West Lothian Council worker gets £10k for ladder fall

West Lothian Council has been fined for a health and safety blunder which left one of its house painters crippled for life.
West Lothian Council, County Buildings. Picture: TSPLWest Lothian Council, County Buildings. Picture: TSPL
West Lothian Council, County Buildings. Picture: TSPL

Joseph Poterala suffered life-changing injuries when he plummeted nearly 15 feet from the top of a ladder.

Workmates who rushed to his aid when they heard a crash and his scream of agony found him lying on paving slabs with his leg trapped between the rungs of the ladder, a court heard.

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The 55-year-old’s knee was fractured in eight places and he had suffered further fractures to his leg and his hip.

The local authority was fined £10,000 yesterday when it pleaded guilty to failing to ensure that work at height was properly planned.

Lynne Jamieson, prosecuting, said Mr Poterala was in “considerable distress” as a result of the fall and was treated at the scene by paramedics for an hour before being taken to Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

She told the court that he had been part of a squad painting the outside of a two storey council house in Glenmavis Drive, Bathgate, on 8 and 9 July 2013.

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Because there was a steep incline at the rear of the house and steps in front it had been decided after a health and safety assessment that the painters should use ladders to carry out the work.

However, ‘ladder mates’ – which should have been used to prevent the base of the ladder from slipping back – had not been delivered to the site by the second day of the contract.

Mr Poterala had instead driven the base of the extended ladder into grass to secure it, but when he climbed to the top it slid down the wall causing him to crash to the ground.

Miss Jamieson said the accident had been “entirely foreseeable” and could have been prevented by taking simple, sensible precautions recommended by the Health and Safety Executive.

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Although ladders had been chosen for the job and the council had continued to use them until an improvement notice was issued by HSE in January 2014, she said aluminium scaffold towers – which the council possessed at the time – would have been a safer alternative.

Ann Bonomy, defending, stressed that the local authority had since changed its practices for employees working at height and now used scaffolding towers instead of ladders as “default” practice.

She said it was “a matter of great distress” that Mr Poterala had been seriously injured.

She added: “The council have accepted from the outset that this was their fault and they have extended their apologies.

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“They now use a ladder system whereby the ladders are attached to the wall so they canlt move and the operators are secured by a harness so they can’t fall therefore this accident can’t happen again.

“They are not an organisation that would sacrifice safety for profit, quite the opposite.”

Passing sentence, Sheriff Susan Craig said that the £20,000 maximum fine available for such offences was a means of bringing home to local authorities and corporate business the need to ensure the health and safety of their employees.

In deciding on a £10,000 fine he said she took into account the subtle but important distinction that the offence was not the use of ladders but the measures taken around the use of ladders.

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She added: “I appreciate the fact that the council’s health and safety people are in court but it’s their job to know better.

“That health and safety has fallen into a black hole is extraordinary but I am glad it’s being taken seriously from now on.”

A spokesperson for West Lothian Council commented: “West Lothian Council takes the health and safety of its employees very seriously and has acknowledged the breach. Since this accident the council has reviewed its procedures and fully complied with the Health and Safety Executive recommendations.”

As he left court, Mr Poterala spoke of his anguish at being forced to give up work at such a relatively young age and being left disabled.

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He is now unable to walk without the aid of an elbow crutch and that his left leg is now 3.5cm shorter than his right as a result of the repeated surgery he had endured.

He said: “I’m relieved this part of it is over. It’s been a dreadful ordeal, but life goes on.”