The effectiveness of hooped ladders in safely arresting a fall has been a topic of constant debate within the fall protection industry and lead to the issue being researched by a number of bodies including the HSE.
It is widely recognised that the hoops on fixed ladders (or caged ladders) don’t provide an effective means of fall arrest on their own. Removing the hoops would be difficult, dangerous and costly, so the industry recommended that hooped ladders should be ‘upgraded’ by installing a fall arrest system. The reasoning was that the two systems would work together to arrest a fall.
However, while addressing the problem, this approach raised additional safety questions. For example, if a fall did occur while the worker was connected to a fall arrest system, would the hoops interfere with the fall arrest system to the extent that it could not arrest the fall effectively? And, if the system was able to arrest a fall, could this be done without causing serious injury?
As a result of these concerns, the HSE carried out additional research to determine what might happen when someone does fall in a hooped ladder while connected to a fall arrest system. The research involved sixty-eight simulation tests using a dummy attached to seventeen different types of fall arrest system including absorbing lanyards, vertical rail and cable systems, falling within a hooped ladder.
The HSE’s Research Report 657 which details in full the research and results can be found on the HSE website, but to summaries the findings were that:
- There is no evidence that hoops on ladders provide a complete fall arrest capability
- If a fall arrest system is used, there is a risk that the hoops can hinder its operation or its effectiveness in preventing injury.
Following this research, the HSE concluded that although hooped ladders don’t provide positive fall arrest capabilities, they do offer other safety benefits, particularly when accessing, a ladder so should not be removed. Similarly, when it comes to fall arrest systems, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages from a safety point of view so these should not be banned.
The HSE advised that the hoops of a ladder may not be effective on their own so you should review your risk assessments and consider additional fall protection or an alternative means of access. If you do decide to use a fall arrest system in conjunction with a hooped ladder, you must be aware that the hoops could interfere with the operation of the system, particularly inertia reel devices. The equipment manufacturers should therefore be contacted for advice on the system’s performance when applied in a hooped ladder.
Climbing helmets should also be considered as they can help to reduce the risk of injury during a fall.
What about Rescue?
These recommendations are completely valid and of course we support them completely, however we feel that there is an important concern which is only addressed briefly in the HSE report and that is the crucial issue of rescue.
The report outlines that:
“If FAS are developed for use in caged ladders it is recommended that safe rescue procedures are researched and developed in parallel in order to have the means available to allow a safe and expedient recovery of a faller from a cage.”
After analysing the results of the 68 tests, it became apparent that rescue methods could be quite difficult and dangerous to execute. Furthermore, given the degree of injury, the amount of time available to a rescue party may be insufficient to effect recovery of the faller.”
We all know that no matter how careful something is planned, accidents do happen. Rescuing someone who has fallen from height is challenging in normal circumstances, but rescuing someone from a hooped ladder is even more problematic as you need to take into account the restricted space and type of fall arrest system being used.
Before any work at height is carried out on a hooped ladder, you must ensure that a comprehensive rescue risk assessment had been carried out and that the subsequent method statement addresses the limited space the rescuer would have to work in. Anyone who may be involved in a rescue must have the appropriate training so that they are aware of the risks and are familiar with equipment that is to be used to perform the rescue.
This debate about hooped ladders and appropriate fall arrest systems will no doubt continue. The HSE research went a long way in helping people to understand the dangers associated with hooped ladders and fall arrest systems, but they should also remember that careful consideration must be given to rescue, and how a person is to be rescued if they do fall. Our advice is that whenever you are planning to access a hooped ladder, always seek professional advice before carrying out the work to ensure you have assessed all aspects of the work and included effective rescue measures in your plans and that the appropriate training has been carried out.