May 31, 2013

The Dangers of Working on Fragile Roofs

In May 2013, a roofing company was fined for exposing workers to serious risk of injury at a site in North Wales.

The Magistrates’ Court heard how the roofing contractor had been contracted to replace the roofs of light industrial units. The work involved replacing fragile asbestos cement roof sheets with metal roof cladding. 

In November 2012 an off-duty inspector from the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) spotted two men employed by the contractors on the roof of one of the units. He could see that no safeguards had been put in place to prevent a fall from height while this hazardous work was being carried out. He immediately took steps to ensure a prohibition notice was served on the company to ensure all work on the roofs was stopped. 

The court heard that HSE found numerous ‘fall from height’ risks at the site including access onto the roof via an untied ladder, no safeguards to prevent a fall through the fragile roofing material and nothing to prevent a fall from the edges of the roof. The workers were some four to five metres from the ground. 

Speaking after the hearing, the HSE Inspector said:

“The dangers of working at height are well known in the roofing industry, yet poor safety standards and a lack of safeguards still exist among some contractors. 

“These employees were working on fragile roofs and yet the contractor had neglected to implement even the most basic safety measures to minimise the risks of falls. It is very fortunate that nobody was injured. 

“The prosecution should serve as a reminder to all building contractors to ensure working at height is properly planned and robust safety precautions taken. Employers have a legal duty to manage safety and failing to do so too often ends in tragedy.” 

In the same month a Yorkshire firm that fits solar panels was also prosecuted and fined a total of £6,000 and ordered to pay £6,585 in costs after admitting two breaches of the Work at Height Regulations 2005.  The prosecution was brought after an employee fell four metres through the fragile roof of a pig shed at an East Yorkshire farm. 

The injured person had been employed for just two weeks and had no experience in solar panel installation. He was on all fours cutting rails for the panels when he suddenly heard a crack and the roof gave way. 

York Magistrates’ Court heard that on the morning of the accident, the farm owner spoke to the firm’s director on site because he was unhappy with the way they had been working on the shed roof.  He warned that the two roofs were fragile and no work should take place without using crawl boards, which he made available. 

The HSE found that no action had been taken as a result of this advice and both the director and the inexperienced employee carried on working unsafely on the roof. The director then left the site and instructed the man to level the rail already on the roof and chop further rails for the panels.  He continued with the task, unsupervised, when the roof collapsed beneath him. He suffered a radial fracture to his left elbow and bruising to his legs.  

The HSE found that no precautions had been taken to prevent falls through the fragile roof and there was no edge protection along the ridge or to the left of the roof. A hand rail to the right of the roof only extended partway. 

After the hearing, the HSE Inspector said:

“This worker was extremely fortunate not to have suffered more severe injuries in a fall of four metres. It could even have proved fatal. The company failed to assess the risks before this job started and therefore failed to plan it properly and ensure it was carried out safely. They then chose to ignore the farmer’s warnings and use the crawlboards he had left for their use.  

“The company left an inexperienced worker alone to work on the roof without suitable safety measures in place, having told him to walk on the purlins – which is extremely dangerous. Falls through fragile roofs and rooflights account for some 22 per cent of falls from height in the construction industry – or seven deaths and around 300 major injuries a year.” 

The Work at Height Regulations 2005 

The overriding principle of the Work at Height Regulations is that where it is reasonably practicable to do so, work at height should be avoided. Where work at height cannot be avoided, it must be planned and organised to prevent anyone from falling. The hierarchy of controls established by the Regulations states that duty holders must:

  • avoid work at height where they can
  • where it is not reasonably practicable to avoid work at height, assess the risks and introduce controls to reduce them to the lowest reasonably practicable level
  • use work equipment or other measures to prevent falls where they cannot avoid working at height
  • where they cannot eliminate the risk of a fall, use work equipment or other measures to minimise the distance and consequences of a fall, should one occur

The Regulations require duty holders to ensure that:

  • all work at height is properly planned and organised
  • all work at height takes account of weather conditions that could endanger health and safety
  • those involved in work at height are trained and competent
  • places where people work at height are safe
  • equipment for work at height is appropriately inspected
  • the risks from fragile surfaces are properly controlled
  • the risks from falling objects are properly controlled

Further guidance on working at height can be found on ES GATEWAY or obtained by contacting the Health & Safety Advice Line.

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