Midlands-based Lavendon has been given a leg-up as the authorities attempt to cut the number of people injured falling off ladders.

The group, which rents out powered access equipment, is benefiting from heightened health and safety legislation and a major restructuring.

That has put it back in the black in the year to the end of December.

Turnover was £100 million, down from £108 million in 2004 following a shake-up of the firm's German operation and the sale of its Austrian business.

Despite the decline in revenues, operating profits increased by 28 per cent to £7.3 million. Margins improved to 7.3 per cent from 5.3 per cent.

Net interest charges were cut by £1.4 million to £4.4 million following a £27.3 million reduction in borrowings to £61.7 million. The resultant debt to equity ratio is 80 per cent, compared with 118 per cent at the previous year-end.

Pretax profit came in at £2.9 million against a loss of £0.1 million the previous year.

Lavendon's equipment - promoted as quick, safe, convenient and manoeuvrable - is used in the likes of industrial and building maintenance, construction, sign erection, outside broadcasting, telecommunications, tree surgery and highway maintenance.

The Lutterworth-based group claims it is taking over from traditional methods such as scaffolding, ladders and aluminium towers.

John Gordon, chairman, said: "The case for the use of powered access remains compelling. The recognised attributes of efficiency and cost effectiveness are being underpinned by ever more stringent health and safety legislation.

"In 2005, the introduction of the Work at Height Regulations in the UK, which seeks to ensure that any work at height is undertaken in the safest possible manner, will reinforce the established trend of powered access being preferred over other means.

"Similar legislation exists across the European Union where the added pressure of limited working weeks and high labour costs means that the use of powered access will be further embraced as a means of enhancing labour productivity in construction and refurbishment projects."

In the UK you are no longer allowed to use a ladder as a "work platform" over 18ft.

Mr Gordon said there were "encouraging signs" that supply and demand levels were coming more into line, but "until this is well established pressure on hire rates is expected to remain".

Finance director Alan Merrell said Lavendon was around 50 per cent exposed to the construction sector against up to 80 per cent for rivals.

With a 7,800-strong fleet, it claims to be more than three times as big as its main comepetitors such as Hewden Stuart and Ashtead. Trading so far this year had been in line with expectations.

Since the year end, Lavendon has acquired two businesses in the UK, Panther Work Platforms and Kestrel Powered Access for a total of £17 million, increasing the rental fleet by 1,650 machines and adding seven depots to the existing 46 which, in the West Midlands, takes in Sheldon in Birmingham, Darlaston, Coventry, Worcester and Shrewsbury.

Chief executive Kevin Appleton said the UK remained the group's largest and most important market, representing some 60 per cent of total revenue.

UK operating profits increased by 14 per cent to £8.3 million on broadly stable revenues of £61.1 million. Margins improved to 14 per cent from 12 per cent in 2004.

Mr Appleton said: "This margin improvement has been achieved despite the increase in fuel costs, and is as a result of actions taken to increase the average length of hire, thereby reducing both workshop and transport workloads, removing low margin-generating assets from the fleet and further refining operational and IT systems.

"The UK management has completed the restruc-turing of the business and it is now able to deliver superior customer service to higher-margin revenue streams and to avoid the intense competition present in the highly price-sensitive local construction market.

"The combination of the existing UK business, with the recent acquisitions, should ensure further substantial progress is made in 2006, both in terms of revenue growth and profitability."

Overall, the turnround had been achieved "without recourse to any substantial capital investment, indicating the improved quality of the business's operational disciplines".

Mr Appleton added: "The strategy of rigid fiscal self-discipline over the last three years has positioned the group financially to support investment going forward, to drive revenue growth above average levels of general economic activity and deliver superior profit performance."