The Hazards of Skylights


Skylights And Brittle Roofs - Identifying And Reducing The Fall Risk

 

Another conviction and large fine has been issued to a company owner when one of his sub-contractors fell 5.5 metres through an unprotected skylight. With the worker suffering serious injuries this emphasises once again how important it is to identify skylights as potential risks.

Fall from skylight

Image SafeWork NSW

Additional to skylights, another area of concern that many operators working at height fail to give sufficient attention to is brittle and fragile roofs.

Both fragile roofs and skylights can be extremely difficult to see and assess when there is a build up of dirt, silt, grime and leaves.

Many workers also falsely believe that skylights have mesh installed underneath which will be strong enough to support their bodyweight should they fall. Sadly this is rarely the case.

With Workplace Manslaughter Laws in effect in most Australian states, companies, employers, building owners and managers can all be held responsible should there be a fatality on their worksites.

In this article, we discuss several real life workplace incidents which have occurred on Australian worksites.

 

What steps could have been taken to prevent these falls from heights?

 

Incident

Death from skylight fall onto concrete floor

A Queensland worker was attending to a radio tower on the roof of a storage shed when the skylight he was standing on collapsed causing him to fall through.

A report was conducted by WorkSafe Qld in which it highlighted the risk to employees who are working on fragile surfaces.

Investigations are ongoing.

Analysis:

  • A Safe Work Method Statement, detailing risks and and control measures should be completed prior to the commencement of any high risk work. Working at heights is classed as high risk work.
  • Any skylights need to be located and if possible barriers ie, guardrail, skylight protectors, installed to prevent a fall situation.
  • Determine if the work can be conducted by another means to avoid any hazards or risks.
  • If barriers cannot be erected and the area cannot be avoided use a fall arrest system with a harness. Make sure the operator has been trained and instructed its use.

 

Incident

Painter fined $40,000 after sub-contractor fell through skylight

The sub contractor was preparing paint on the roof of a shed at beef cattle station in northern Victoria when he stepped backwards and fell through a polycarbonate skylight, landing on a metal cattle fence situated 5.5 metres below.

Although a Safe Work Method Statement (SWMS) had been completed covering working at height control measures, it failed to identify the fragile skylights as a potential risk. WorkSafe investigators found that there was no guardrail on the roof edge and the skylights did not have any mesh underneath which may have impeded a fall. Additionally, there were no safety harnesses being used at the time which could have arrested a fall.

Analysis:

  • Safe Work Method Statements (SWMS) are not a one size fits all. Ensure they are prepared for each individual situation and location.
  • Any skylights need to be located and if possible barriers ie, guardrail, skylight protectors, installed to prevent a fall situation.
  • If barriers cannot be erected and avoiding the area is not an option use fall arrest or fall restraint systems with a harness.
  • When using fall arrest or fall restraint equipment ensure that the operator has been trained and is competent in its use.

Comment from investigation:

WorkSafe Executive Director of Health and Safety Julie Nielsen said there was no excuse for working at such heights without having control measures in place.

"It's up to all employers, including sole traders, to ensure they assess each and every safety risk in the workplaces they control," she said. "This employer decided not to use appropriate fall prevention devices despite knowing the clear dangers, and their sub-contractor is now dealing with the catastrophic consequences of that failure."

 

Incident

Life changing injuries from skylight fall

A demolition company began work on a Toorak property with a Safe Work Method Statement (SWMS) having been completed for this task. The tasks were to be conducted on the first floor balcony where there was adequate guardrail in place.

The site's foreman disregarded the SWMS and instructed the workers to throw debris from a carport into a truck which was parked at the front of the property. No guardrail or fall protection was installed in this area and this system of work put the employees at serious risk of falling over the edge or through skylights.

Shortly after commencing work, one employee was carrying a bundle of debris when he fell approximately 2.5 metres through a skylight which formed part of the carport roof.

The company was fined $75,000 plus costs.

Analysis:

  • The agreed system of work and SWMS had been set up to eliminate or reduce the risk of death or injury.
  • There was no reason for these safety controls to not be properly followed and the new instructions were a direct contradiction to it.
  • Failing to carry out the work in accordance with the agreed SWMS was directly responsible for causing the incident.

Comment from investigation:

WorkSafe Health and Safety Executive Director Julie Nielsen said there was no excuse for failing to protect workers from falls from height as the risks are well known.

"Safe Work Method Statements are there to ensure every worker on site knows how to undertake tasks safely and they should not be ignored or changed without agreement."

 

Incident

Fatality after 7 metre fall through plastic roof sheet

A first year apprentice electrician was assisting with a solar panel installation on the roof of a single storey commercial building located at Tomago in the Hunter Region of New South Wales.

When stepping on a plastic roof sheet, the material collapsed and he fell approximately 7 metres. Although fitted with a harness which was attached to an anchor, the rope line had excessive slack between himself and the anchor point which allowed him to fall the full 7 metres to a concrete slab below.

The company has been fined $300,000.

Analysis:

  • A site inspection of the area prior to work commencing must be carried out to ensure the integrity of the roof structure. Roofs are likely to be fragile if they are made with asbestos, polycarbonate or plastic commonly used in skylights, fibre cement sheets, corroded metal sheets and fasteners, glass, rotted chipboard or similar.
  • Operators using fall arrest systems must be fully training and instructed in the correct use of the equipment.
  • Workers using an adjustable length fall arrest system must be aware that the system is intended to provide protection against falling through the roof, not just falls off the edge, and therefore they need to adjust the length to limit slack as they move.

 

Comment from investigation:

Judge Andrew Scotting found the harness fall system that was set up for the worker was unsafe for performing the type of work.

"Employers must take the obligations imposed by the Act very seriously. The community is entitled to expect that both small and large employers will comply with safety requirements."

 

Incident

$70,000 fine for roofing company after worker fell through skylight

A WA roofing company was hired to carry out the installation of a new roof on a 30 - 40 year old building. Worksafe WA reported that while two plumbers were removing rusted metal roof sheets another plumber and labourer were cleaning up offcuts and insulation around the area.

The labourer stood on a roll of loose insulation which was next to the edge of the skylight, and losing his balance, he fell five metres through it to the concrete floor.

Analysis:

  • A site inspection of the area prior to work commencing must be carried out to identify the location of any skylights¬†and if possible barriers ie, guardrail, skylight protectors, installed to prevent a fall situation.
  • If barriers cannot be erected, anchors and harnesses must be provided to arrest the fall of the workers should this occur.
  • No instructions or training was provided in any of these systems and there was no safe work method set up.

 

Comment from investigation:

"The operations manager was fined $7500 over this incident back in June, providing a reminder that more than one party has responsibility for safety in a workplace, and that more than one entity can be charged over the same incident." stated WorkSafe WA Commissioner Lex McCulloch.

 

Key Takeaways

  • Both skylights and plastic roof sheeting should be regarded as non-trafficable areas UNLESS certified as trafficable. Even then, ensure that the installation has been checked and proven to comply. It only takes a missing screw to make the structure un-trafficable.
  • If safety mesh has been installed underneath skylights there are factors such as conformance to AS/NZS 4389:2015, installation by¬† a competent person according to the manufacturer's instructions and other vital criteria which must be adhered to. See "The Myths of Safety Wire Mesh".
  • Skylights can be particularly dangerous as they can be difficult to see in certain light conditions or when hidden with paint.
  • A site inspection of the area prior to work commencing must be carried out to ensure the integrity of the roof structure and location of skylights.
  • If brittle roofing has been identified the erection of warning signs should be implemented.
  • If possible, install barriers ie, guardrail, skylight protectors, around/over skylights to prevent a fall situation.
  • Where barriers cannot be used, fall protection / fall prevention measures and equipment must be provided and implemented.
  • If using fall arrest or fall restraint equipment ensure that proper training and instruction has taken place and that the operator is competent in its use.
  • Consider if there is another way of getting to the work area that avoids accessing non-trafficable areas such as skylights or brittle roofing and if so, use it.
  • Once a skylight is in place it is extremely difficult to establish the integrity of any mesh that may be underneath. Skylight protectors or guardrails are the only real way to ensure that workers are kept safe and clear of the area and risk.

What can you do to ensure you are protected?

 

Prevention is the best protection. Review your workplace WHS practices often and thoroughly. Every activity within and around your workplace that involves the potential for risk must be addressed.

Tougher Workplace Manslaughter Laws are now in effect throughout Australia. It is important to note that the obligations for maintaining a safe place of work are still the same, it is the consequences and penalties of failing to do so that have been increased. Click here for more details on the changes.

Working at heights is classed as high risk and not providing effective equipment, systems and procedures to ensure fall protection for any work to be carried out could be seen as negligent should a fatality occur on one of your worksites. This includes not only employees but also sub contractors and their workers.

 

The team at SAYFA are here to help. Contact us on 1300 301 755 or info@sayfa.com.au for more information.