Why Are Skylights an Extremely Dangerous Hazard?

“Every once in a while we are asked to help someone understand the reasons why a specific product addresses a hazard,” Patrick Michels, president of W.S. Safety Technologies and seller of temporary fall protection barriers says. “They want an explanation for making sure they follow their due diligence….” For this reason we have developed our Why Series to answer the question before you even ask it. Three product types that account for most inquiries are: access ladders, guardrails and skylight protectors. In this article we will discuss skylights.

*Please keep in mind that the following scenarios are hypothetical and the problems and solutions are only our opinions. It is always recommended that your particular situations be discussed thoroughly with your safety committees, shareholders and applicable safety professionals before implementing safety procedure and solutions. We hope you will find the following information helpful.

People Falling Through Skylights: An Unnecessary Expense

Skylights are commonly installed on the roofs of factories, offices, malls and residential buildings. They provide additional light and create a brighter and more pleasant environment for work. While skylights have benefits, it’s also important to understand the potential hazards.

First and foremost, all rooftop workers should be familiar with the layout of the roof before beginning work. This can prevent falls, fines and serious injuries. When working on a roof equipped with skylights, the main risk of falling through a skylight is due to the load-bearing strength of the skylight material, whether it be glass, plexiglass or a type of plastic. Over the years there have neither been any regulations on load-bearing strength nor any requirements on installing temporary fall protection barriers around skylights. This has led to people falling through the skylight by just walking backwards on the roof, while dragging a ladder, for example, or while helping pull a wheelbarrow.

Skylights cause an expense to rooftop construction companies in fines if the companies fail to protect their workers. On top of that, skylight falls result in injury to the workers and sometimes even death.

Cases of Workers Falling Through Skylights

In February 2013, the Ontario Ministry of Labour (MOL) issued a publication entitled, “Workers Falling Through Skylights.” This publication stated a case wherein a man in Ontario fell through the skylight and suffered serious injuries because he sat on the skylight, which broke under his weight (in June 2006).

The MOL also mentioned specifically plastic-domed skylights like the following case. In February 2012 “A worker was backing up while installing solar panels on a roof when the worker plunged 6 meters (20 feet) onto a concrete floor below and died,” the Ontario Ministry of Labour recorded. The worker had fallen on a plastic-domed skylight which broke under his weight.”

“HVAC installer falls through skylight to his death: $54K fine,” a US-based website reported in 2016. Here the construction company was fined for a couple violations, one of which was failure to “protect workers from falling through holes (including skylights) more than six feet above lower levels.”

Skylights can be unpredictable and can cause injury or even death as seen in these three cases above. Some people are skeptical of the hazards, but if a load were to be applied onto a skylight, it could easily break.

4 Reasons Skylights Are Unpredictable

  1. Lack of regulations. “Skylights are normally designed to withstand forces such as the weight of snow; however, they can fail under the weight of a worker,” according to the MOL. There are no regulations requiring any loadings on the surfaces which can be be a number of different materials ranging from glass or plexiglass or plastics for example. Therefore if a load were to be applied they could easily break causing injury or death to individuals above or below the skylight.
  2. Seasonal maintenance. Often they may require cleaning or snow removal and persons carrying out these tasks may have a false sense of security as they may not be aware of the potential fragile nature of the skylights.
  3. Location of walkways. Skylights are often located beside rooftop walkways causing persons to walk extremely close to them, again exposing them to a fall hazard.
  4. Human nature. Curiosity, it seems to be in human nature that we want to see what’s behind the skylight or roof edge. Often people put themselves into hazardous situations.

Worker falls are not isolated incidents. If nothing were to change, incidents like these could happen again. The good news is that the problem that causes these incidents can very easily be resolved.

3 Ways You Can Mitigate the Hazards of Skylights with Rooftop Safety Solutions

  • Install load resistant skylight screens or covers that would resist a load or a fall.
  • Install a guardrail or barrier system to keep persons away from the hazard.
  • Move rooftop paver walkways to keep persons further away from the hazard if possible.

Available Temporary Fall Protection Barriers for Skylights

The Skylight Defender serves as a load resistant skylight screen especially useful for pitched roofs. The SafetyRail 2000 non penetrating guardrails work well as temporary fall protection barriers for flat roofs.

Benefits of Skylight Defender

  • Has a non penetrating compression fastening system.
  • Fastens directly to the skylight frame.
  • Meets or exceeds national (US) and California OSHA regulations (as the OSHA is from the US).
  • Is viable for highly space-restricted roofs.
  • Attaches to flat or pitched roofs.
  • Installs with basic tools in about 30 minutes.
  • Will not void your roof warranty.

Learn more about Skylight Defender.

Benefits of Non Penetrating Guardrails

  • Meets the specifications of OSHA fall protection guardrails.
  • Does not interfere with light coming through skylight.
  • Naturally compatible with ‘venting skylights’.
  • Installs on flat (or low-slope) roofs.
  • Allows for quick and easy installation with SafetyRail 2000 guardrail sections.
  • Will not void your roof warranty.

Learn more about Non Penetrating Guardrails. 

To bring us back to the regulations, an approved provider of one of the MOL training programs states the following: “In Ontario, it’s illegal to work within 2 metres (6’6’’) of unguarded skylights - unless you have your fall arrest gear on.” Through the loss of lives and through the fines on companies, skylights are both expensive and dangerous.

How to Choose a Fall Protection System for Your Skylight

If you already have skylights or you are considering installing skylights, W.S. Safety recommends that you invest in one of the available fall protection systems.

For those of you considering temporary fall protection barriers for your skylight, we have put together four questions that can help get you started.

  1. Does your skylight have a hinged venting system, thus requiring a certain amount of space above the pane?
  2. Does your roof have enough space to house the bases of the non penetrating guardrails?
  3. Is your roof pitched or flat?
  4. Which kind of system would be easiest to see when removing snow from your roof?

Need help finalizing your decision? Contact W.S. Safety and we will go over all your options to find a solution that fits your needs.