Working at height hazards – Fragile surfaces

working at height hazards

Fragile surfaces is one of the working at height hazards.

Work on fragile surfaces is extremely high risk, as the surface can give way and a person can easily fall down to a lower level or the ground. Fiber-cement roofs and fragile roof skylights are among the biggest causes of fall through incidents, resulting in serious injuries or worse. With the right equipment, adequate information, appropriate training and proper supervision these accidents can be avoided.

Fragile surfaces on a roof

A fragile roof surface, or fragile elements in a roof, cannot always support the weight of a person and so fracture without warning. Possibly causing a person to fall through the surface to a lower level. Fragile surfaces typically include:

  • Skylights and roof lights
  • (Corroded) metal sheets
  • Non-reinforced fiber-cement sheets
  • Roof slates and tiles
  • Glass elements

Deterioration can also cause a surface, that used to be firm to have fragile elements in it. Think of an older metal sheet roof, which has become corroded over time. Therefore it is good to assume all surfaces are fragile, until proven otherwise.

Working at height on a fragile roof surface

The ideal solution to fall hazards is to avoid working at height on a fragile surface. However, in practice this solution is hardly achievable as most maintenance and repair tasks cannot be executed on the ground.

A solution often mentioned to avoid working on a fragile surface is the use of a Mobile Elevated Work Platform (MEWP). Think, however, of a large factory location, with a MEWP you may not be able to reach the area where work needs to be executed.

Working at height hazards

If access onto the fragile surface is absolutely necessary then you will need to look at safety measures to prevent falls, or to prevent the distance a person can fall. You can think of crawling boards with guardrails. These boards allow employees or hired parties to walk over the fragile roof cladding. However, you need to remember that the roof structure needs to be strong enough to carry the combined weight of the crawling boards, the worker and the necessary equipment.

Skylights pose a fall through danger for which fall protection needs to be used

Another solution is to provide anchor points on a sturdy part of the structure to prevent users from reaching, for example, the fragile roof lights, or to arrest their fall should one occur.

Having fall protection measures in place is one part of preventing falls through a fragile surface. The behavior of those on the fragile surface is part two. Awareness of the dangers helps prevent dangerous actions. Training and a focus on safety will help ensure that fall protection systems are actually used. The safety of those at height is a combined effort of the safety measures provided by the employer or client and the conduct of the employee or hired party.

Tips to prevent dangerous situations

To help prevent dangerous falls through a breakable roof or through skylights we’ve put together a poster with tips. Download and print it and hang it in a visible location to help remind workers of the dangers and what they can do to prevent accidents. Those who have to work at height sometimes become blinded to the dangers, a reminder with this poster can help keep them safe.

Download poster

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