Working at heights can pose many hazards to employees, due to the risk of tripping, slipping or falling from the elevated platform and sustaining serious injuries.

Between July 2003 and June 2011, 232 individuals were killed by a fall from height related to their work, according to figures from Safe Work Australia. This accounted for 11 per cent of all workplace fatalities during that time. Furthermore, more than 6,900 workers were hospitalised due to injuries sustained in a work-related fall.

In particular, those working in the construction industry seem to be most at risk of falling from heights, with 37 per cent of all fall-related workplace deaths and 35 per cent of all injuries occurring on construction sites.

Addressing this troubling prevalence of death and injury is a serious concern for employers in the construction industry. It is therefore important to understand all possible factors that may result in a fall from height.

While many organisations offer their employees working at heights training to help them prepare for the hazards of working on sloping roofs and unstable ladders, there is another common cause of workplace falls that generally receives less attention. Fragile roof surfaces pose a significant risk for those working at heights, as material that cannot sustain a person’s weight is often not easily identifiable.

The risk of fragile roof surfaces

When an employee steps onto a surface that was not built to sustain weight, or has degraded in strength, they risk falling through the roof and sustaining serious injuries.

According to the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE), falling through fragile surfaces accounts for 22 per cent of all construction-related fall from height injuries.

This hazard is commonly experienced across the world. Within the past month, three separate incidents of individuals falling through fragile roof lights occurred in the UK alone, with those involved suffering serious injuries. The organisations found to be at fault received significant fines as a result.

Here in Australia, falling from roofs and platforms accounts for 20 per cent of all fall-related fatalities. Often, the employees who experience the fall are repairing or replacing the roof when the incident occurs.

Identifying a fragile roof surface

In order to avoid individuals falling through a fragile roof surface, it is important to be able to identify the affected areas. This will enable employees to put measures in place to avoid the fragile surfaces.

Often, a fragile roof surface will consist of a skylight or dome light installed in the building. These are easily identifiable and can usually be roped off and sign posted to mitigate the risk of an individual stepping on them.

However, some fragile roof surfaces are simply parts of the roof that have become degraded and weak through weather damage or other events. Identifying these areas can be more difficult.

It is therefore important that employers conduct thorough site inspections to test and measure the holding capacity of any section of roof that may be walked on. A register of any potential weaknesses should be made, including any roof material that contains asbestos or damage.

Reducing the risk of fragile roofs

Once any potentially fragile roof surfaces have been identified, employers should then introduce measures to ensure their employees do not need to walk across these surfaces.

There are a number of effective methods that can help reduce the risk of an employee accidentally stepping on a fragile roof surface. Here are just four:

1. Signage

To ensure all employees are aware of the location of fragile surfaces on the worksite, employers should make sure appropriate signage is displayed. This could be as simple as brightly coloured hazard tape on skylights to increase their visibility, or official signs warning individuals away from specific sections of the roof.

However, signage on its own is not always completely effective. In the May 13 report from HSE, the individual admits that he saw the PVC roof light on his first journey over the roof, but when he turned to come back across the roof he failed to notice the light and stepped on it. When it broke under his weight, he fell 3 metres – fracturing his skull and sustaining other serious injuries.

This shows that signage needs to either be more extensive and posted around the entirety of the fragile surface, or coupled with additional safety measures.

2. Perimeter edge protection

Often, the easiest way of keeping employees from stepping on a fragile roof surface is to fence off the area with perimeter edge protection.

Guardrails should be installed around the perimeters of any openings in roof structures, including skylights and other fragile roof surfaces. A railing used to stop falls from heights should comply with a strict set of codes outlined by Safe Work Australia. These guidelines include ensuring rails incorporate a top and mid-rail and that the height of the edge protection is between 900 mm and 1100 mm above the working surface.

These codes of practice ensure that guardrails are visible and will protect an employee from both walking and rolling onto an unsafe area of the roof.

3. Platforms

If a large portion of the roof is fragile, or the work being conducted requires individuals to work on or above the area that is fragile, employers are required to install raised platforms or floor-laying. This provides employees with a solid work area on which they can undertake their duties without having to place their weight on a fragile surface.

There are a range of different platform options that can help mitigate the risk of fragile roof surfaces, including simple step platforms or comprehensive stock-roofs. Understanding what option is right for your worksite may involve seeking professional help from an occupational health and safety trained individual.

4. Fall arrest systems

When an individual is required to work at height, travel restraint and fall arrest systems should be offered if there is any risk of slipping, rolling or falling from the elevated platform. If a roof or raised workspace contains an area that consists of fragile material, a fall arrest system will minimise the risk of an individual falling to the ground if the surface should break beneath them.

As damage, decay and frailty can be difficult to recognise in advance, individuals working on a roof are almost constantly at risk of falling through a previously unidentified patch of fragile material. It is therefore recommended that any individual working at height has access to a travel restraint system.

By using a harness that is attached to the roof, an individual that discovers an area of fragility may be caught by the fall arrest system before falling through the roof, effectively avoiding any serious injuries.

While providing employees with travel restraint systems is recommended, it is also important to ensure each individual worker holds the training and knowledge to use these devices effectively. This can easily be achieved by investing in working at heights training from a registered training organisation, such as AlertForce.

For more information on improving safety on fragile roof surfaces, or to access extensive training options for your employees, get in touch with the AlertForce team today.

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