Past Winter Refocuses Attention on Skylight Falls

Rich Walker
June 18, 2015
COLUMN : Industry Watch | Codes & Standards

The issue of skylight fall protection is not new. Manufacturer members of the AAMA Skylight Council have been especially proactive over recent years in improving the installation and maintenance safety of their products.

However, concerns have surfaced anew in the wake of a relative blizzard of reports of individuals falling through skylights while engaged in snow removal from beleaguered roofs this past winter, especially in New England. At least six people stepped through snowcovered skylights in a single week, resulting in one death and five injuries.

According to OSHA, “Every year, workers are killed or seriously injured while performing snow or ice removal from rooftops and other building structures. OSHA has investigated 16 such serious injuries or fatalities in the past 10 years—all of which could have been prevented.” Perhaps more is needed than the code-mandated “no step” warning labels, which are, of course, hidden by snow accumulation.

Establishing Responsibility, Taking Action

The responsibility for fall protection must be shared among the many parties involved with the design, construction and maintenance of roofs. Representing the manufacturers’ part of the equation, the AAMA Skylight Fall Protection Task Group published a Fall Protection position paper in 2008. The document established safety procedures for minimizing risk:

  • Only construction and building maintenance professionals should be allowed on a roof,
  • Applicable OSHA safety regulations should be complied with at all times,
  • All individuals allowed to be on a roof must be fully trained on roof safety, and
  • Signage should be posted at each access point onto the roof.

If it becomes necessary to remove snow from a roof, OSHA advises the use of required fall protection. OSHA standards require employers to evaluate hazards and protect workers from falls when working at heights of 4 feet or more above a lower level (1910.23) or 6 feet or more for construction work (1926.501). OSHA recommendations are noted in AAMA 1607-14, Voluntary Installation Guidelines for Unit Skylights.

Yet, these regulations are vague in defining what constitutes adequate protection, leaving skylight manufacturers with the task of interpretation. For example, a screen or cover, or an installed skylight, must be capable of supporting a 200-pound load and must not deflect downward enough to break the glass below them “under ordinary loads or impacts.”

But what are “ordinary” loads? Static loads have completely different characteristics than dynamic loads (e.g., dropping the 200 pounds from several feet) and have significantly different effects on plastic as compared to glass domed skylights.

ASTM International, meanwhile, is currently working on establishing a new test method for human impact on commercial skylights. “We’re working on developing a specific standard or specification for human fall resistance based upon standard practices, standard impact test methods, materials commonly used, and risk assessment,” says Chris Magnuson, president of Wasco Products Inc., who is also first vice president of the AAMA Skylight/Sloped Glazing Council and a member of its Skylight Fall Protection Task Group.

The task is complicated by the fact that incident reports do not indicate what types of skylights were involved, their configuration, or other specifics. Industry experts are looking further into how the types of glazing dictate testing loads and impact strength.

There are numerous other questions vying for further investigation: When falls occur, is the skylight manufacturer at fault? How many people have actually fallen through skylights? What types of skylights are involved? What are the circumstances surrounding the fall? Without such data, it becomes difficult to determine the extent of the problem, which makes developing a standard more challenging.

Nevertheless, John Westerfield, marketing and code compliance officer for CrystaLite Inc. and AAMA Skylight Fall Protection Task Group chair, notes that a fall protection specification and method document is currently in draft stage and completion is expected in the near future.

The Skylight Fall Protection Task Group will continue to look objectively at the various data sources in the context of the industry’s longstanding commitment to roof safety. This includes participation in the ASTM Fall Protection Test Standard Development Work Group and examining its own pathways to enhanced standard practice.

For now, the primary message is for building owners to be cognizant of their responsibility to limit roof access to safety-trained and properly equipped construction and maintenance professionals.

Rich Walker, who after 22 years of service to AAMA, announced his retirement from the position of President & CEO.