A fall at work can have catastrophic consequences for workers and their families. 5,333 workers died on the job in 2019. On average, more than 100 a week or about 15 deaths every day. About 20% (1,061) of worker fatalities in private industry in 2019 were in the construction field, but there are certainly other job tasks that are as dangerous for workers. The 5,333 fatal occupational injuries in 2019 represents the largest annual number since 2007. This figure is staggering: A worker died every 99 minutes from a work-related injury in 2019. Driver/sales workers and truck drivers incurred 1,005 fatal occupational injuries, the highest since the government began seriously tracking worker fatalities in 2003.
Construction is one of the most dangerous industries, and falls are a frequent cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries. Of the 4,609 fatal work injuries that occurred in 2011, 541 or 12% were the result of falls to a lower level. Worker’s compensation providers estimate that each fall from elevation (fatal or nonfatal) in construction costs between $50,000 and $106,000.
Unfortunately, many workers injured as a result of falls do not receive the compensation that they deserve through the workers’ compensation system. Many workers injured in falls are entitled to compensation from the property owner or maintenance company that maintained an unsafe roof, skylight, or other opening. It is important that your injury lawyer understands the opportunities to recover through both the workers’ compensation system and personal injury law.
Workers are exposed to risks from falls during construction, operation, maintenance, and demolition of buildings. Parapets are the parts of the wall, assembly that extend above the roof and can prevent falls from low-sloped (flat) roofs. Other design features that can prevent falls include using guardrail systems and permanent anchor points (for use with personal fall arrest systems and lifelines).
The following were the top 10 most frequently cited standards by Federal OSHA in fiscal year 2020 (October 1, 2019, through September 30, 2020):
Falls are among the most common workplace accidents.
Occupational fatalities caused by falls remain a serious public health problem throughout the United States. The U.S. Department of Labor lists falls as one of the leading causes of traumatic occupational death, accounting for 8% of all occupational fatalities from trauma (approximately 289 of 3,610 deaths) in 1986 [BLS 1988]. The NIOSH National Traumatic Occupational Fatality (NTOF) data base indicates that during the period 1980-85, falls accounted for nearly 10% (3,491 of 36,210) of all traumatic occupational deaths for which a cause was identified [NIOSH 1989a]. Of this total, 28 deaths resulted from falls through skylights, and 39 deaths resulted from falls through roofs or roof openings. A NIOSH survey in seven States revealed that approximately 22% (14 of 64) of the fatal falls reported to State occupational safety and health officials occurred when workers fell through skylight openings or smoke-vent skylights (translucent plastic domes that serve as both skylights and automatic smoke vents in case of fire). The recent increase in the use of smoke-vent skylights in new construction has increased the exposure of workers to these hazards. Deaths can be prevented by compliance with existing OSHA standards for guarding roof openings and by improvement in the worker’s awareness of the hazards involved in working near skylights, skylight openings, and other roof openings.
OSHA has promulgated regulations to protect workers from the hazards associated with roof openings [29 CFR* 1910 and 1926]. The OSHA General Industry Standard requires that “every skylight floor opening and hole shall be guarded by a standard skylight screen or a fixed standard railing on all exposed sides” [29 CFR 1910.23(a)(4)]. Requirements for a standard skylight screen are given in 29 CFR 1910.23(e)(8), as follows:
Skylight screens shall be of such construction and mounting that they are capable of withstanding a load of at least 200 pounds applied perpendicularly at any one area on the screen. They shall also be of such construction and mounting that under ordinary loads or impacts, they will not deflect downward sufficiently to break the glass below them. The construction shall be of grillwork with openings not more than 4 inches long or of slatwork with openings not more than 2 inches wide with length unrestricted.
The OSHA Construction Standard addresses the hazards posed by skylight openings during construction:
Wherever there is a danger of falling through a skylight opening, it shall be guarded by a fixed standard railing on all exposed sides or a cover capable of sustaining the weight of a 200 pound person [29 CFR 1926.500(b)(4)].
Examples of Workers Killed and Injured Because of Unsafe Skylight and Roof Openings
The following case reports demonstrate that employers and workers violated the applicable OSHA regulations in all eight fatal incidents. Compliance with these regulations might have prevented all eight deaths.
- Case No. 1–One Death
On October 30, 1987, a 24-year-old male plumber died when he fell through an unguarded skylight opening to a concrete floor approximately 22 feet below. The victim and a coworker were installing plumbing fixtures on the roof of a new building. The roof contained numerous 4- by 4-foot openings framed with 2- by 6-inch wood. These openings were intended for smoke-vent skylights when the structure was complete. Although the victim and others had been working on this project for several days before the incident, no fall protection or guards of any type were in place. At the time of the incident, the victim and a coworker were discussing the relocation of a fixture on the roof. The victim was walking away from his coworker and looking back over his shoulder to talk to him when he stepped through a skylight opening [NIOSH 1988a].
- Case No. 2–One Death
On January 6, 1988, an 18-year-old male sheet metal helper died after he fell through a skylight opening to a concrete floor 33 feet below. The victim was working as a member of a crew engaged in replacing corrugated metal roof sheeting and installing chain-link fencing material on top of 3- by 8-foot fiber glass panels used as skylights. The fencing material was being installed to eliminate the hazard of falls posed by the fiber glass skylights. (Three months earlier a worker on the same site had fallen to his death through one of these skylights.) When the supervisor ordered the crew to stop work temporarily, the members of the crew moved toward a vent stack to warm themselves. As they moved, the victim stepped on one of the unguarded skylights and fell through it. He died at the hospital 2 hours later [NIOSH 1988b].
- Case No. 3–One Death
On December 14, 1988, a 41-year-old male ironworker died after he fell 25 feet through a roof opening. The victim was working as a member of an eight-man crew installing steel decking on the roof of a new six-story building. The victim left the work area to get a small piece of decking material to finish the job. When the victim did not return in 5 minutes, the crew searched for him and found him lying unconscious on the fifth floor of the stairwell. The victim had removed a 3- by 6-foot piece of decking that covered a 2-foot square ventilation opening in the top of the stairwell; apparently, he then stepped forward and fell through the opening. The victim died 12 hours later as a result of his injuries [NIOSH 1989b].
- Case No. 4–One Death
On December 20, 1988, a 26-year-old male sheet metal mechanic died when he was knocked through a roof opening and fell to a concrete floor 22 feet below. The victim and one coworker were preparing to install a 75-pound, 54-inch-square steel cap over a 50-inch-square opening on the roof of a manufacturing plant. The men placed the cap so that it leaned against a metal structure on the roof 34 inches from the edge of the roof opening. The victim then moved between the cap and the roof opening and stooped over to apply caulking to the 6-inch raised curb of the opening. A gust of wind dislodged the cap, which struck the victim and knocked him headfirst through the roof opening [NIOSH 1989c].
- Case No. 5–One Death
On April 18, 1989, a 39-year-old male electrician’s helper died when he fell through a domed, smoke-vent skylight (see Figure 1) to a concrete floor 16 feet below. Using a 1-inch-diameter rope, the victim and one coworker had lowered an old electric sign to the ground from the side of an unoccupied single-story building. The victim stayed on the roof to coil the rope while the coworker went to load the sign onto a truck. Approximately 7 minutes after leaving the victim on the roof, the coworker entered the building and observed the victim lying on the concrete floor beneath a shattered skylight. Apparently the victim either sat on or fell into the skylight, which collapsed under his weight [NIOSH 1989d]. The victim suffered massive head injuries and was pronounced dead at the scene.
- Case No. 6–One Death
On May 12, 1986, a 21-year-old male laborer died when he fell through a domed, smoke-vent skylight to a concrete floor 27 feet below. The victim had been throwing old roofing materials off a roof with six unguarded skylights. During a work break, the victim sat down on one of the skylights, which began to break under his weight. As he attempted to raise himself from the skylight with his arms, the plastic dome failed completely and he fell. Officials from the State of Maryland Occupational Safety and Health Administration reported that the victim had been warned by his supervisor and coworkers not to sit on skylights [MOSH 1986].
- Case No. 7–One Death
On July 30, 1986, a 37-year-old male roofer died after he stepped through a partially covered skylight opening and fell 27 feet below. Along with seven other workers, the victim was installing rolled rubber roofing material on a large building. The roof contained 35 unguarded 4- by 4-foot openings where domed smoke-vent skylights were to be installed. While handling a roll of roofing material, the victim stepped back and fell through an opening that had been partially covered by another roll of roofing material. He died the following day [MOSH 1987a].
- Case No. 8–One Death
On March 6, 1987, a 26-year-old male roofer died when he fell through a domed smoke-vent skylight to a concrete floor 25 feet below. The victim and two coworkers were installing a spray-on roof covering. The two coworkers were applying sealant, and the victim was applying granular material. As the victim stepped back, he stumbled over the curb of a skylight, lost his balance, and fell backward onto the skylight. The plastic dome fractured under his weight, and he fell to his death [MOSH 1987b].
Although current OSHA standards require employees to guard both skylights and roof openings, these standards were being violated in each case reviewed in this Alert. Employers and workers may believe that the translucent plastic domes on smoke-vent skylights provide an adequate barrier against falls, but many domes do not [ENR 1989]. Based on the incidents reported here, NIOSH concludes that the increased use of skylights in new construction presents a serious hazard to workers in the construction trades.
NIOSH recommends that the following precautions be taken to prevent fatal falls through skylights, skylight openings, and other roof openings:
- NIOSH urges that all employers and workers strictly adhere to the applicable OSHA regulations.
–Railings or screens guarding all skylights and other openings in roofs must be installed before roofing work begins and must remain in place until construction is completed, in accordance with 29 CFR 1910.23 and 1926.500.
–As required by current OSHA standards [29 CFR 1926.28(a)] and consistent with accepted safe work practices, employers must provide protection against falls before workers begin any operations that include the potential for serious falls.
–Where conventional protective devices such as guardrails or safety belts/harnesses with lanyards may not be practical, employers must provide alternative forms of protection against falls such as fixed covers, catch platforms, or safety nets as described in 29 CFR 1926.105. All of the construction-related fatalities described here could have been prevented had appropriate safety netting been securely in place directly below the roof openings. Nets are especially useful because they provide passive protection for workers–that is, the protection does not depend on workers to recognize the hazard and take appropriate protective action. In construction operations, netting can be installed when the roof openings are made and left in place until all construction activities are complete or until more permanent guards are installed.
Construction workers are frequently blamed for workplace falls based upon not remaining as alert to fall hazards as they might normally be. It is important to remember than many of these workers are subject to overexertion, exhaustion, repetitive tasks, poor lighting conditions, physically demanding tasks that are not performed with concern for ergonomics. These are some of the most common causes and contributing factors in workplace falls. The risk of injury under these work conditions is high. If workplace safety is a true concern, we must address these factors rather than continue to blame workers.
Types of Injuries That Frequently Result From Workplace Falls, Skylights Collapses, and Roof Failures
Many falls result in fatal injuries, but nonfatal serious injuries resulting from workplace falls can also be catastrophic.
- head injuries
- broken bones
- traumatic brain injuries
Basic Precautions That Could Be Taken To Make Skylight and Roof Opening Falls Less Likely To Occur
In many instances of roof opening and skylight falls, we see commons causes and a failure to follow basic safety protocols. Falls are among the most common workplace injuries, and they have been extensively studied and documented. We know how they occur and what types of safety equipment and measures will reduce the occurrence of workplace falls.
- Employers should assure that all workers required to work near roof openings or skylights are adequately trained to recognize the serious hazard of falls (even from relatively low heights) through roof openings, and the danger of sitting or stepping on skylights.
- Manufacturers or purchasers of skylights should affix conspicuous decals to each skylight, warning individuals against sitting or stepping on these units.
- Manufacturers should modify the design of skylights to strengthen them sufficiently to support the weight of a worker who steps, sits, or falls on one. If such changes would adversely affect the smoke-venting capacity of the skylight, a dome-shaped protective grillwork over the skylight should be considered.
If you have been seriously injured or a loved one has been catastrophically injured or killed in a workplace fall, skylight failure, or roof opening collapse, our workers’ compensation and personal injury lawyers can help. If you’re worried about the next steps to take, call our office today to schedule a free, no-strings-attached consultation.
If you or a loved one has been injured (or killed) as a result of a fall through a skylight or other roof opening, it is critical that you retain an experienced personal injury lawyer with knowledge of the applicable OSHA, National Safety Council, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Bureau of Labor Statistics, and other applicable agencies that promulgate rules and regulations related to roof openings.
- To search the top violations of an industry with a specific NAICS code, see https://www.osha.gov/pls/imis/citedstandard.html
- To search and view the industry profile for violations of any specific OSHA standard, see https://www.osha.gov/pls/imis/industryprofile.html