i.e. place the base 1 unit out for every 4 units up.
  • Make sure that the ladder is properly secured at the top and is placed on a sound, hard, level base and not on soft soil or gravel. If the ground is uneven or sloping, use a levelling device so that both feet are firmly placed or use different access equipment.
  • Use a ladder that has an offset device attached to keep the top of the ladder clear of overhanging eaves. Do not rely on the strength of an eaves gutter to provide support for the top of the ladder.
  • Do not lean away from the ladder or stretch in such a way that your centre of gravity is outside the line of the ladder. Keep yourself positioned so that your belt buckle (navel) remains between the stiles (uprights).
  • Try to maintain three points of contact with the ladder at all times i.e. both feet on the same rung and one hand on the ladder. Always grip the ladder when climbing but do not work off the top three rungs as this provides a handhold.
  • Only carry light materials or tools (up to 10kg) and use a belt or bucket fixed to the ladder to hold your equipment. Do not exceed the maximum weight limit for the ladder.
  • Be aware of doorways or opening windows and stay well clear of overhead power lines.
  • Do not climb any ladder in strong wind conditions.

Further information on working at height can be obtained from the Health and Safety Executive. You can also access helpful guidance on the use of ladders and stepladders as well as a useful page of Frequently Asked Questions.

Alterative Access Strategies

For some places of worship, it may not be possible or realistic to consider carrying out maintenance tasks at high level without professional help. In recent years, a number of companies have developed techniques and equipment for inspecting buildings and carrying out remedial work at high level. Some of the most widely available systems are described briefly below.

Cherry pickers: A ‘cherry picker' is a type of aerial work platform, which is usually mounted on the back of a large vehicle. They consist of a basket on an hydraulic arm and can be used in almost any situation where there is vehicular access close to the building. They are usually capable of being fully operated by a single person though there is often room in the basket for a second person if required.

Mobile elevating work platformPowered access platforms: A powered access platform is an alternative type of self propelled aerial work platform and can be used to gain access to locations inaccessible to conventional towed or vehicle-mounted machinery. Smaller units are capable of passing through doorways to be used internally to gain access to clerestory windows or electrical fittings for example.

Steeplejacks: Steeplejacks are craftspeople who specialise in working at height on tall buildings. Steeplejacks generally begin their work by using roped access systems to gain access to the spire or tower before erecting ladders and specialist scaffolding, such as work platforms (cradles) and the traditional bosun's chair (harness). Once the scaffolding is in place, they can work safely at high level.

Roped access specialists: Roped access specialists have taken some of the techniques and equipment developed for rock climbing and caving and adapted them to provide access to spires and towers. They normally use soft tape slings or padded ropes to fix their ropes to the structure in combination with specially designed safety harnesses. This allows them to move across and up and down the building to undertake survey or inspection work or to carry out essential repairs. If necessary, anchor bolts may be used to provide permanent fixing points.

Low-level aerial photography: If physical access is not possible or you simply wish to view the upper reaches of your building you could consider telescopic mast photography. A digital camera is fixed to the top of a telescopic mast mounted on an off-road vehicle, allowing precisely targeted photographs to be taken. Blimp or balloon photography is similar, although the use of a balloon means that it can be employed in locations that are inaccessible to normal vehicles.

© SPAB 2008