Safe Solutions

Roof hatch access

At nearly all roofing job sites, rooftop access presents concerns for roofing contractors. One common building component for rooftop access that can be particularly problematic is a roof hatch.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, one-third of the 680 occupational fatalities reported in 2008 involved falls from roofs or ladders. And falls through roof openings and skylights continue to result in fatalities. A roof hatch can combine ladder use (fixed or portable) and a roof opening.

When your employees are accessing a rooftop by means of a roof hatch, you must recognize that a hatch's design and condition and the available means to access it can result in increased fall exposures, and appropriate precautions must be taken.

Some hazards

According to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations, fall protection must be provided on a fixed ladder (which is an integrated part of a building structure and cannot be moved) if the length of the climb is 24 feet or more or the top of the fixed ladder is more than 24 feet above a lower level. OSHA ladder rules also require a person ascending or descending any ladder to use at least one hand to hold the ladder. However, no fall protection is required when using portable ladders.

This is of concern because several hazards may be associated with roof hatch access that demand worker precautions.

Opening or closing a hatch often requires using both hands—doing so on a portable ladder, ship's stair or landing may be precarious, and from a vertical fixed ladder it can be deadly. A hatch's weight and condition may demand substantial force to push it open (which can be difficult to do from any ladder) and a rigid support to hold it open to allow safe exit or entry.

Roof hatches also may be installed incorrectly; the direction from which a hatch cover opens may not be oriented correctly with the location of a fixed ladder or restricted placement of a portable ladder. Additionally, a roof hatch opening may be too small to allow a worker to easily pass through the opening and have insufficient handholds to maintain balance and support.

Also of concern: Roof hatches often are located in dark areas of buildings, making it difficult for workers to see locks, handles, grab rails or other mechanisms to assist with operating the hatches.

Taking action

You should inform your employees about roof hatch hazards and some means to avoid them. I suggest the following:

  • Supply workers with portable, free-standing temporary lighting or head-strap flashlights to illuminate dark access areas and keep hands free to operate hatches.
  • Personal fall-arrest systems may provide some protection on fixed ladders even if a ladder is not equipped with integrated vertical lifeline safety devices. A fixed ladder or ship's stair may have suitable points where a lanyard snaphook could be attached to provide some measure of protection when a hatch is being opened or secured.
  • Avoid having workers carry any tools, materials or other equipment in their hands when accessing a roof hatch. Use a rope to hoist any tools in a bucket or container once the hatch cover is secured and the roof has been accessed.
  • Never rely on hatch hardware, latches or handles to support a worker's weight or balance him or her on a ladder or stair. Hatch components may not have sufficient strength to support a worker.

Protect workers

If you have maintenance agreements with building owners, you should stress the importance of keeping roof hatches in proper condition and replacing those that operate poorly or have missing or damaged mechanisms or hardware.

Building owners also have a perfect opportunity to replace damaged roof hatches when roof system replacement work is being considered—such preventive maintenance will serve to protect many workers requiring access to roofs.

Harry Dietz is NRCA's director of risk management.


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