Let’s define a roof fall as any unarrested free-fall of an employee originating from a roof deck launch point and resulting in a terminal impact with the ground or an impeding structure (like a lower roof). Like any other falling object, a fall victim will accelerate at 32 feet/second2. After falling only 18 inches, it is almost impossible for a victim to physically catch himself. A free-fall from a roof can reach a terminal velocity of 120 mph within seconds.
Of all the roof fall survivors I have interviewed, the vast majority have made one comment in common. It usually sounds something like this: “Just before I fell, I knew what I was about to do could cause me to fall.” To a man (or woman), they all had precognition. If your subconscious can reasonably notify you just seconds before a life-altering event, then certainly your conscious brain can be behavior-modified to address roof fall risks every hour of the shift spent on the ground, the roof or on the ladder in between them. It simply means reassessing your corporate priorities as follows: safety, quality, productivity.
On steep-pitched roofs (pitches greater than 4:12), the work is obviously demanding. Musculoskeletal fatigue and low blood sugar can contribute to falls, as can dropped tools. Tools should be tethered 100 percent of the time.
Steep pitches have obvious dangers, but low-pitched roofs (4:12 or less) have twice the number of incidents steep roofs do. Complacency is inevitable, so prepare for it. Workers are also prone to “tunnel vision” on extra-large commercial decks. Warning lines, controlled access zones and safety monitors are worthless administrative controls if the competent person fails to audit sites and dismiss violators. On-the-job pressures during economic recession can have significant effects on roofing safety. “Do more with less and quicker” may not appear on anyone’s letterhead, but it has become an unspoken mantra on almost every construction site here in the Northeast. Although this may be an indirect cause, unreasonably increasing daily production beyond safe limits may lead directly to acts and conditions that cause roof falls.
Here are five common direct causes of falls from pitched roofs:
1. Hazardous roof access. This includes sloppy setup of ladders, scaffolding and aerial lifts. It also covers careless transition from ladder to roof, scaffold to roof, one roof to another, and one pitch to another. A five man crew roofing for a 40-hour week can make as many as 5,000 ground-to-roof round trips. If little or no attention is paid to the design of proper roof access and egress throughout demolition, deck repair, underlayment and new roofing, then the chances of slips, trips and falls are going to be high. Take the time, effort and expense to provide one (or more) safe, stable and strong access ways to the roof deck.
2. Poor housekeeping. The accumulation of demolition debris poses obvious dangers. Watch out for bundle rappers, as well as loose shingles, slates and shakes. Unsecured underlayments, felts and insulation pose trip hazards. Make it a policy to avoid stapling your underlayment courses unless you are overlaying finish waterproofing immediately thereafter. This will prevent repeated tension on the 1/4-inch or 1/2-inch staple legs, which could fail when walking on the felt. Drying-in an entire roof deck with felt coursing should be done with tab-nails instead, as they will resist tearing and pull-out much better if there is repeated foot traffic.
3. High-risk, first-man-up situations. These include the person who first sets up the personal fall arrest system (PFAS). Ground-line implementation, top-rope implementation, and establishing feasible slide guards and catch platforms are all inherently dangerous tasks. So is lead climbing on belay. These tasks should only be handled by those with expert climber status and the proper training and experience. Competency evaluations should be done annually. Make safe and competent scaffold, ladder, and roof climbing a prize-winning competition at your company picnic, and include belayer competitions as well.
4. Improper footwear. It’s my opinion that heavy, lugged-soled boots popular on most construction sites have no place on pitched roofs. Their hard soles with rugged tread pattern present about half the traction area to the deck as other boots and can easily catch on nail heads and shingle edges. They are also more likely to tear up soft petroleum-based finish materials. Roofing contractors should specify footwear appropriate for the type and slope of the roof. Maritime deck sneakers are functional, as they have flat soles with directional traction meant to grip on wet and inclined deck surfaces. Approach boots are used by climbers to hike across foothill rubble approaching the vertical rock ascent. As hiking boots, they support the ankle well on an angle and have smooth soles with little or no heel cut. Slip-on rubbers are also practical on metal decks but they are easily cut and torn.
Cougar Paws™ boots are the only boot I have found in the market designed exclusively for the professional roofer. Known by many as “glue shoes,” they literally adhere to composite, shake, slate, tile and metal with a micro-porous synthetic rubber which sheds material, constantly presenting a new grip surface. Steel-toe protection is recommended but not mandated on roofs, as all roofers at times encounter many of the grade-level falling object hazards other construction workers do. Your competent person will make the determination by assessing all of the required PPE on your jobsite.
5. Roofing without fall protection. “Going commando” might be tempting when establishing fall protection equipment takes longer than the job, but a PFAS is an essential part of a safe jobsite on pitched roofs. If you think PFAS costs too much, try profit sharing and associate the care of employees’ equipment to their checks at the end of the year. Don’t be fooled into thinking half a system is better than none. Wearing a harness without a lanyard or anchoring to a vent pipe takes as much time and effort as doing it right the first time, but the inevitable results will prove regrettable. Witnessing non-compliant fall protection behavior on the roof without reporting it to the CP should result in immediate dismissal of the witness along with the original violator.
There are three excuses I’ve heard many times in the emergency room:
1. “That’s the way the foreman told me to do it.”
2. “I’ve done it that way for years and nothing ever happened before.”
3. “I was only going to be up there for a minute.”
And those were the lucky ones who lived to tell the tale.
The reality is, when performed competently, a responsible safety program will consume considerable time, money and effort. But it will prevent injuries, save lives, and in the end will cost the company less than the eventual tragedy would.