OSHA Directives Provide for Skylight Safety

May 19, 2009
Many of the falls documented each year happen through skylights that should have been covered or protected by a railing or strong screen.

A construction worker repairing the roof of an industrial building in Arizona left his access ladder in place while he went to lunch. During his absence, a young child climbed the ladder and found the domed skylights that covered the roof. To his delight, he discovered they acted just like trampolines. He jumped on each one in the row and then turned around to leapfrog back to his starting point.

On the way back, he broke through one of the skylights which had cracked on his first jump. At that moment, the construction worker returned and saw him, but he was unable to reach the skylight before the child fell 22 feet to the concrete floor below where he lay unconscious in a pool of blood. The worker got passersby to call 911 and help him break into the locked building to reach the child. Luckily, the boy recovered physically, but he may have suffered brain damage as a result of the accident.

In 2005, the last year for which OSHA has reliable statistics on this, 767 people died and 79,310 sustained serious injury from falls of all types, many of which were through skylights. Skylights can be domed or flat and are made from molded acrylic or corrugated fiberglass. Flat translucent skylights masquerade as roof patches or hide under dirt, debris, or snow. New skylights can usually withstand severe impacts, but ultraviolet rays and weather weaken and embrittle the plastic over time. Accidents usually happen when a person sits on the skylight, falls onto it, or unintentionally walks on it.

OSHA directives state, “Every skylight floor opening and hole shall be guarded by a standard skylight screen or a fixed standard railing on all exposed sides.” The screens should be grills or slats capable of holding at least 200 pounds without deflecting enough to break the skylight.

The agency makes special provisions for areas where a person may be in danger of falling through a skylight. In such cases, a fixed railing must surround the opening or it must be covered with a lid that can hold a 200-pound person.

In another incident, a person was assigned to warn other employees on the roof when they were working too close to the roof ’s edge or the flat, corrugated-fiberglass skylight panels. He was also responsible for pouring aluminum roof-coating material so others could spread it. While he was working, he accidently stepped on a skylight and fell through, suffering fatal injuries.

Another accident happened at ground level where 4 × 8-foot skylights covered large window wells at an apartment complex. A worker washing windows directly above the skylights and standing on the skylights broke through and fell 10 feet, suffering serious leg and back injuries.

Both these incidents and the initial accident could have been prevented if employers and property owners followed OSHA’s rules and installed skylight screens or covers or provided a fixed railing to keep people away.

Lanny Berke is a registered professional engineer and Certified Safety Professional involved in forensic engineering since 1972. Got a question about safety? You can reach Lanny at [email protected].

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