Employees seriously injured in falls when ladders failed

WorkSafe is reminding employers of the dangers of portable ladders failing without warning.
Safety alert published

Friday 20 May 2022

Industries and topics
  • Construction
  • Fall prevention

Ladders failing without warning

Recently, in separate incidents, two people fell from ladders and were seriously injured when the ladders they were on failed without warning. Both of the ladders had plastic/polymer structural components that appeared to have UV (sun) damage/deterioration.

Safety issues

Portable ladders are one of the least stable but most often used tools when working at heights. A ladder failure can result in a fall.

Where plastic/polymer structural components are exposed to UV rays, eg stored outdoors or on vehicle roof racks or in direct sunlight, these components may degrade and become brittle. Brittle plastic/polymer components reduce the overall strength and durability of the ladder and cause the ladder to be unsafe for use, as it could fail suddenly.

Falls continue to be a leading cause of serious and fatal incidents in the construction industry. Serious and fatal falls continue to happen where risk control measures are not in place or do not adequately control the risk of falls.

Recommended ways to control the risks

Where there is a risk of a person falling from a height of more than two metres, employers must eliminate or reduce the risk under the prevention of falls hierarchy of control set out in Part 3.3 of the OHS Regulations. Where there is a risk to health and safety associated with a fall from two metres or less, employers must still control the risk so far as is reasonably practicable.

While ladders are often the first choice when working at heights, they should only be used if safer options have been assessed first and are not reasonably practicable for the task. Safer options include long-handled tools, scaffolding or elevated work platforms (EWPs).

If no higher order means of control is reasonably practicable and you intend to use a portable ladder to control the risk of a fall, the employer must ensure that the ladder is:

  • fit for purpose
  • appropriate for the duration of the task, and
  • set up correctly

Choosing a ladder that is fit for purpose

In addition to the recommended ways to control risks, you should consider the following matters when selecting a ladder:

Where is the ladder to be stored and used

A ladder that is or will be stored in direct sunlight and exposed to UV rays should be made of materials that will not deteriorate over time.

UV exposure can degrade plastic/polymer ladder components when it is regularly stored and used in direct sunlight (eg used outdoors and stored on the roof rack of a vehicle). This can cause the plastic components to become brittle and the ladders to become weaker and unsafe. Ladders with plastic/polymer structural components may need to be replaced regularly.

What task will the ladder be used for

Before choosing a ladder for a job, plan the task you are about to perform. Ask the following questions:

  • Is a task-specific ladder a better choice for this job? A multi-purpose ladder may not be the best ladder for every task.
  • Could the combined weight of the person and the tools or materials for the job exceed the ladder capacity? If so, the risk of a fall is increased.
  • Is the ladder too short to allow the person to stand on a rung at least 900mm from the top or on/below the second highest tread? If so, consider other options such as scaffolding or EWPs.
  • Does the job involve work near electricity such as powerlines, neon signs or live wires? Work near electricity sources should only be performed with a fibreglass ladder and ‘no go zone’ rules must always be followed.

Ladder inspections

A ladder should be inspected daily before use for any signs of damage or faults (eg missing, cracked, broken, loose, worn or warped parts), or repairs that are not in line with the manufacturer’s specifications.

The critical structural components, such as hinges, should be checked for any signs of deterioration, such as excessive movement or twisting.

Plastic/polymer structural components (such as barrel hinges) may deteriorate with UV exposure. Ensure that particular attention is paid to these components during inspections. Check for:

  • fading or colour changes
  • cracking (especially around fixings, such as connecting rods, nuts and pop rivets where the plastic components join other parts of the ladder)
  • excessive wear

Plastic/polymer structural components may fail without warning, so even minor defects should be further inspected by a suitably qualified person. A minor crack could indicate that there is a larger defect which cannot be easily seen.

A sun-damaged cracked and broken plastic hinge component from a ladder.

Figure 1: Cracking and failure of the top half of a plastic barrel hinge cover.

The bottom a plastic barrel hinge component that has cracked and failed because of sun-damage.

Figure 2: Cracking and failure of the bottom half of a plastic barrel hinge cover still attached to the ladder.

Ladders with plastic/polymer structural components may need to be replaced regularly due to UV exposure or damage.

Some ladders may need to be disassembled for proper inspection of critical components. You should ensure that a proper inspection is performed regularly by a suitably qualified person and that the ladder is re-assembled in line with original manufacturer’s instructions.

You should ensure that ladders showing signs of defects are not used. You should either dispose of and replace them, or have them inspected and repaired by a suitably qualified person with original manufacturer’s parts.

Legal duties

Employers have duties under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act). They must, so far as is reasonably practicable:

  • provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to the health of employees and independent contractors
  • provide or maintain plant or systems of work that are safe and without risks to health
  • provide employees with the necessary information, instruction, training or supervision to enable them to do their work in a way that is safe and without risks to health
  • ensure that people other than employees are not exposed to risks to their health or safety arising from the employer's conduct

Self-employed persons must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that persons are not exposed to risks to health or safety arising from the conduct of their undertaking.

In addition, where there is a risk of a person falling from a height of more than two metres, employers have specific duties under Part 3.3 (Prevention of falls) and Part 5.1 (Construction) of the OHS Regulations.

Designers, Manufacturers and Suppliers of ladders (plant) also have duties under the OHS Act to both employees and others that use the ladders.