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Red Light for Roofers

All roofers know to be careful on a steep housetop or two-story Victorian. A bigger danger is getting so complacent on a low, flat roof that you end up walking right off the edge.

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:

  • Protect yourself from falls. No matter how experienced you are, it never pays to get complacent.
  • Use ladders correctly. Set up your ladder on a level surface at an angle consistent with the manufacturer's specifications. Extend the ladder 3 feet above the working surface, and tie the top securely to the roof. Always inspect the ladder before climbing it, and use another if it's damaged.
  • Prevent nasty burns. Wear protective clothing, gloves, and goggles whenever soldering gutters or working with hot tar. Keep fire extinguishers at hand and fully charged. Never operate a tar kettle without the proper training. Overheating tar poses a serious threat to your life.
  • Know when to use a respirator. Particle masks work great when used for their intended purpose: to protect you from regular dust. Use them only during roof tear-offs and cleanups. Too often they give a false sense of security: When it comes to tar fumes, organic solvents, or lead vapors, use only respirators designed specifically to protect you from such hazards and follow the manufacturer's instructions carefully.
  • Guard your sight. Protect your eyes from debris, burns, and the sun's rays with safety goggles that block ultraviolet radiation.
  • Watch out for cuts and lacerations. Though often difficult to avoid altogether, protective clothing can help. Try gloves without fingertips for hand protection and sensitivity. Never use dull blades.
  • Avoid lead poisoning. Lead solder and flashing are still commonly used by some roofers. Gloves, goggles, lead vapor respirators, and careful cleanup practices can reduce your exposure to this hazardous metal. Avoid contaminating your vehicle, home, and family members by changing out of your work clothes before leaving work.
  • Cover up. "If you're tanned, you're toast," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reduce your risk of skin cancer by covering up with clothing, sunscreen, hats, and UV blocking eyewear. Drink plenty of water throughout the day, and get off the roof at the first sign of dizziness. A steep roof is no place to faint.
  • Prepare yourself. From power saws to pneumatic nail guns, forklifts to dump trucks, never use equipment without proper training. Read instruction manuals and take full advantage of the equipment's safety features.

Above all, remember that personal safety is a personal matter. If it doesn't feel safe to you, don't do it.

Further Resources

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.

http://www.cdc.gov/niosh

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

Part of the Department of Labor, OSHA develops and enforces safety and health regulations in the workplace.

http://www.osha.gov

References

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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