By Gabriel Wolff
I've been doing construction for years. But when it comes to working on roofs, I move slowly and hang on tight. That practice has earned me the nickname Rafter Sloth from my fellow crew members and kept me working mostly on the ground level. Keeping up the pace on a professional roofing crew, I found, requires that you walk that fine line between productivity and regard for your personal safety.
First on my mind -- as on most roofers -- is the risk of falls. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, falls from roofs killed 186 workers in 2006, and falls from ladders, scaffolding or staging killed another 217.
Andrew Seminerio, a foreman with more than 20 years of construction experience who works for a well-established roofing contractor in California's central coast, can certainly testify to the danger of falls. "For the first four years I worked here, we didn't have a single fall. In the last year we've had three," he says. None of the falls were fatal, but all three workers fell onto concrete surfaces and suffered broken bones. Significantly, the employees who fell were inexperienced laborers with little or no safety training, and each of the falls was easily preventable. "One guy went up a ladder that was set up too steep and fell backwards; the other two stepped on tar paper before it was fastened to the roof, and it just slipped out from under them," Seminerio says.
Every fall was from a single-story roof, where according to Seminerio, people tend to let their guard down and take more risks. "When we change to buildings two stories high," he explains, "everybody realizes they can really get hurt." Of the three men that were injured during falls, two have returned to work. The third, who suffered a broken leg, is no longer able to perform his job.
Getting to know the roof
Generally speaking, roofs can be separated into two basic types: "low slope" and "steep," each involving a distinct set of safety concerns.
Steep roofs range from medium slopes to almost vertical surfaces. Typically covered with shingles of various types, clay tiles, or a variety of metal products, they keep out the rain from the majority of suburban and rural homes. Just walking around on a slanted surface for hours at a time can wreak havoc on your legs and back. Add to that a sawdust-covered roof deck and a bundle of shingles on your back weighing up to a hundred pounds, the force of gravity, and constant pressure to get the job done, and you have a good recipe for potential injury.
On the surface, a low slope roof seems benign in comparison. As you can imagine, moving around is relatively easy. But that feature alone may pose the greatest danger to roofers. They can become so comfortable that they literally walk right off unguarded edges -- or step into unprotected skylights, skylight holes, or other roof openings.
Under its Fall Protection Standard, OSHA requires employers to protect their workers from such injuries by providing guardrails, safety nets, or personal "fall arrest systems" for anyone working on surfaces with unprotected edges that are higher than 6 feet above the next level. Employees must also be protected from falls through roof holes and skylights by the use of guardrails and covers. In spite of these OSHA regulations, between October 1998 and September 1999, roofing contractors led a long list of industry groups cited for violations of the Fall Protection Standard. (I must confess that this came as little surprise to me, since in all my years of working for residential building contractors, guardrails on a roof have been few and far between.)
Besides the risk of falls, there are plenty of other hazards to keep in mind, no matter what type of roof you're on. Pneumatic nail guns and staplers -- standard tools of the roofing trade -- are certainly near the top of the list. "Guys just seem to lose respect for them," Seminerio says. "A while back, one guy nailed his foot right to the roof. He had to use a cat's paw (crowbar) to get the nail out."
And the list goes on, from sheetmetal cuts to sunburns and particle inhalation to lead poisoning and hot tar. When you waterproof a flat, low-slope roof, for example, you generally have to use hot tar to "glue" on continuous layers of waterproof material. If you've ever held your breath while stuck in traffic behind a roofer towing a tar kettle, imagine slathering the stuff around with a mop day in and day out. Besides exposure to fumes, hot-moppers run a constant risk of burns as they sling onto the roof bucketsful of melted tar heated to over 450 degrees F. In addition, studies have also suggested coal tar fumes can increase the risk of cancer.
Safety tips for roofers
Here are some tips for roofers on how to reduce your chances of getting hurt on the job:
Above all, remember that personal safety is a personal matter. If it doesn't feel safe to you, don't do it.
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
Established in 1970 by the Occupational Safety and Health Act, NIOSH is a federal research agency which makes recommendations to help employers prevent job-related injuries and illnesses.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
Part of the Department of Labor, OSHA develops and enforces safety and health regulations in the workplace.
Stern FB, Ruder AM, Chen G. Proportionate mortality among unionized roofers and waterproofers. Am J Ind Med. 2000 May;37(5):478-92.
Riala R, Heikkila P, Kanerva L. A questionnaire study of road pavers' and roofers' work-related skin symptoms and bitumen exposure. Int J Dermatol. 1998 Jan;37(1):27-30.
Bureau of Labor Statistics. National census of fatal occupational injuries in 2006. August 9, 2007.
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