Skylight Safety - OSHA Requirements

When working on a rooftop, an uncovered hole would immediately be recognized as a hazard. 

Skylights can seem to pose less of a fall risk, as the opening is covered with glass or plastic. However, most skylights are not designed to bear the weight of an individual leaning or falling. Both glass and plastic are breakable and are not an appropriate safety measure.  To ensure rooftop safety when working around skylights, further precautions must be taken. 

Falls from heights continue to be a leading cause of injury and death in many workplaces, despite increased safety measures and changes to regulations. It is important to take extra precautions and ensure fall protection around a skylight so that the working environment remains safe for everyone.  

To help ensure that workers do not fall through a skylight, OSHA has clear regulations regarding the rooftop safety measures that are necessary, defining a skylight as a “hole” or “opening” regardless of whether or not it is covered with plastic or glass. While some have argued that a covering disqualifies a skylight from being classified as a “hole”, the regulations are very clear and should be complied with. 

OSHA Skylights Requirements

How do you choose the best way to cover a skylight? The answer from OSHA is that:

“Each employee on walking/working surfaces shall be protected from falling through holes (including skylights) more than 6 feet (1.8 m) above lower levels, by personal fall arrest systems, covers, or guardrail systems erected around such holes.”

The general industry skylights requirements from OSHA involve implementing one of four types of skylight fall protection measures.  

  1. Skylight screens
  2. Guardrail systems
  3. Personal fall arrest systems
  4. Travel restraint systems

Skylight Screens 

Mesh skylight screens come in a variety of sizes, shapes and materials. The more durable and weather-resistant screens are made of stainless steel, galvanized steel, or aluminum. Skylight screens can be attached to a building without compromising the integrity or aesthetics of the opening itself. Some designs allow for a non-penetraing clamp-on securing system.

Rooftop Guardrails

Permanent or temporary guardrails can be easily erected around a skylight.  OSHA requires a minimum height of 42 inches for all rooftop guardrails. There are a variety of systems available. Some systems utilize rails that fasten into counterweight bases with a pin, while others are collapsible and don’t need to be fastened into substrates. 

Personal Fall Arrest Systems

According to OSHA, a personal fall arrest system means a system used to arrest an employee in a fall from a walking-working surface. It consists of a body harness, anchorage, and connector. The means of connection may include a lanyard, deceleration device, lifeline, or a suitable combination of these” (1910.140).

Travel Restraint Systems

A travel restraint system consists of:

  • A full body class “A” harness
  • A fixed length or adjustable lanyard
  • A lifeline
  • A rope grab that secures the lanyard to the lifeline
  • An anchor point that can adequately support the load (what is considered appropriate will depend on the weight involved)

This system allows workers to reach the edge of a working area without the risk of falling over. It is often used for tasks on leading edges on working surfaces without protected ends. 

Skylight Safety Measures

Skylights come in a variety of materials including glass, plastic, polycarbonates or a combination of these materials. They are designed to withstand the forces of nature like heavy rain, hail or snow.  However many are not designed to withstand a worker’s bodyweight. 

Furthermore, plastic skylights can deteriorate with time and exposure to sunlight and various environmental contaminants.  This is why under law, unprotected skylights are treated as a fall hazard. Harrowing stories of workers tripping or leaning and falling through skylights to their deaths are a sadly avoidable reality. 

A thorough risk assessment and analysis of potential hazards should be carried out before work commences. The condition of any skylights, whether or not they are appropriately shielded to prevent falls, and the possibility of installing guardrails or skylight barriers should all be noted. 

Employers should establish a fall protection program and ensure that all workers are trained appropriately in the use of all equipment and can recognize and control all hazards. Workers must also be supervised appropriately and trained in the procedures for installing, maintaining, inspecting and taking apart all fall protection equipment and systems. 

Working around skylights requires the same degree of precaution as any other potential fall hazard. Sadly it is often overlooked, and many tragic accidents have taken place that could have been avoided with the implementation of appropriate fall protection measures. 

Skylights are a common feature in both industrial or commercial buildings and homes that can help illuminate darker areas and add architectural flair and style. However, it is possible to install the right safety measures for skylights that will not compromise the style or aesthetics of a space.  The lack of proper skylight barriers poses a serious risk for construction or maintenance workers, and can result in permanent and impairing injuries or death. 

OSHA does not distinguish between an open hole and a skylight that remains unguarded. Regulations should be followed carefully to avoid expensive legal consequences and the tragedy of highly avoidable fatalities.