Safety is NOT a judgment call

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Blog by Geert Cox; CEO XSPlatforms

One of the most important things I have learned doing business inside the work-at-height industry is this: there are many different perspectives when it comes to the term safety.

Some time ago I shared an article about roof safety on LinkedIn and someone – let’s just call him the critic – commented that a person was more likely to fall in a living room than in the situation pictured in the article.

I often encounter this attitude with people who don’t have a lot of practical knowledge of the work that is being done on a roof. Sadly, this is also true for most of the people responsible for roof safety. This kind of perspective (or lack thereof) is understandable but dangerous.

Of course, there are a lot of good examples as well: many clients proactively take steps to investigate and reduce the fall hazards involved with the maintenance of a building. Also, more and more architects consider worker safety in the design of their building.

But this specific comment reminded me that when it comes to the education of architects and clients, we still have a long way to go.

The project

I invite you to take a look at the article I’m referring to here: what’s the best fall protection for roofs with solar panels?.

I’ll admit that the angle of the photo in the article doesn’t really cover the fall hazards on that roof, so here’s another photo:

perspective of safety

What you see, is a user at the edge of a roof that is at least eight meters (26 feet) high. The parapet of the roof is about as high as the user’s knees. The fall arrest system is intended to facilitate work that takes place near or over the edge. Think about maintenance to gutters, security camera’s, lighting or billboards for example. This is nothing more than the reality of this situation.

When such a safety system is installed, it happens for one of the following reasons:

  1. First of all, there are standards that simply prescribe that a safety measure is required for work in this situation. Whether that’s a fall arrest system or something else, is irrelevant. The point is that these standards exist for a reason.
  2. When there aren’t any standards, or when in doubt, it’s often a conscious decision. If you become aware of a hazard to other people, isn’t it your responsibility to do something about it, from an ethical point of view? I think most people would say so.

But if you don’t recognize the hazard in the first place, then these arguments are meaningless.

What could happen?

So allow me to share my perspective on this picture, based on my experience. Here are just a few things that could happen:

  • Two persons walking along an unguarded edge doing an inspection, one slips or trips and tries to hold on to the other person in an attempt not to fall, and thereby accidentally pushes his co-worker over the edge.
  • Some roofing membranes are more slippery than others. This condition is not always visible. Doing the aforementioned jobs early in the morning after a cold night is especially hazardous, yet in practice, you’ll find that work continues as planned.
  • Working with heavy-duty tools is always a risk. A person could easily lose his balance when carrying or operating such equipment, for example when a drill jams.
  • Especially on roofs with lots of equipment (think solar panels, lighting, AC’s), there is always a chance that somebody trips. This is not only a hazard at the edges but also near fragile skylights which are commonly found on large roofs such as the one pictured here.

These are just the thoughts off the top of my head. I could fill at least a couple of pages like this, but I think you get the point.

My thoughts

With this post, I would like to encourage those responsible for rooftop safety to adopt a broader perspective before making a judgment call about safety. Many people aren’t aware of how many jobs actually require access to the roof (and therefore entail a fall hazard), as many roofers and service people will know.

Of course, everybody is able to safely walk around on a roof without falling off the edge. But most working situations are unknown to us. There’s a lot of factors that are unknown to anyone who’s never been in the worker’s shoes. Just in Europe alone, a fall accident happens every single day.

So if a situation feels like it’s not OK, get a professional to look at your roof and carry out a risk assessment. An expert risk analysis is often an eye-opener; there are a lot of possibilities when it comes to securing the people working at height.

And if the risk of liability alone is not enough to motivate you to take action, then please consider the possible effect on the lives of workers and their families.

More and more people are adopting a broader perspective on safety, but…. that’s for next time.

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