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Blog - Tackling the Issue of Fragile Roof Safety

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By Soni Sheimar,  General Manager, Easi-Dec Limited

There have unfortunately been a lot of reports recently on prosecutions following falls through fragile materials.

The most recent one (at the time of writing this post), involves a roofing contractor who was prosecuted after an employee fell through a fragile roof light.  The employee was kneeling on a scaffolding board while working on a fragile factory roof when he fell forward, crashed through a roof light and fell 7m onto a pallet stacked with ceramic mugs below.  The subsequent HSE investigation found that there was no fall prevention or measures in place to mitigate the consequences of a fall.

What is a Fragile Surface?

Work on fragile surfaces is high risk, and as a result, the HSE requires that effective precautions are taken for any form of work on or near fragile surfaces.  Accidents can be avoided as long as suitable equipment is used and those carrying out the work are provided with adequate information, training and supervision.

Access onto a roof is often required for maintenance, inspection, cleaning or general repairs.   Fragile surfaces such as the ones we are reading about are typically found on factories and warehouses and can include:

  •           •  Roof lights and skylights
  •           •  Corroded metal sheets
  •           •  Non-reinforced fibre cement sheets
  •           •  Roof slates and tiles
  •           •  Glass such as wired glass

How to Tread Carefully on Fragile Surfaces

The principles of working on fragile surfaces are exactly the same as any other form of work at height, so if you apply the hierarchy of control you should be able to ensure that the work can be carried out safely.

In an ideal world, the preferred option is to avoid working at height, but as we all know this isn’t always possible, so the next consideration would be to look at methods which could allow work to be carried out without actually stepping onto the roof itself, such as MEWPs.

If access onto the fragile roof cannot be overcome then you will need to look at how the area can be accessed safely and then put into place measures that can alleviate the distance and consequences of a potential fall.

This can be done in a number of ways, such as protecting the edge of the roof with guardrail, using staging or platforms with edge protection on the roof to spread the load or by protecting fragile roof lights and skylights with a cover to prevent access onto the surface itself.

When access is needed from the eaves to the ridge, mesh walkways spread the load across the support battens, giving workers a safer working position.  Lightweight mobile walking frames on the other hand are ideal for maintenance of valleys and box gutters on fragile roofs and can provide safe access for up to two people.

A Responsible Approach

Falls through fragile surfaces account for nearly a fifth of all fatalities as a result of a fall from height in the construction industry.  The worker in the case I highlighted at the start of this post was lucky in that he survived.  However he did suffer serious injuries to his back and sternum and wore a full body brace for six weeks following the incident.

Companies have a legal duty to ensure they have done all they can to prevent accidents and with the range of products available today, particularly for working on fragile materials, there really is no reason for these accidents to still be happening.

The HSE inspector who investigated this case commented following the prosecution that:

“This incident caused serious injuries that could have cost a young man his life or prevented him from being able to walk again.  The risks of working on fragile roofs are well-known but so too are the ways to manage those risks. Sadly, HSE inspectors too often find blatant disregard of easily-accessible guidance, which frequently results in life-changing injuries.”

“Work on fragile roofs must be correctly planned and managed to ensure the safety of all involved. The inadequate and unsafe way in which this job was carried out highlights the risks of working at height and how important it is to do it safely right from the start.”

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