Before you climb that ladder, have a good look around

By Jeff Salton on February 9th, 2018
  1. Risk Management
  2. Risk Assessment


Despite repeated warnings from safety regulators around the country, there remain many occurrences of workers being injured or killed when working on roofs, primarily from falls.

It’s not just the construction sector this applies to, but also workers undertaking cleaning activities, electrical work, plumbing, glazing, tree-felling, insulation installations, pest control, heating and cooling works and other routine or one-off maintenance activities.

As you can imagine, the consequence of a fall from height can be life-changing. Most roofs are metres from the ground and therefore, there is a high risk of quadriplegia or paraplegia as a result of falling. Unfortunately, there are also several fatalities in Australia each year as a result of falls from heights. A significant proportion of victims were working on roofs where the structures were adequate but the control measures were either lacking or ineffective.

Ray Bedson, a director of Ray Bedson Safety Management, says before climbing onto a roof, stand back and take a good look at the age, condition and type of structure you will be accessing.

“Make note of fragile openings where an unsuspecting worker can fall through. There have been a number of incidents involving skylights or fragile roof sheeting that have collapsed under the weight of a person, resulting in a fall to hard surfaces below,” he says.

“Be wary of fibreglass, asbestos sheeting, fibre cement, and moss or dirt-covered panels that may have deteriorated with age. Sometimes the poor roof condition can be camouflaged with organic debris.”

He says where possible, workers should take a look from below to identify that the roof shield mesh is in place, and that it is not rusted or damaged. A further factor that needs to be considered is the weather or environmental conditions on the day that the access is required.

Wind, rain, cold or excessive heat need to be addressed to ensure that risks are not increased.

Steep roofs increase risks

As part of your assessment, take into account the steepness of the roof gradient. Ray says an angle of more than 10 to 15 degrees is likely to cause issues. If someone were to fall or drop tools or other objects on this type of slope, the results could be catastrophic.

“Pitches that are steeper than 20 degrees may require the use of fall prevention equipment, such as harnesses, lanyards and anchorage points to prevent workers from falling over an unprotected edge,” he says.

Perimeter guarding or edge protection could also be used to provide fall prevention. Roofs that are slippery, tiled or contaminated by chemical fall out from neighbouring industry can also pose a threat.

“It may even be necessary to clean and blast the roof to ensure good grip is achievable (though not if the roof material contains asbestos) before attempting to access the roof if the work being conducted is longer-term. Try to work from fixed platforms, elevated work platforms or scaffolds in preference to being on the roof.”

Ray says an excellent publication to consider WorkSafe Victoria’s Prevention of falls in general construction.

The section on appropriate ladder use identifies how a ladder should be set up if intending to use it as an access device to roof work.

Another useful publication by Safe Work Australia is titled Safe work on roofs. Read these in conjunction with the Codes of Practices and the compliance requirements of the regulations in your jurisdiction.

Carefully consider the tasks

Where workers are performing routine work, beware of complacency. Ray says there have been recent incidents where a spur of the moment decision or a task that would be quick to complete has led to inadequate controls being put in place.

Some tasks are definitely higher risk than others, and if heavy or cumbersome equipment is being used it might compromise workers’ safety. Use cranes, hoists or other load-rated lifting equipment to raise or hold heavy items in place. Tether tools or equipment and tie off on anything that has the potential to fall or tip over the edge of structures that roof workers are working from.

If regular tasks occur on roof surfaces (e.g. servicing air conditioners or cooling towers), the building owner should provide fixed walkways, fall barriers, and permanent ladders or stairs to the equipment.

Always conduct a risk assessment of the tasks before work commences through Safe Work Method Statements (SWMSs) or Job Safety Analyses (JSAs) to make sure all roof hazards have been identified and controls implemented.

This is where the Health & Safety Handbook, written by the legal experts at Holding Redlich, can be more than just a little ‘handy’.

The chapters on Working At Heights, Risk Assessment, Audits Inspections and Reviews, are all vital cogs in the wheel of workplace safety. They’re just a trio in the more than 70 chapters contained in the Handbook.

You can see for yourself how helpful the Handbook is by taking an obligation-free trial. Read through the step-by-steps, the checklists and the case law examples to see how you can remove or reduce your risks. It’s that easy.


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