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Blog: A Skylight Is an Opening

For years, safety organizations such as Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) have been aware of the danger of falling through skylights. Still, even well-trained and safety-conscious workers continue to be injured this way. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 18 and 36 fatalities occur each year because of skylight falls.

The precautions workers need to take vary depending on the location, construction and built-in safety accommodations of a given skylight. And it’s critical to conduct safety inspections before work begins, so all workers are informed about the existing conditions and required precautions. 

OSHA regulation CFR 1910.23(e)(8) requires that skylight glazing or skylight screens are capable of withstanding a load of 200 pounds applied perpendicularly at any one area of the screen or skylight. Still, some controversy remains about how to perform testing to measure and confirm that a skylight can withstand the load of a falling worker. 

A skylight marketed as “OSHA compliant” simply means the manufacturer believes that its product meets the requirement. With complicated issues such as dynamic impact forces and environmental degradation at play, employers need to seriously consider additional precautions that may need to be taken. If an inspection reveals any concern, additional safety measures—such as a temporary guardrail or personal protective equipment—should be used to protect workers. 

A few things to remember if your work puts you or your personnel near a skylight:

•    Control who has access to roofs and ensure those people are properly trained about skylight locations and fall-protection requirements.

•    Conduct safety inspections before work begins to understand actual jobsite conditions and potential hazards. A competent professional should complete this inspection. 

•    Account for potential degradation. Even if a skylight is marked as compliant or load rated, acknowledge that plastic ages over time with exposure to ultraviolet light, rain, wind and pollution, and the strength and impact resistance can decrease significantly.

•    Recognize that in cold climates, skylights may be completely covered in snow and virtually invisible to unsuspecting workers.

Employers and contractors who may be exposed to skylights need to recognize the real risk that these features can present. Screens, gratings and covers are helpful for reducing risk, but it is still critical to raise awareness about where skylights are and how workers should work to avoid contact with them. 

While it might seem that workers could easily avoid falling through a skylight, the statistics prove otherwise. The best protection is to be proactive in addressing fall prevention near skylights by conducting inspections, educating workers and adopting additional safety measures. 

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Kimberly Messer is the corporate marketing manager for LJB Inc., a consulting firm that provides civil and structural engineering, as well as safety and environmental services. She recently published the fiction book, "Falling for Work: A Story of Death and Determination," to share best practices on fall prevention and protection. She can be reached at KMesser@LJBinc.com.

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