Every year nine people on average fall to their deaths from fragile roofs or through roof lights. Many more suffer serious, life-changing injuries.
Falls through fragile roofs or materials usually occur on the roofs of factories, warehouses and farm buildings where workers are carrying out repairs, maintaining or installing equipment, cleaning gutters and skylights, or whilst carrying out general roof work. All these accidents are fully avoidable through careful planning and ensuring safe working procedures.
What is a fragile surface?
Work on fragile surfaces is high risk, and as a result, the HSE requires that effective precautions are taken for any form of work on or near fragile surfaces. Accidents can be avoided as long as suitable equipment is used and those carrying out the work are provided with adequate information, training and supervision.
Access onto a roof is often required for maintenance, inspection, cleaning or general repairs. Fragile surfaces such as the ones we are reading about are typically found on factories and warehouses and can include:
·Roof lights and skylights
·Corroded metal sheets
·Non-reinforced fibre cement sheets
·Roof slates and tiles
·Glass such as wired glass
How to tread carefully
The principles of working on fragile surfaces are exactly the same as any other form of work at height, so if you apply the hierarchy of control you should be able to ensure that the work can be carried out safely.
In an ideal world, the preferred option is to avoid working at height, but as we all know this isn’t always possible, so the next consideration would be to look at methods which would allow work to be carried out without actually stepping onto the roof itself, such as MEWPs.
If access onto the fragile roof cannot be overcome then you will need to look at how the area can be accessed safely and then put into place measures that can alleviate the distance and consequences of a potential fall.
This can be done in a number of ways, such as protecting the edge of the roof with guardrail, using staging or platforms with edge protection on the roof to spread the load or by protecting fragile roof lights and skylights with a cover to prevent access onto the surface itself.
When access is needed to run from the eaves to the ridge, mesh walkways could be used to spread the weight across the support battens so that workers can safely move along the full length of the systems.
Lightweight mobile walking frames on the other hand are ideal for maintenance of valleys and box gutters on fragile roofs and can provide safe access for up to two people.
A responsible approach
Falls through fragile surfaces account for nearly a fifth of all fatalities as a result of a fall from height in the construction industry. The worker in the case I highlighted at the start of this post was lucky in that he survived. However he did suffer serious injuries to his back and sternum and wore a full body brace for six weeks following the incident.
Companies have a legal duty to ensure they have done all they can to prevent accidents and with the range of products available today, particularly for working on fragile materials, there really is no reason for these accidents to still be happening.
With the arrival of spring, and winter firmly behind us, now is the time for business owners and landlords to take a look at the roofs of their premises to see what damage the colder months left in their wake.
Whether you are a contractor or the owner of the premises, it is important you know the best way to safely inspect and maintain a building, to ensure the safety of yourself and any contractors in your care.
Planned maintenance can include both plant and equipment as well as repairs to the roof itself, dependent on the type of roof.
If you follow these top tips, you’ll be able to ensure you avoid any issues, such as serious injury or worse, when carrying out spring maintenance.
1. It doesn’t matter what height you’re working at, work at height is by nature dangerous, even more so in the months after winter, when all manner of horrible damage can be hiding away. When possible, try to avoid having to work at height, if this isn’t possible then look at alternative ways to do the work. For example, if cleaning windows, use a reach and wash system rather than a ladder. if you absolutely have to use a ladder then always take advantage of the Easi-Dec Ladder accessories range to provide further support.
2. Make sure that you always carry out a risk assessment before starting the work to determine what equipment you will need and to identify who could potentially be in danger or be affected by your work. Is there the possibility that someone could be hit by falling objects?
3. When using a ladder, carry out pre-use checks to identify any defects or damages which could prevent safe use. Areas to inspect include the stiles, feet, rungs, steps/treads, platform and locking mechanisms. Make sure the ladder is long enough or high enough for the specific task. Make sure the ground is firm and level and clear of any debris.
4. Always make sure that the user is competent to carry out the work. Competency is essential. Only those who are fully trained in working at height and using equipment such as ladders safely will have the correct skills, knowledge and experience to work safely.
5. And perhaps most importantly of all, always plan the work carefully. This is even more vital after the winter months when there could be hidden risks.
Working at height can be dangerous at the best of times, so remember, if you are not sure about anything or do not believe you are competent or capable of carrying out the task at hand, always seek professional advice.
Good to know: Easi-Dec offers many different products and systems to make working at height all year round safer and more efficient.
A Crown Court case which saw three companies fined a total of £400,000 for a worker’s fall through a fragile roof has highlighted the importance of following Construction (Design and Management) regulations, and the need to ensure competence of all contractors working at height.
Three firms have been fined after a worker fell seven metres through a fragile asbestos roof.
The worker was standing on the fragile roof at Dengie Crops Ltd in Asheldem when the asbestos sheeting gave way and he fell onto a concrete floor, hitting several pipes on the way down.
No protective equipment or safety netting was in place below to prevent the fall and the worker suffered a hematoma on the brain as a result. He survived, but was left with severe injuries.
Chelmsford Crown Court heard the Health and Safety Executive found three companies at fault for the fall. Dengie Crops Ltd had originally contracted Ernest Doe & Sons – an agricultural machinery supplier – to carry out the work. Realising they did not have the required experience, Ernest Doe & Sons then subcontracted the work the Balsham (Buildings) Ltd.
Balsham then subcontracted the work to Strong Clad Ltd.
The court was told Ernest Doe & Sons could not fulfill their role as principal contractor due to having no experience in construction. This then led to the repeated subcontracting of the project and eventually to the worker’s severe injury.
Ernest Doe & Sons also did not see plans from Balsham (Building) Ltd which highlighted the fall risk. None of the companies were deemed to have put sufficient measures in place, and 40% of the roof had no protective netting. They also relied too heavily on verbal briefings to workers reminding them where the netting was, rather than putting effective safety measures across the entire roof.
Ernest Doe & sons Ltd, of Ulting, Essex, pleaded guilty to breaching CDM Regulations and were fined £360,000 and ordered to pay costs of £10,000.
Balsham (Buildings) Ltd, of Balsham, Cambridge, pleaded guilty to safety breaches and were fined £45,000 and ordered to pay costs of £7,000.
Strong Clad Ltd, of Castle Hedingham, Essex also pleaded guilty and were fined £7,000 and ordered to pay costs of £3,000.
HSE inspector Adam Hills said: “The dangers of working on fragile roofs are well documented. Every year too many people are killed or seriously injured due to falls from height while carrying out this work.
“Work at height requires adequate planning, organisation and communication between all parties. This incident was entirely preventable and the worker is lucky to be alive.”
New Construction (Design and Management) (CDM) regulations, designed to reduce accidents during construction projects through improved health and safety, design, planning and co-operation throughout the project, were introduced in April 2015.
The regulations, which supersede previous CDM regulations introduced in 2007, identify six core roles: Clients, Principal Designers, Designers, Principal Contractors, Contractors and Workers.
Under these new regulations clients are required to take responsibility and ensure that each phase of the construction process is planned so that it can be managed safely.
Clients now have a duty to:
assemble a team of competent professionals and ensure that each of their roles are clear
allocate sufficient time and resources at each stage of the project to ensure that health and safety issues are dealt with properly
ensure effective project team communication
provide suitable welfare facilities throughout the construction period
make sure all involved have the skills, training and expertise to carry out the work
With the repeated passing along of the Dengie Crops Ltd project, several of these vital requirements were overlooked.
The importance of competency
When employing someone to work at height, it is vital to ensure that they are competent. But what exactly is competency, and how can you tell? It’s important to know that just because somebody has been doing a job for a number of years, this does not automatically mean they are competent.
The HSE defines competency as: “a combination of the experience, knowledge and appropriate qualifications that enables a worker to identify both the risks arising from a situation and the measures needed to deal with them.”
It also states that: “Individuals working at height need to be trained in the selected system of work and any particular work equipment chosen. For example, if a Motorised Elevated Work Platform (MEWP) is selected then the operator must be trained in its use; if nets are used then the net riggers must be trained in how to erect them safely. Managers should check that those doing the work are adequately trained.”
Working at height is highly specialist, and it is hugely important to ensure you commission a competent company and worker to assess all risk and carry out any work safely. Do not automatically assume someone is capable because they’ve never had an accident; more often than not, this is down to dumb luck.
Look for companies that are members of associations/institutes or affiliated to recognised industry bodies. The company will be kept up to date regularly by the association or group on important industry topics and updated on changes to legislation and standards that relate to their line of business, particularly their services and products.
Check that the company is registered with a recognised assessment scheme such as CHAS, Constructionline and/or SAFEcontractor. Every aspect of a registered company’s performance is vetted, including staff professionalism, training, products and services, environmental impact and health & safety record.
Ensure workers have had individual training. Always make sure that those carrying out the work have appropriate health & safety training and that it is up to date. This could include training on Work at Height, PPE, Ladders, Rescue, MEWPS, PASMA, First Aid, Asbestos Awareness, COSHH and Risk Assessor. Refresher training should be undertaken at least every 3 years.
Always ask to see evidence of training certificates and any relevant industry card schemes such as CSCS or CCNSG before allowing people to work on your premises.
Remember, if at any point you are concerned about competency or a contractor’s practices, do not proceed, and instead seek professional advice. It may take a little bit more time and effort, but it can save you from serious fines and even prosecution in the long run.