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Protective Guarding for Skylights and Roof Openings

By: Maureen Paraventi

Certain fall risks are obvious and easy to spot. Skylights and other roof openings may be less visible, and thus, especially dangerous. The U.S. Department of Labor lists falls as one of the leading causes of traumatic occupational death. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety (NIOSH) National Traumatic Occupational Fatality (NTOF) database, a significant percentage of fall fatalities involves workers falling through skylight openings or smoke-vent skylights (translucent plastic domes that serve as both skylights and automatic smoke vents in case of fire). Investigations by NIOSH suggest that employers, workers, building owners, skylight designers and skylight manufacturers may not fully recognize or appreciate the serious fall hazards associated with working near skylights and roof and floor openings. As a result, skylights and roof and floor openings may be left unguarded or uncovered, and workers may be assigned to work around these openings without appropriate fall prevention measures in place.

How Falls Can Happen

Case reports in a NIOSH alert (Preventing Falls of Workers through Skylights and Roof and Floor Openings, publication number 2004-156[1]) show just how easily such incidents can occur.

  • Case 1—A 43-year-old male laborer at a coatings manufacturing company died after falling though an unguarded, 3-foot-square skylight lens to a concrete floor 14 feet below. The victim and a coworker were clearing snow from the flat roof of the building. The victim walked on the roof through deep snow that completely covered the skylights in that area of the roof. He apparently failed to see the snow-covered skylight and stepped onto its lens, which broke under his weight. The skylight did not have a protective screen, cover, or guarding around it.
  • Case 2—A 39-year-old, self-employed residential construction contractor died after falling through an unguarded floor opening and onto the concrete footing 10 feet below. He was framing the second floor with two other workers and was in the process of holding a level to the gable end of the second-floor master bedroom when he apparently stepped back into one of two floor openings built to accommodate a chimney. Both the first and second floors had been decked with plywood except for the chimney floor opening.
  • Case 3—A 62-year-old farmer died from injuries sustained when he fell through a corrugated fiberglass panel used on the roof of a pole barn to let light into the building. On the day of the incident, the farmer walked up the slope of the roof until he reached a rope tied into the roof vent. Evidence suggests that he held the rope in one hand as he pushed snow off the roof. He stepped onto a snow-covered 3- x 10-foot corrugated fiberglass panel that broke, causing him to fall approximately 16 feet to the concrete floor below. The fiberglass panel had not been guarded or marked with a warning to indicate that it covered a hole.
  • Case 4—A 27-year-old carpenter died when he fell through a roof opening to a concrete floor 13 feet below after partially unsecuring a sheet of plywood used to cover the opening. Evidence indicates that the victim removed nails from one side of the plywood cover so that he could drop an electric cord to the floor below, where power outlets were available. He apparently knelt down and leaned into the opening with the plywood resting on his back to look for someone below who would plug the cord into an electrical outlet. While kneeling, the victim either lost his balance or the weight of the plywood caused him to fall headfirst through the opening.
  • Case 5—A 14-year-old male laborer died from injuries he sustained when he fell through the lens of a 56- x 24-inch, curb-mounted skylight to a concrete floor approximately 12 feet below. Along with several other day laborers, the victim and his 16-year-old brother had been hired by a roofing contractor on the day of the incident to pull up and remove built-up roofing materials from the flat roof of a one-story wholesale florist shop. The victim had been working for approximately 15 minutes pulling up roofing materials by hand when he fell back onto a skylight lens that broke under his weight. The skylight did not have a protective screen or cover. The lens was not marked with a warning against sitting or stepping on it. The employer had assigned the victim and his brother to roofing work in violation of HO16.

Prevention Measures

NIOSH recommendations include developing, implementing and enforcing a comprehensive fall protection program. Additionally, employers must:

  • Assign a competent person to inspect the worksite before work begins to identify fall hazards and to determine the appropriate fall prevention system for workers.
  • For work around skylights and roof and floor openings, require, provide and ensure the use of appropriate fall prevention systems that use one of the following: 1. Covers or screens 2. Railings or guardrails 3. PFAS, including a full-body harness, lanyard, connectors and appropriate anchorage points (tie-offs).

Workers should:

  • Never sit on, lean against or step on a skylight or any covering placed over a hole in a roof or floor. The material may not support your weight.
  • Guard or securely cover all holes you have created or uncovered before you leave the work area. Other workers might not notice an uncovered hole and fall through.
  • Ask your supervisor for safety procedures to follow when covering or guarding a hole.
  • Always use a personal fall arrest system (PFAS) that includes a full-body harness, lanyard, connectors and appropriate anchorage points (tie-offs) when working over an unguarded or uncovered opening more than 6 feet above a lower level—for example, while you are installing a skylight or ventilation unit in an opening that cannot be guarded or covered.
  • Immediately tell your supervisor about any unguarded skylights, roof or floor openings, or other fall hazards in your workplace.

Complying with OSHA standards for guarding roof openings – as well as increasing workers’ awareness of the hazards – can help reduce the number of falls through skylights and other roof openings. WMHS


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