Footing of Ladders

Alan Fraser v Fife Council Court of Session, 7 April 2006

Alan Fraser was a painter and decorator employed by Fife Council. On 24 January 2002 he was painting rhones at the back of a house in High Valleyfield, Fife. He was half way down the ladder when he lost his footing, slid down the ladder and landed in an upright position before falling over, to his injury. At the time he was using a ladderfix, securing the top of the ladder. He was provided with, but did not use, a ladderstop, which was a footing device.

Mr. Fraser raised an action for damages against Fife Council. He alleged breach of both the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 and the Construction (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1996, and also a common law case.

The principal factual issue was the cause of the fall. It was agreed that Mr. Fraser had lost his footing about half way down the ladder. Either his foot slipped off a rung, without the ladder having moved, causing him to lose his balance and slide down the ladder, or he lost his balance because the ladder moved in some way, due to the condition of the surface on which it was resting. Mr. Fraser was working alone at the time.

Lady Smith found that there was no reason for the ladder to have moved. It was placed on gravel which was shallow. The ground underneath it was firm and compacted. Mr. Fraser had not felt the need to use a ladderstop. He did not think that a man footing the ladder would have made any difference. His workmates did not give any evidence to the effect that the base of the ladder looked as if it had sunk into the ground at all. The ladder had remained upright after Mr. Fraser's fall.

A case was made out under Regulation 4 of PUWER 1998 in relation to suitability of work equipment. Lady Smith did not see that Fife Council had failed in any way to comply with it. Mr. Fraser had a suitable ladder and ladderfix. He had a ladderstop available to him which he chose not to use. The surface on which the ladder was resting was firm, compacted? Earth with only a shallow covering of gravel. There was no evidence that anything more was required to enable Mr. Fraser to carry out his job safely.

A case was made out in terms of Regulation 8 of PUWER 1998 relating to the availability of adequate health and safety information. Lady Smith was satisfied that Fife Council had fulfilled the requirements by providing information in both written form and orally, including regular tool box talks and specific demonstrations of the use of the ladderfix and ladderstop equipment. There was no evidence that further safety information would have made any difference. A training case was also advanced under Regulation 9 of PUWER 1998.There was clear unchallenged evidence regarding regular training to Mr. Fraser and his work mates, who were very experienced. Such employees should not require as much training as novices.

Similarly, statutory cases were advanced under the Construction (Health, Safety & Welfare) Regulations 1996 in terms of Regulation 5; suitable and sufficient safe access and safe place of work, and Regulation 6; prevention of falling. Lady Smith again accepted that there was no need for anything more than the ladderfix, and on Mr. Fraser's hypothesis of soft ground, the provision of the additional ladderstop.

It was also argued that in terms of Schedule 5 of the 1996 Regulations, the ladder required to rest on a stable, level and firm surface of specific strength and composition safely to support the ladder. It was pointed out that there was no reasonable practicability qualification to that provision. Lady Smith rejected the factual basis for that argument. She accepted that there was nothing more that Fife Council could have done. Mr. Fraser had been provided with a ladder. On his own evidence a second man would not have prevented Mr. Fraser's fall. Mr. Fraser's problem was that all of the breaches of regulations were founded on the assumption that the ground on which his ladder was placed was an area of loose gravel with soft ground underneath it. However, he failed to prove that the ground was in that condition and failed to prove that his fall was caused by the ladder sinking into the ground. As a result, no liability attached to Fife Council.

Lady Smith also gave her views on contributory negligence. She indicated that if it had been established that Fife Council were at fault and that their fault caused Mr. Fraser's accident, given the suitability of the ladderstop for gravel surfaces and the evidence that Mr. Fraser had a ladderstop available to him, she would have been inclined to make a finding of 100% contributory negligence. The circumstances were comparable to those in Lanigan v Derek Crouch Construction Ltd 1985.

This case is of interest in indicating the difficulties which can be faced by an experienced employee who suffers injury in inexplicable circumstances. Clearly, it was a great help to Fife Council that they could demonstrate the provision of information and training in terms of Regulations 8 and 9 of PUWER 1998.