7 Weather Effects on Rooftop Safety
Weather affects us every day. We prepare for it by throwing on the right clothing or shoes, grabbing an umbrella, lathering on some sunscreen — there are countless considerations. The same goes for rooftop safety and how weather conditions affect how we prepare for rooftop work. Whether it’s corrosion-resistant materials in wet environments, sturdy solutions that’ll stand up to the wind, or gear that fits even when we’re bundled up in winter clothing, it’s important to take the right precautions for the weather conditions your region faces.
Considerations for Working at Height in Adverse Weather Conditions
1. Slips - The Common Causes
Slips and trips can happen anywhere at any time. One false step can cause us to wobble, whirl, and wipe-out — even on level surfaces. Add in weather components and it becomes even more likely that we’ll trip up. There are two main components to slips caused by weather: H2O and leaves.
H2O can take a few different forms: water, snow, and ice. Wet surfaces typically equal slippery surfaces. A rooftop surface made of plastic or metal can be especially slippery when you add in precipitation. You might think that your roof is constructed in a way so that water flows off easily. However, roofs can wear over years of individuals walking in the same pathways, creating dips for water, snow, and ice to accumulate. A common way to combat this is to have raised walkways such as Kee Walk that keeps foot traffic off the roof surface and spreads the load across a wider area than direct contact. Raised walkways also help prevent falls by providing railing and non-slip surfaces to create a reliable way to maneuver across the roof.
Speaking of falls, Autumn brings with it falling leaves. They’re on the ground, in gutters, and on rooftops. They might be fun to pile up and jump into but, again, don’t be fooled. They not only can cover up any potential hazards such as skylights, holes, or raised surfaces, but they get slippery and create an even more dangerous hazard. It’s important to take precautions and regularly clear the rooftop of any leaves while using the correct fall protection equipment.
If you do slip or trip when using a lifeline or anchor, make sure to inspect your equipment immediately afterward. Any fall, even if you remain on the rooftop, could engage the shock absorber and negate the protection it would provide in a fall from the roof.
2. Fatigue - Making Hazards More Hazardous
Rooftop work is often arduous and time-consuming. These factors create an environment that leads to fatigue on its own. Add in some not-so-ideal weather conditions and fatigue can set in even faster and harder. Dampness and the cold leads to numbness and extra exertion that makes you more tired and easily fatigued, especially when not met with proper hydration. Heat from the blazing sun makes you sweaty and leads to heat exhaustion. Fatigue leads to mistakes from weakness and complacency, mistakes lead to an accident that could be prevented. Ensure that you’re taking care of yourself by hydrating in any weather condition, taking breaks as needed, and staying focused on safety protocols.
3. Visibility - Seeing is Half the Battle
It’s plain to see, it’s important to have good visibility. Especially when working at height. Weather can adversely affect your visibility on the job-site in a number of ways. Fog can decrease the visible distance to just a foot in front of you; snow-squalls not only decrease the distance you can see, but a fresh coat of snow can hide hazards such as skylights or elevation changes; wind can even be strong enough to make you squint just to see anything. If you need goggles, wear them. If the roof is shrouded in snow, clear it. If it’s so bad outside you can’t see your hand? At that point, just wait out the weather.
4. Temperature - Regulating Body Heat
We live in a goldilocks zone within our solar system. The perfect distance from the sun to be able to support life. Not too hot, not too cold. Well, it doesn’t always feel that way. The temperature fluctuates drastically. One day it could be 10 degrees Fahrenheit and the next it could be 50. Extreme areas can drop to double, even triple digits below freezing and others can get up well past 100. That means we have to take precautions to combat these temperatures.
If it’s cold at your work-site, make sure you’re wearing all the necessary gear to stay warm. A coat, hat, gloves, boots — anything you need to protect yourself from the cold. However, when you’re doing this, keep in mind the needs of the job and the safety system you’re using. The harness needs to fit properly no matter how many layers you have on. Your dexterity is important so mittens, even though often warmer than gloves, may not work. (Pro-tip: wearing latex surgical gloves underneath winter gloves for a warm and waterproof fix.)
The same considerations apply in the heat. Ensure that you’re not overheating. Take breaks when needed, drink water throughout the day, wear appropriate clothing like a hat and breathable fabric. Under no circumstance should you be sacrificing safety systems like a harness and helmet for comfort. Take an additional break if needed but safety is the priority.
Weather Elements that Affect Fall Safety System
Wind has a variety of considerations to take into account. It can knock a person over, blow supplies around, and cause a job-site to be highly dangerous. Flying projectiles can do some damage to workers and structures in the area. Debris can impact vulnerable systems by damaging wires, railings, anchor points, and more. When debris hits a wire, “bird-nesting” or “bird-caging” can result in loose and separated wires, compromising the strength of the lifeline. Shock systems can potentially be triggered by high wind, meaning when you need it, the system doesn’t engage. It’s important to inspect the safety systems annually and at least look it over before each use.
One solution to provide fall safety in a windy environment is safety railing. Being a passive system, safety railing is the most effective way to mitigate the risk of fall hazards — other than removing the hazard completely. However, some railing is more suited for windy conditions than others. This can be catastrophic in the wrong environment - no one wants 100’ of guardrail crashing down into their parking lot. That’s why we often recommend a system that stands up to higher wind speeds. A more permanent non-penetrating guardrail is rated for stronger forces which can be engineered for wind speeds up to 150+ mph.
Corrosion is a big concern with metal structures and precipitation. Metal reacts with moisture and rusts, which can compromise its effectiveness and lead to serious injury or death. To protect from corrosion, there are options such as powder coating or galvanization that provide corrosion resistance. Some metals made from a mild-steel or that are welded are more susceptible to corrosion and rusting. It depends on what type of work, weather conditions, and duration that you need protection that’ll determine what systems you need.
Without proper drainage systems, rain can cause more problems than just corrosion. If a drain is blocked, water can pool up to a dangerous level. It can get heavy and weigh down the roof leading to potential leaks or structural compromises. Pools of water can also lead to the growth of vegetation on a roof. You might not think about it, but this is a real threat that can give rise to dangerous fungi, attract animals and insects, and compromise the structural integrity of the building.
When working in the rain, your personal equipment will get wet. After coming in from the rain it’s important to dry off your equipment. Hang harnesses to drip dry, pat down metal components to avoid corrosion and rusting, store them in dry places to prevent mold and further deterioration.
Snow and Ice
Snow and ice can be a one-two punch. Snow can cover hazards, safety systems, and uneven surfaces making it difficult to traverse a site. Combine it with ice and you have a dangerous situation. Ice can form around pipes, lanyards, anchor points, and harnesses. If you have a retractable lifeline, the mechanism can freeze and cause the retraction to be stuck. Water expands when it freezes and if you’ve ever left a water bottle in the freezer for too long, you know exactly what happens — POP! The same thing can happen to metal. If there is no weep hole (a small hole that allows for water to escape) then there’s a risk of ice breaking the pipe. This can commonly happen in DIY railing as opposed to an engineered railing.
If your systems do freeze or get covered by snow, do NOT take any heat gun or heating device out to thaw the snow and ice. This can damage the systems and cause deterioration. Instead, use towels or built-in trolleys to melt or chip off the ice. Make sure your safety systems are properly manufactured or built so they provide safety without adding any risks.
Scientists tell you that “cold” doesn’t actually exist. It’s simply, “the lack of heat.” Well, the lack of heat is pretty cold and your safety systems are affected by it. It’s important to properly store PPE when it’s not in use, only bringing the harness or lanyard out into the elements when you are intending to wear it. Make sure equipment like self-retracting lanyards are working properly before use. Check your horizontal lifelines for any fraying, bird-caging, or crimping after cold weather. It doesn’t take long, you just have to remember to do it.
Lifelines and other systems left in place should be engineered for your region’s weather patterns. The engineer should design the system for high and low temperatures as well as other elements like wind speed and precipitation. If a system such as a horizontal lifeline is installed in cold weather conditions without taking into account the potential rise in temperatures, the metal in the system can expand and add stress. If there are shock absorbers, the fluctuation in temperature can cause them to engage, surrendering it useless. It’s important to consider these potential effects before installing the system.
Heat and Sun
Heat also affects your rooftop itself. In extreme cases, roof membranes can glue to equipment or systems that are in place. Walking on the surface can be a challenge and can damage the membrane. Raised walkways can help mitigate this by keeping you off the roof surface and spread the weight across the rooftop rather than on specific points.
Just as with the cold, heat needs to be considered when engineering the system. Fluctuations in temperature can cause thermal expansion to occur which can loosen or tighten systems, leading to a damaged or unusable protection solution.
So What Should You Do?
Ensure that you have fall safety systems in place to mitigate risk and come into compliance with regulations. Weather is not a reason to skip out on a solution. Moreover, make sure you wear your equipment properly. No matter how much clothing you have on or if it’s hot out, safety is the first priority.
Check your systems before every use. It doesn’t take long. A visual check could mean the difference between life and death. If there is fraying or kinking or any other issue, don’t use the equipment. Come back later, it’s not worth the risk.
Use reliable sources. Make sure that your equipment comes from experts in the field and that it is installed properly. The engineer or installer should be taking into account any weather elements your region might see. The manufacturer guidelines should be followed exactly.
Talk to someone. It’s the easiest way to ensure comprehensive safety. You’ll get guidance, support, and peace of mind that you have the right solution for your safety hazard.
Weather is something that affects us all on a daily basis. Remember, working outside puts you at risk for slippery surfaces, temperature variations, and fatigue. It also affects your safety systems, so be sure to plan accordingly. Take the right precautions and ensure your rooftop is prepared for your environment and any elements that might be thrown its way so you can stay safe.