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Working on a roof can be dangerous. Falls account for more deaths and serious injuries in construction than anything else. Nearly half of them are from or through roofs and frequently involve fragile materials. Any fall from a roof inevitably involves at least serious injury. The risks are substantial however long or short the work. Many have been killed who only meant to be on the roof for a few minutes ‘to have a quick look’.
This section is aimed at people who actually carry out roof work or are directly responsible for managing or supervising it. It sets out key safeguards, but more detailed information can be found if needed in the HSE’s guide Health and Safety in Roof Work.
In addition, many people have been seriously injured by material falling or thrown from roofs. Accidents occur not only to those building roofs, but also to people maintaining, cleaning, demolishing and inspecting them.
Any work on a roof is high risk. High safety standards are essential however long or short term the work is. The nature of the precautions needed may vary from one job to another, but not providing any safeguards is simply unacceptable.
This section sets out precautions that are relevant for all roof work and then describes precautions that are particularly relevant to different types of roof.
Is the Work Necessary?
The best way to prevent a fall from or through a roof is to make sure nobody ever goes on or near it. Ask the question ‘Do we need to do the work?’ For instance, if a roof is sound, is there any need to clean it for purely cosmetic reasons? If work does need to be done can it be done without going on the roof? For example, if the roof needs to be inspected can it be done by examination from a powered access platform?
Risk Assessment and Method Statements
A risk assessment should be carried out for all roof work. Simple jobs may not require a great deal. More complex ones need to be assessed in much more depth. But all roof work is dangerous and it is essential that the risks are identified before the work starts and that the necessary equipment, appropriate precautions and systems of work are provided and implemented.
Except for the simplest jobs where the necessary precautions are straightforward and can be easily repeated (e.g. use a proper roofing ladder to replace a ridge tile) safety method statements should be prepared. They should be specific and relevant to the job in hand and describe clearly the precautions and system of work identified during risk assessment. Diagrams or pictures can often say more and be clearer than text.
Everyone involved in the work needs to know what the method statement says and what they have to do. This might need someone to explain the statement for more complicated jobs. There will usually need to be some supervision during the work to check that the correct procedures are followed.
Getting On and Off the Roof
Getting on and off the roof is a major risk. A secure means of entry and exit is essential. A properly secured ladder is the minimum requirement.
Wherever anyone could fall more than 2m, the first line of defence is to provide adequate edge protection. It needs to meet minimum legal standards of, or be equivalent to:
Sometimes a roof parapet may provide equivalent protection but if it does not, extra protection will be required.
As well as edge protection it is just as important to provide an adequate and secure working platform. In many cases the roof itself will provide this. If it does not (e.g. when working on a chimney on a pitched roof) a platform should be provided.
Fall Arrest Equipment
Providing adequate platforms and edge protection may not always be possible or reasonably practicable. If so either safety nets or harnesses will be required. They do not stop people falling, but minimise the potential injuries if they do.
If nets are used make sure that they are properly installed by competent riggers as close as possible below the roof involved to minimise the distance fallen. Installing a net does not mean that proper working platforms and edge protection can be ignored, because the first priority is to stop people falling in the first place.
If harnesses are used make sure that they are securely attached to a sufficiently strong anchorage point and that they are always worn. This requires user discipline and active management monitoring.
Keep a tidy site: stop material which could fall from accumulating. Nothing should ever be thrown from a roof. Use enclosed rubbish chutes or lower material to the ground instead. Prevent access to danger areas underneath or adjacent to roof work. Where this cannot be guaranteed, consider using debris netting, fans, covered walkways or similar safeguards to stop falling material causing injury. Particular care is needed where there is public access close to roof work. If possible try to arrange for work to be carried out when passers-by will not be there, e.g. carry out repairs to schools during the school holidays. If this cannot be arranged minimise the public access to danger areas. In some cases physical protection to catch falling materials, e.g. fans, may be appropriate. Remember that even fine material such as dusts can cause discomfort or injury to eyes.
Roof workers need the appropriate knowledge, skills and experience to work safely, or be under the supervision of someone else who has it. They need to be able to recognise the risks, understand the appropriate systems of work and be competent in the skills to carry them out such as:
Training will usually be required to achieve these competencies. It is not sufficient to hope that workers will ‘pick up safety on the job’.
Do not work on roofs in icy, rainy or windy conditions. Anyone carrying a roof sheet can easily be blown off the roof if they are caught by a gust of wind. Avoid excessive exposure to sunlight by wearing appropriate clothing and using sun creams. Too much exposure to sunlight can cause skin cancer.
Short-duration work means that lasting minutes rather than hours. It may not be reasonably practicable to provide full edge protection for short-duration work but it still needs to be considered during assessment and should not be automatically discounted.
Mobile access equipment can provide both edge protection and a working platform. It can do away with the need for scaffolding and can be particularly appropriate for short-duration minor work. Where it is not reasonably practicable to provide full edge protection, a securely attached safety harness will normally be required.
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