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Work Safely on the Roof

It takes more than common sense to work properly and efficiently off the ground. 

Too often, the deficiency of rooftop safety in construction gains attention only when it’s too late. “Many people feel that what they have to do at higher heights will only take a minute or two — less than it might to [implement the proper precautions],” says Diane Ausavich, president of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) in Milwaukee. “But it only takes a split second to fall, and the damage that is incurred [can] last a lifetime or end a life.”

A Persistent Problem

There were 969 construction-related fatalities in 2008, the most of any industry in the private sector, according to data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. Fatal falls accounted for 85 percent of all falls in the same year. And, fall protection discrepancies were the second most frequent Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) citations that year.

Despite safety guidelines regarding guardrails, safety net systems and other precautions, the level of instruction that companies follow on rooftops varies greatly. Ausavich, cleaning division administrator for Milwaukee-based Carl Krueger Construction, says simple adjustments could decrease fatalities, starting with a better understanding of what causes falls in the first place.

“The main risks that workers face are things that they wouldn’t even think about,” she says, “like tripping over a piece of equipment, or extending yourself too far and losing your balance.”

Be Your Own Inspector

As a young construction worker on a crew working on the roof of a power plant, Tom Broderick saw an employee of a supplier nearly fall through an opening in the roof that was covered only in plastic, barely avoiding a 40-foot fall onto a concrete floor. Such incidents are what drove him to become executive director of the Construction Safety Council (CSC) in Hillside, Ill., a training center for OSHA.

“As a safety professional, the last line of defense is safety equipment,” he says. “On a pitched roof, consider a catch-platform system that will keep workers from falling from the roof edge. If this is not an option, slide guards will keep workers safe.”

Companies also need to consider liability, as well as protecting their workers. And that includes ensuring people below are protected from falling objects by using toeboards, screens and guardrail systems. If there’s any risk of falling debris, take extra steps by either erecting a canopy below the higher level, or barricading the area below to prohibit anyone from entering.

While working on rooftops, make you’re following these top five safety measures:

  • Cover holes properly: Be sure any hole cover is marked and secured with fasteners or screws that can support twice your weight, says Paul Satti, a trainer at the CSC.
  • Don't skimp on safety equipment: Some companies don’t use man baskets to avoid rental fees or upfront costs. “They just walk the top plates, but that’s a common reason for falls,” Satti says.
  • Secure materials: Any materials on a roof should be six feet away from the guardrail to keep them from falling, but there's no standard dictating how to do that, Satti says. A bungee cord rope may be sufficient, but if you're dealing with strong winds, use a tarp, store materials in a bucket secured by a cord or delay work until conditions improve.
  • Work on the ground when possible: When building a house, for example, Broderick advises securing the sheeting and trusses on the ground, and having a crane lift the roof up upon completion. “Sure, it costs a little more to have a crane,” he says, “but people who do it find workers are more productive on the ground.”
  • Take extra weather precautions: Snow or ice on a roof or scaffolding should be removed, and a walkway cleared, before workers can proceed with their job.


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