We speak to Paul Bruton, product development director at WernerCo, who reflects on how working at height has changed during his four decades in the industry, and the positive role training has had in improving user safety.
The industry is ever changing, which means that the needs of people using access equipment are always evolving too, so during the development stages at WernerCo it is important to engage with end users to understand how products are used to make sure any new developments are addressing customer needs, or fill a gap in the market, ultimately making tradesmen’s work easier and, of course, safer.
In addition to customer feedback, legislation also drives much of WernerCo’s product development, and there have been several changes to the governing standards here in the UK in recent years, such as the introduction of the updated EN131 standards. Following a review, the European Commission found that a number of improvements were required to help increase safety when working at height. As a result, EN131 was updated in 2018 in order to create a harmonised standard for ladders, setting out a clear distinction in classification between professional and non-professional ladders.
As well as the classification between products, additional considerations have brought in major safety changes to the design of both domestic and professional ladders. For example, all ladders must now have a minimum load capacity of 150kg, while extension and combination ladders over 3m are required to have a stabiliser bar. Alongside these new safety features, the updated standard also introduced new test protocols for slip, strength in the position of use and durability in professional use ladders.
Whilst tradesmen can still use any ladder they already own, this update to EN131 guarantees that any new ladder purchased for professional and non-professional use meets the new standards, effectively phasing out older insufficient ladders.
However, one of the most significant changes in the industry was the introduction of the Work at Height Regulations in 2005, which had a huge impact, providing a much greater emphasis on risk assessment and more onus on both employers and end users to ensure safe working practices. As a result, research from Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that the UK has consistently had some of the lowest workplace fatality and serious injury rates in the European Union – thanks to the hard work and commitment of installers and businesses in implementing the regulation’s requirements.
The tangible benefits of training
Although improvements to product safety, and the introduction of the Work at Height Regulations in 2005, has done much to help, falls from height are still one of the leading causes of workplace fatalities and injuries. Over the last five years, nearly 200 people have been killed following a fall from height at work, and alarmingly almost 29,000 injuries have been reported.
A big challenge in the industry is educating tradesmen on how invaluable training can be. Although as a manufacturer, WernerCo makes its products as safe as possible, most falls from height are sadly down to user error. If a tradesman does not evaluate the risks of working at height, and take safety seriously, there will always be a chance of accidents happening.
Tradesmen who work at height could often think an accident will never happen to them, and therefore discounting any need for training. While cost and time spent off the tools might minimally impact a business, the life-changing consequences from a fall can be much greater, and WernerCo is working hard to make people understand that this small investment can have huge benefits.
Education and training are key elements that can make working at height safer. Many manufacturers and trade bodies offer accredited training courses for regular and occasional access equipment users alike. Furthermore, in 2019, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Working at Height – supported by the Ladder Association and all 11 members of the AIF – publish their first report ‘Staying Alive’. This report called for enhanced reporting of all near misses and accidents, which could help create a safer environment for the millions who work at height every day.
Despite these challenges, it is positive to see that during Paul’s time within the industry has seen the UK take its place at the forefront of work at height safety. However, at WernerCo, Paul still believes there is more work to be done – one accident is one too many!