An electrician who suffered a back injury after falling from a ladder being used inappropriately is a stark reminder to employers whose staff work at height about the importance of using the correct equipment.

Anthony Smallwood, 66, a Unite the union member from Erith in Kent must now use a wheelchair because the fall exacerbated an old back injury and brought forward an operation on his back by three years.

Mr Smallwood fell four metres from a stepladder in September 2007 after he stretched to unscrew an air conditioning unit in Tower Bridge House in London for his employers Technique Projects Ltd and overbalanced.

Scaffolding should have been used

Technique Projects should have arranged for scaffolding to be used to avoid the accident from happening.

Mr Smallwood had only just returned to work a few months earlier after undergoing extensive back surgery needed on a damaged vertebrae caused by a fall down some stairs at home.

Additional surgery on his back was already on the cards but he planned to have it after he retired. The fall from the ladder meant the pain became unbearable and he needed the surgery earlier.

Forced to retire after accident

Mr Smallwood initially took a week off work following the accident but it soon became clear he was no longer able to cope with the job. He was signed off sick and he went in for surgery in March 2008.

The operation has left him with severe sciatica and he must use a wheelchair, forcing him to retire from the firm in 2009.

Mr Smallwood contacted his trade union for advice. Unite instructed Thompsons Solicitors to pursue a claim for compensation. Thompsons found that Mr Smallwood had not had any training in working at height in his 23 years with the company.

Technique Projects did not admit liability and settled the claim out of court.

Falls from heights are the number one cause of workplace deaths

Mr Smallwood said: “I had always expected to retire at 65 and despite my first back operation I had hoped I would be fit enough to do so. This accident brought everything forward as I was no longer fit to work.”

Peter Kavanagh, Acting Regional Secretary at Unite said: “Just because people have used ladders before in a job doesn’t mean they are using them safely. Falls from heights are the number one cause of workplace deaths and a little planning from employers is needed to make sure staff are up to date on working at height rules. In this case the member should have been provided with scaffolding to allow him better access to the air conditioning unit.”

Anna Konzon from Thompsons Solicitors added: “The employers failure to provide Mr. Smallwood with the proper equipment to do the job safely, and the ladders they did supply were totally unsuitable, coupled with his complete lack of any training meant he just got on with what he was given. As a result he has gone through additional pain and discomfort and retired earlier than he planned.”