Preventing Falls Through Skylights and Roof Openings

Falls through skylights and roof openings continue to be a major problem in both the workplace and even residential homes.  In fact, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) compiled statistics and specific scenarios for their 1989 publication about preventing worker deaths from falls through skylights and roof openings. According to their publication, falls accounted for nearly ten percent of all traumatic occupational deaths. Of this total, NIOSH asserts that 28 deaths resulted from falls through skylights, and 39 deaths resulted from falls through roofs or roof openings.

Preventing falls through skylights and roof openings has been an important initiative for nearly 30 years. In fact, NIOSH published another alert in 2004 that outlined preventative measures for preventing falls through skylights and roof and floor openings. In the alert, NIOSH maintains that occupational fatalities caused by falls still remain a serious public health problem in the U.S., and it’s only getting worse each year. In fact, data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries indicates that falls are one of the leading causes of traumatic injury and death in the workforce. Falls through skylights and roof openings accounted for 13.7 percent of worker deaths in 2001. During that year, 23 workers died in skylight falls, 11 workers died in falls through roof openings, and 24 workers died in falls through floor openings. Most of these deaths occurred in the construction industry (BLS 2002a).

Worst of all, deaths resulting from this type of fall could have been easily prevented if employers and workers followed OSHA’s regulations. OSHA mandates that employers provide workers with the correct fall protection equipment and training, enforce OSHA’s regulations and proper use of fall protection equipment, and put a thorough safety plan into place for workers to follow. From the CDC Workplace Safety and Health, to NIOSH, OSHA, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are plenty of resources available to companies and employees. But, year after year, the number of deaths from falling continues to increase.

By examining three current workplace fatality cases, we are going to outline the cause of each fall, how employees and workers failed to follow OSHA regulations, and what they could have done to prevent falls through skylights and roof openings.

Case One:

Time: February 2012
Place: Toronto, Ontario
Description: Workers were installing solar panels on the rooftop of an industrial building. The rooftop consisted of a large area divided by 20 solar panels that overlooked the main floor, 16 feet below. One of the workers slipped on the rooftop and tried to brace his fall on a skylight, which did not support his weight. The worker fell through the skylight, severed his finger, hit the floor below, and died about a week later from his injuries.
Violations: The Company was charged and pleaded guilty to “failing as an employer to install protective coverings over skylights located on the roof while work was proceeding.” The Company was fined $90,000, and a judge sentenced Symtech at the Ontario Court of Justice, in Toronto.
Regulations Broken: Charges fell under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, Section 25(1)(c) and Ontario Regulation 213/91 (Construction Projects Regulation), Section 26.3(2)2.
Preventative Solutions: A guardrail or other type of protective covering should have been installed around and over all of the rooftop skylights, as required by law.
Source: http://ow.ly/LKuUK

Case Two:

Time: February 18, 2015
Place: Auburn, Maine
Description: An employee stepped on a skylight and fell while he was working on air conditioning and heating units on a mall roof. He fell about 20 feet to the floor of the mall’s center court. It appears that the worker did not see the skylight—possibly due to snow—and stepped on it. The worker was taken to the hospital in critical condition with major trauma to the head.
Violations: The incident is currently under investigation, meaning no violations are official. It appears that the skylight was covered with snow, so the worker did not know that it was there. However, the skylight was not surrounded with protective coverings or guardrails.
Regulations Broken: The incident is currently under investigation, but it seems that the mall broke several regulations, including OSHA 1910.23(a)(4) and ANSI A1264.1 – 2007 Section 3.4.
Prevenative Solutions: The mall could have hired workers to mark the location of skylights before the snow fell. Also, the snow could have been removed using an aerial lift, before allowing workers to climb on the roof. The aerial lift makes snow removal much safer by keeping the workers off the slippery roof and away from hazards. It also provides an anchor point for fall protection equipment. If the snow had been properly removed, he would have seen the skylight and potentially shielded it with protective covering or guardrail. He then could have seen the skylight and properly covered it with a protective covering or guardrail.
Sources: http://ow.ly/LKHev and http://ow.ly/LKHa9

Case Three:

Time: January 28, 2011
Place: Toronto, Canada
Description: Workers were repairing a leak in the roof of a storage warehouse owned by their employer, APCO Industries. The rooftop had six plastic dome covered skylights. One of the workers took several steps backwards before tripping on the flashing of a skylight and falling through the roof —18 feet onto a concrete floor. His injuries were fatal.
Violations: APCO pleaded guilty for failing to ensure that workers were safe from potential hazards. A $100,000 fine was imposed by the Justice of the Peace, and the court imposed a 25 percent victim fine surcharge as required by the Provincial Offences Act.
Regulations Broken: The Ontario Ministry of Labor found that there were no guardrails around the skylights to protect workers on the roof. Furthermore, the actual skylights are not legally considered “a protective covering.” The workers were also not wearing or using any form of fall protection.
Preventative Solutions: APCO could have had guardrails around each skylight and a protective covering to prevent accidental slips and trips. They should have had a safety plan in place, involving a thorough hazard assessment and the diligent use of fall protection.
Source: http://ow.ly/LL8pZ

Preventing falls through skylights and roof openings is as simple as installing guardrails or protective coverings. Remember to use guardrails or protective coverings rated for OSHA 1926.502(b) (guardrails), OSHA 1910.23(e)(8) (protective coverings), and ANSI A1264.1 – 2007 3.4 and E3.4 (protective coverings) standards. For more information about protecting workers from rooftop falls, check out the cover and guardrail sections of this OSHA Clarification. And remember, when and if you need workers to access a snow-covered rooftop, remove the snow from the roof and/or mark any potential fall hazards before allowing workers to climb to the top.


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Nathan Muller

Senior Technical Writer | Rigidlifelines.com
Nathan Muller is the Senior Technical Writer for Spanco and Rigid Lifelines. Nathan has nearly four years of experience in technical communications and copyediting. He graduated from Bob Jones University with a B.A. in English and a minor in Professional Writing. He is also a member of the Society of Technical Communication.