Dangers of Accessing a Roof in the Winter
If you live in a part of the country where winters mean snow, ice, and blustery cold winds, you know that outdoor work and work at heights present a unique set of hazards to workers. Weather conditions cause visibility and traction to go out the window, while numbness can make it hard to feel what you’re doing. Special precautions must always be taken for winter weather conditions such as these, but when you’re going to work in an inherently dangerous location, such as a rooftop, it’s even more important to make sure you are planning ahead.
You may think the worst thing about snow is having to shovel it or trudge through it, but when you’re on a roof, that beautiful blanket of fresh-fallen snow could be hiding life-threatening hazards that you normally take for granted. Think about it. Can you see where you’re walking? What you are stepping on? Maybe you feel like you know the roof like the back of your hand, but is it even remotely possible that you forgot about that skylight over there? Or that low run of conduit near the edge? Or even just a patch of ice? Rooftops should be clear before anybody goes to work on them and anybody who is going to work on them, especially to do initial snow removal, should be extremely familiar with the layout. Even more importantly, protections should be put in place during warmer months to ensure that situations like this are prevented (as much as possible). For example, skylight rails or cages should be installed, eliminating a potentially fatal hazard, before the snow falls.
Anywhere on your roof has the chance to become an icy obstacle course in winter conditions. Consider installing an elevated walkway with traction to help provide your employees with safe access to the areas they will need to work. This could also reduce the amount of snow removal you have to do, by allowing your crews to focus on a set path instead of clearing edge to edge.
In addition, it’s important for you to consider what the conditions could be like at the top of your ladder. Getting on and off a ladder is always dangerous, but adding ice to the mix could make it even worse, especially if somebody is caught off-guard before they even think to grab the ladder. The best way to prevent this is to install a rail and gate. This ensures that the person approaching the ladder has a barrier to prevent them from falling until they are ready to descend. And, since they’re opening a gate, they’re already holding on to something as they mount the ladder. Be careful when climbing and descending as well. Rooftops aren’t the only surfaces that get icy and slippery. Ensure that you are maintaining three points of contact at all times.
Sure, we have wind year-round, but combined with ice or falling snow, it presents an even greater threat. A strong gust of wind that catches you while you’re standing on an icy patch can send you flying, especially if you happen to be carrying or get caught behind something that could act as a sail. Wind combined with falling snow can reduce your visibility to near-zero, causing you to step somewhere you didn’t intend to step. Tools, materials, and protective equipment could get blown off, causing injury to unsuspecting people below. Avoid rooftop work as much as possible in high wind conditions.
Ideas that seem good in the warmth of spring and the heat of summer can be poor ideas once the snow has fallen. Do you use painted lines or other low lying markers to indicate safe work areas on your roof? Do you have safe pathways lined out? Once your roof is covered in even just an inch or two of snow, these markers are essentially gone. If you live in a region of the country where snow is an issue, consider eliminating these methods and opt for something raised up that can be seen above a serious snowfall and can withstand some harsh winter winds.
This certainly isn’t something you should be trying to figure out after a blizzard has passed through and, in fact, your workers will probably never give it a second thought as they are going to assume that the engineers who designed the roof had it all figured out. Yet, we still see roof collapses on the news every time a major snowstorm hits. Make sure you know what your roof’s capacity is and what that means in terms of snow. Don’t forget to add in the weight of workers and equipment that you plan to send up, because this can tip the scales. If you suspect a snow load might compromise the integrity of your roof, how can you begin the process of snow removal without putting workers in danger? Obviously, without planning, you’re putting yourself into a very hazardous situation. Will you call an outside contractor in and turn a blind eye? Will you send your workers into harm’s way claiming it was an emergency and you were left with no choice? Remember: don’t let yourself get to the point of emergency in the first place. Think this through before it becomes urgent.
Winter conditions can be rough, but they are not by any means unexpected. There is no excuse for not taking them into consideration during your planning and preparation (and there is even less excuse for failure to plan and prepare). If you have not already done so, gather up all personnel with relevant input and start developing your plan today, not after somebody has come crashing down through a skylight.