Fragile roof lights and safe working practices

Roof lights present a common hazard for the construction industry, accounting for almost a fifth of all fatal working at height accidents according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Many of these incidents could be prevented by installing an appropriate safety system, so we explore the dangers of working at height to business owners and their staff, and explain how to avoid falls through skylights.

The majority of working at height incidents happen on the roofs of factories, warehouses and farm buildings, where fragile roof lights (also known as skylights) present a dangerous working environment. Not only is this of concern to the workers who are accessing the roofs, but also to the business owners, who can be fined for their failure to provide sufficient safety precautions.

Just last month, two examples of falls through skylights were reported by the HSE. A company was prosecuted and fined £10,000, after an employee fell through a skylight onto a concrete floor, fracturing his right leg and wrist. Later in the month, a company director was fined £3,300 for safety failings after a worker fell three metres through an unprotected skylight.  The worker was replacing windows on a large manor house, when he fell through the skylight and broke his wrist when landing. The HSE explained that ‘the work was not adequately planned to take account of the risk of working near to a fragile surface’.

Rooflight safety

For workers accessing the roof top, identifying roof lights can be challenging, especially on a surface that may otherwise appear robust and safe. Often, roof lights have been painted over, are discoloured or generally not visible due to sunlight making them blend in with the surrounding roof sheets. This makes it incredibly difficult for those accessing the roof to distinguish between a non-fragile and fragile surface. 

Another major hazard with roof lights is instability. While a roof light may appear to be in order, its structure may have been severely weakened with age and thus can become extremely brittle over time. Of course, roof lights aren’t designed to sustain the sudden weight of humans, so stepping onto the surface can cause them to crack, or at worst, break completely, leaving the person to fall through to certain harm.

The good news is that accidents occurring due to fragile roof lights can be prevented with careful planning, training, high level supervision and suitable equipment.

When direct access to the roof can’t be avoided, it’s important to take precautions to prevent falls. These could include:

  • Fitting suitable, secure covers over the roof lights
  • Providing suitable guardrails such as KeeGuard and toe boards or similar around the roof lights
  • Installing a safety net, scaffold or similar system, immediately beneath the roof surface,
  • Fitting strong mesh above or below the roof lights for a permanent protective measure.

Before accessing the roof, always ensure you have a clearly demarked safe route and restrict access to experienced individuals only.

It’s vital to pay attention to safe working practices to prevent accidents occurring. Make sure you refer to the HSE Information sheet – GEIS5 Fragile Roofs - Safe Working Practices, which includes guidelines for working with fragile roof lights.

Fragile roof covers and guardrails

  • Protect from falls through skylights
  • Corrosion resistant
  • Easy to install and maintain
  • Can be configured to suit most spaces
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