Your roof is a landmine of potential hazards. Ladders, perimeter walls, decking, skylights, and physical exposure to the natural elements can put workers at risk for slips and falls.
Your general duty clause extends to your roof so make sure you take the right precautions. Commonsense practices such as limiting who can access the roof, requiring training for those who do, and providing safety equipment will help to keep facilities staff and outside contractors from harm.
Roofing Hazards Overview
Roofs aren’t designed for constant foot traffic yet inspections and repairs require workers to tread lightly across membranes and metal panels. Many roof accidents involve trips or falls from heights that result in hundreds of deaths annually and scores of other non-fatal injuries.
Consider the many risks workers are exposed to while on the roof:
- Ladders – If your building doesn’t have interior stairs and a doorway to the roof, workers must use caution when using ladders. These can become unstable if they aren’t properly secured or tied off to the building, notes Brian Impellizeri, senior product manager with GAF, a roofing manufacturer.
- Exterior Egress – Beyond ladders, staff should exercise situation awareness when accessing the roof via hatches, elevators, penthouse doors, scaffolding, or power equipment such as scissor lifts and aerial work platforms, says Brad Richardson, a certified safety professional and director of environmental health and safety for D. C. Taylor Company, a roofing contractor.
- Skylights – While great for natural light, these fixtures can give way if too much weight is put on them. A worker may accidentally step on them or trip on the edges.
- Parapet Walls – Buildings that have no barrier on the roof ledge pose an immediate risk and others may have walls that are too short to prevent someone from tumbling over.
- Loose Debris – Tree branches, leaves, construction materials, and tools can all pose a tripping hazard. In windy conditions, they may also become flying debris.
- Extreme Heat – A cool roof can be a hot place for workers surrounded by reflected heat. Roofing repairs and renovations are also a tiring activity and technicians are susceptible to something as simple as dehydration when performing tasks for hours under the sun, reminds Impellizeri.
- Slippery Conditions – It can be difficult to maintain footing on steep pitches, ice, snow, moisture, or flat roofs with gravel.
- Electrical – Workers need to be aware of roof tasks that take them near overhead power lines, conduit, solar panels, and HVAC equipment, Richardson notes.
- Chemical Exposure – There’s a high potential that employees might breathe in or touch toxins, such as asbestos or lead, when dealing with roofing materials, he adds. This can include biological materials such as rodent and bird droppings.
- Repetitive Motion Injuries – Roof work involves activities that can cause strain, such as standing for long periods of time, kneeling, lifting, using tools, and climbing ladders.
In addition to keeping contractors safe, you also want to ensure your roof isn’t being abused from careless contact. Even the simple act of strolling across high traffic areas can weaken surfaces.
When service technicians access your roof, their priority is to work on the equipment at hand. If they aren’t thinking about your roof integrity, workers may leave tools or debris from repairs, says Impellizeri. Even accidentally dropping tools can puncture the membrane.
There’s also a possibility that unnecessary holes may be drilled into the roof to install equipment or flashing around penetrations may be forgotten. Down the road, deterioration in these weak spots can pose a tripping hazard, cautions Richardson.
But contractors aren’t the only ones who can cause wear and tear. Your own staff may not be thinking about what’s underfoot and cut corners on a job in ways that are less than gentle to roofs.
“Particularly on roofs with multiple decks, workers may be tempted to jump from small heights,” Impellizeri says. “If there aren’t enough ladders for the whole crew, 4 feet or less may seem like a safe distance to leap from. Not only is this dangerous for workers, but the force of them landing can crush the insulation and damage the boards.”
Even if there are enough ladders, improper use can also create damage, cautions Richardson. Friction may harm siding and gutters, or worse, workers could add unnecessary penetrations to the exterior to secure the ladder.
Improve Safety with Protection Devices
There is a host of retrofit options that will make your roof a safer working environment. Many are modestly priced, will last for years on end, and can be added without major modifications.
A simple first step is to ensure all workers have personal protection equipment. This includes harnesses as well as weather-appropriate clothing, sunglasses, headgear, and gloves.
“Next, add walkway paths,” Impellizeri recommends. “These can be welded easily to an existing roof to provide an additional layer of cushion.”