6 Dangers to Consider with Rooftop Safety in Winter

rooftop safety in winter

What you need to know about providing safe, protected work environments in winter.

Falls cause the most worker fatalities and injuries during rooftop ice and snow removal. Workers can fall off roof edges, through skylights, and from ladders and aerial lifts (OSHA source). If you live in a part of the country where winter means snow, ice, and blustery cold winds, you know that outdoor work and work at height 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 work on a rooftop, it’s even more important to ensure you are planning ahead.

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1. Is Snow Causing Your Fall Hazards to be Invisible?

roof hatch

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. Anybody who does 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 the 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 snowfalls.

2. Are The Paths Clear Of Snow/Ice?

Anywhere on your roof has the chance to become an icy obstacle course in winter conditions. Consider installing an elevated rooftop 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.

3. Are The Access Points Safe To Use?

Climbing a set of stairs or a ladder that is encased in ice is not only unpleasant, but it is also dangerous. This is likely not as much of an issue when you access your roof from inside the building. However, it is common to have fixed ladders and/or crossover stairs on other areas of the roof.

The best way to prevent a ladder-related accident 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. 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.

4. Is Your Attire Appropriate for the Frigid Winter Conditions?

Sure, we have wind year-round, but combined with ice or falling snow, it presents an even greater threat. Wind combined with falling snow can reduce your visibility to near-zero, causing you to step somewhere you didn’t intend to. And tools, materials, and protective equipment could get blown off, causing injury to unsuspecting people below.

It’s important to dress in appropriate attire for winter weather. Being exposed to the elements with frigid temperatures and severe wind chills for a time can bring on pneumonia, frostbite, or worse. Avoid rooftop work as much as possible in high wind conditions; however, if you must be on the roof it is critical that your clothing aligns with the requirements of your PPE if necessary.

5. Are Your Warning Lines Clearly Visible?

warning lines

Do you use warning lines to indicate safe work areas on your roof? Do you have safe pathways lined out? Warning lines are designed to give you a visual barrier between you and the hazard. It is not intended to stop you in the case of a fall. If that line is not visible, it has lost most of its function.

According to 1910.29(d)(2)(iv), if your warning line is not visible at 25’, it is out of compliance with OSHA. Adding flags may help with visibility, however, consider an upgrade to your safety plan.

6. Can Your Roof Handle the Heavy Snow Loads?

This certainly isn’t something you should be trying to figure out after a blizzard has passed through. 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. 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.

At the end of the day, someone needs to be able to:

  • Gain access to the roof safely.
  • Be able to walk to and from their destination with minimal risk.
  • Do their work with peace of mind.

Winter conditions can be rough, especially when working on a rooftop. However, that doesn’t need to stop you from getting your work done. Being mindful of the additional hazards introduced by snow, ice, and cold temperatures will help to keep you and your people safe this winter.

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