November 30, 2020

Skylight Fall Protection in Winter

Most of us are aware of the dangers of driving during the winter. If you’ve lived in Canada for any length of time, you’ve probably experienced your fair share of swerving and sliding on the roads during the long winter months.

However, roads are not the only surface that become hazardous during the winter. The importance of observing rooftop safety protocols in the winter season can’t be understated. Snow, sleet and ice cause rooftops to become slick and dangerous. Also, heavy snow can obscure any unprotected skylight openings in a roof, creating an extreme safety hazard.

Over the next several months, hundreds of workers in Canada will be ascending rooftops to provide snow and ice removal services, along with those conducting other rooftop work. While these services are undoubtedly essential, it’s important to remember that inclement weather can create high-risk scenarios.

Unfortunately, rooftop safety during the winter is often not taken seriously enough. If you are going to be working on a rooftop during the winter season for any reason, you will need to ensure that you can do so safely.

According to OSHA, skylights are included under the definition of “a hole or opening” in a roof and must be covered with a guard or have surrounding rails to be deemed safe. Fall protection measures are critical for those working around a skylight; unfortunately, the risks presented by uncovered skylight openings often go overlooked and result in avoidable tragedies. Skylight safety is of paramount importance when considering the risks of working on a rooftop during the winter.

Skylight Safety: Common Risks

Leakage

Snow and ice build-up can cause significant leakage in the skylight area. This makes the surrounding area slippery and dangerous, and over time can cause long-term damage to the roof, making it even less safe for rooftop work.

Falls

An unprotected skylight is a serious fall hazard during any season and these risks should be mitigated with proper protection. Ontario’s Ministry of Labour reports harrowing incidents of workers falling through skylights, either assuming they would be weight-bearing or tripping and falling into an unprotected opening. Winter weather amplifies this hazard, and is still the source of many avoidable tragedies.

High Winds

Windy conditions during the winter present several risks, including reduced visibility due to blowing snow as well as the possibility of downed trees or other debris. Not only can this make an opening in a roof harder to spot, but debris like tree branches can cause skylights to crack or break. Without a skylight guardrail or cover in place, workers are facing a very dangerous hazard.

Heavy Snow Loads

Heavy snow can also cause cracks or breaks in skylight surfaces. It also obscures the skylight opening from plain view. A skylight guard is designed to mitigate the impact of heavy snow by providing a protective cover over the surface.

Poor Lighting Conditions

If a snow-covered rooftop is poorly lit, it can be difficult for workers to assess hazards like icy patches, unprotected openings or slippery edges.

Skylight Fall Protection Equipment

To protect workers from falls, OSHA requires that all individuals working on a rooftop observe proper safety protocols, including ensuring that all skylight openings are appropriately covered and/or marked out clearly. According to OSHA, here are several key elements to maintaining rooftop safety around skylights.

Personal Fall Arrest Systems

A personal fall arrest system includes a full-body harness, a self-retracting lifeline, lanyard, or vertical lifeline and an anchor point. Anchor points can be either temporary or permanent, depending on the type of building and work involved.

Skylight Guard

In section 1926.502(i)(2), OSHA states that “covers shall be capable of supporting, without failure, at least twice the weight of employees, equipment, and materials that may be imposed on the cover at any one time.” Skylight guards like the Skylight Defender are mesh screens made of galvanized steel, stainless steel or aluminum that are fitted over top of a skylight and designed to bear the weight of a worker’s fall.

Many skylights are older and have never been rated for safety. Newer skylights do come with a safety rating; despite this, they often still fail to meet safety standards. A guard can be custom-fitted to your skylight, and installation is straight-forward.

Skylight Guardrails

Skylight guardrail systems partition off the area around a skylight to alert workers to the presence of an opening. Visible above snow, guardrails can protect workers against falls by providing a physical barrier. Skylight guardrail systems are non-penetrating; they are counter-weighted and do not require attachment to the roof surface, minimizing the risk of roof damage or leaks. Installation is quick and easy, and the rails can be removed and reinstalled if necessary.

Warning Flag Systems

Reflective stakes – such as the Tech-Flags warning line – can help alert rooftop workers to potential falls. However, on their own reflective stakes are the least effective preventive measure and are best used as an extra step when other protective measures (like covers and/or guardrails) are already in place.

OSHA Winter Safety Tips

OSHA advises all rooftop workers to observe careful safety measures during the winter, taking into account the heightened risks that inclement weather presents.

They recommend:

  • Training workers in proper fall protection measures and protocols
  • Ensuring workers are clothed appropriately for the weather and wearing footwear that has traction for slippery surfaces
  • Ensuring the proper use of ladders
  • Preventing over-exertion, especially when working in sub-zero temperatures and difficult conditions

If you are going to be doing rooftop work of any kind during the winter, it’s critical to observe the right protocols to ensure your personal safety and the safety of those on your team. Taking shortcuts or ignoring risks is just not worth the potentially devastating cost. This winter, ensure skylight fall protection by using the right equipment and observing good safety measures.

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