How to Prevent Rooftop Falls in Winter

November 2020
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Every building owner, contractor, and safety manager knows that the leading cause of workplace fatalities is a fall from height. These tragedies are often caused by non-compliance to OSHA fall protection codes, using inadequate safety equipment, or a lack of proper training.

When a fall occurs, the costs to a company can be overwhelming and potentially catastrophic -- financially, operationally, and legally -- including OSHA fines, disability claims, hospitalization expenses, insurance premiums, time lost on the job, and legal fees.

According to the Department of Labor, the estimated cost to a company to offset loss when a fall occurs is $3,000,000.

According to the National Safety Council, every $1 invested in injury prevention can return between $2 to $6 through improvements in productivity, worker satisfaction, and reduced worker recruitment costs.

How to Prevent Rooftop Falls in the Winter

The rhythm of the changing seasons is constant. And when winter arrives, it brings along frosty and dangerous rooftops. Working on a snow-covered roof poses significant challenges, not the least of which are exposure to the elements and fall dangers.

Now is the time to ensure you have proper fall protection and training in place to minimize the risks of wintry roofs and protect workers from hazards.

The Top Leading Hazards on Industrial Rooftops

1. Access Points
Understanding how your workers access a roof is critical. The most frequented hazard on any rooftop is the access points. Workers are exposed to this risk every time they enter and exit a rooftop.

OSHA requires that all ladders and hatches be secured with a self-closing gate and safety-compliant railings to reduce fall risk when performing maintenance work. If your rooftop currently uses a chain across the access point, recent OSHA code changes have determined that chains are no longer a viable safety measure for ladderways. Use steel component railing to separate workers from the danger of falls at access points.

2. Rooftop Openings
Skylights are one of the most popular rooftop features - and the most dangerous for rooftop workers. OSHA considers skylights to be a hole in the roof and has specific laws enacted to protect workers from falling through a skylight (which is a risk not only to a worktop roofer, but also anyone who may be inside and below the opening, as well).

Before the winter weather arrives, prominently mark all skylights with a marker or flag so that workers will be able to see and avoid snow-covered skylights. This is also a good time to flag roof vents, drains, and the safest routes across a roof.

Installing skylight screens can also protect workers from falling through when traversing a snow-covered roof.

3. Unprotected Roof Edges
The roof's edge is the most visible hazard and typically the hazard most people want to protect first. Protecting workers from slips, trips, and falls from the roof edge is critical in every season and even more important in winter months, when cold temperatures and wind make for icy conditions underfoot.

Proximity to the roof edge is a significant factor in the likelihood of an accident occurring. Employees will be working under extreme weather conditions, so it is essential to document the location of machinery, HVAC systems, ductwork, or drains near an unprotected edge.

OSHA regulations cite that for any building where work is performed within 15 feet of an open roof edge, each worker must be protected by a guardrail system or other approved safety system.

Everyone is at Risk for Liability in a Fall

Statistics indicate that falls from height account for the most significant fatalities in the industrial roof maintenance sector and the construction industry. Violation of fall protection standards and similar safety codes have necessitated regulatory oversight and civil liabilities. Today, any contractor meeting the definition of a Creating, Exposing, Correcting, or Controlling Employer may be subject to a lawsuit for damages sustained by an injured worker.

Building owners, managers, engineers, architects, contractors, and vendors are all at risk for citations for hazards -- even hazards they did not create or hazards to which their employees were never exposed.

The duty to identify and remediate hazards at a worksite belongs to everyone involved with the project.

Safety Training + Safety Equipment for Fall Protection

Effective fall protection depends on proper safety equipment and comprehensive training on safeguarding oneself and others from potential hazards.

Therefore, workplace safety is a two-step process involving:

  • Technical support from protective tools and machinery
  • Human support in the shape of comprehensive training, instructions, and guidance

Neglecting either could lead to holes in your safety system that will lead to dangerous working conditions for everyone at the site.

Safety equipment has become increasingly effective and affordable in recent years. It's easier than ever to choose the right safety solution for each task. Instead of one-size-fits-all solutions, choosing well-tailored and modifiable equipment could help make every site hazard-free.

Safety equipment such as fall arrest systems, scaffolds, and protective gear should be able to prevent injuries -- if used correctly. But even the newest, most state-of-the-art equipment won't keep a worker safe if he/she does not know how to use it. Even the best equipment won't replace comprehensive and ongoing safety training.

Professional and regular safety training will educate staff on how to use tools, spot potential hazards, and maintain a health and safety culture in the workplace that will spark awareness and interest in safety procedures among workers.

OSHA established training requirements that outline what employees who may be subject to fall hazards need to know before they are exposed to a fall hazard [29 CFR 1910.30(a) (1)].

Don't Forget Re-Training

Because falls continue to be a leading cause of workplace injury and death, employers need to retrain to ensure that training remains effective over time.

When is it time to retrain? Some events that may trigger retraining can include:

  • Performing a job or operating equipment in an unsafe manner
  • A fall incident or a near miss
  • Changes in the workplace
  • Changes in fall protection/prevention equipment

Fall protection standards for the construction industry, advances in fall protection technology, and heightened awareness of fall hazards have reduced the number of fall-related construction injuries and deaths. But falls from heights are still one of the most common -- and costly -- workplace injuries.

Don't wait for a fall to occur before taking action -- update your fall protection plan for the winter now.

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