Skylight Falls Rampant in Snowy New England; Industry Discussing Fall Resistance

The New England area has gotten pounded with snow the past couple weeks, and it’s not only the roads that have succumbed to accidents. There has been an alarming number of incidents involving skylights in the past week alone—and at least one fatality, according to various police and media reports.

Last Wednesday, a mechanical worker fell through a skylight at a mall in Auburn, Maine, sustaining serious injuries. That same day, a custodian at a high school in Smithfield, R.I., fell approximately 12 feet while tending to snow concerns. And on Friday, a Burlington, Mass., town employee fell approximately 35 feet after stepping through a skylight at a warehouse, sustaining serious injuries. Saturday, a worker in Avon, Mass., fell 35 feet through a skylight, and Sunday, a worker in Canton, Mass., tragically fell 40 feet to his death. According to the Canton Police and Fire Department, the worker was alongside another person “assessing snow removal operations.” The victim walked across a skylight that was covered with snow and fell through. It was the second death from a roof fall in Canton in just five days.

“As we have been communicating this week, we urge people to use extreme caution while attempting to clear snow and ice from their roofs,” reads a statement from the Department. “We recommend homeowners contact professionals to assist with snow removal and whenever possible to work in teams of at least two people. These tragic and deadly incidents highlight unprecedented concerns and hidden dangers that have come with the brutal weather conditions we have been experiencing.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which reportedly has been contacted about the aforementioned accidents, as well as another skylight fall incident last week in Georgia, published a Hazard Alert in 2012 titled “Falls and Other Hazards to Workers Removing Snow from Rooftops and Other Elevated Surfaces.” The document breaks down accident prevention methods, reiterates employer safety requirements and addresses potential dangers, including “a snow-covered skylight,” which has been the culprit of the many incidents of late.

“Every year, workers are killed or seriously injured while performing snow or ice removal from rooftops and other building structures, such as decks,” the document reads. “OSHA has investigated 16 such serious injuries or fatalities in the past 10 years—all of which could have been prevented.”

If this latest week is any indication, the issue—particularly pertaining to skylights—may be much bigger than OSHA previously considered.

“One thing we find is there’s not a lot of great federal tracking of falls in skylights: The specifics of the circumstances and the products are often not there,” says Chris Magnuson, first vice president of the Skylight/Sloped Glazing Council and a member of the AAMA Skylight Fall Protection Task Group. “We’re having trouble getting our arms around how extensive the problem is. Two in one week like this is unusual. The frequency of our research was two to three dozen a year, nationwide. There are millions of skylights on roofs in the United States. Millions.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Reports do not indicate what type of skylights were involved. USGlass magazine is further looking into how the types (plastic glazing, glass, etc.) dictate testing, strength, etc.

The Glass Association of North America (GANA) addressed the concern in 2012 in a bulletin titled “Skylights and Sloped Glazing are Not Walking Surfaces,” which reads, in part, “Installation and maintenance of skylights and sloped glazing systems require special consideration to minimize the potential for serious injury or death. While architectural flat glass can be designed and engineered for use as a walking surface, glass typically used in skylights and other sloped glazing applications is rarely designed to support the concentrated weight of live loads such as a human standing or walking on the glass or temporary equipment or structures used in installation, cleaning or maintenance.”

GANA technical director Urmilla Sowell says the international standards organization ASTM is currently working on establishing a new test method for human impact on commercial skylights. Its purpose, according to the scope, is “To develop a standard for the purpose of establishing fall resistance criteria and a test method that will simulate falls of persons onto unit skylights and related products installed onto low-slope roofs. A consensus based upon standard practices, standard impact test methods, materials commonly used, and risk assessment will be the basis for developing this human fall resistance specification and test method. Exploration of meaningful certification and/or labeling will be examined.”

John Westerfield, AAMA Skylight Fall Protection Task Group chair, adds that the fall protection specification and method “is not that far off.”

“In general, it is a straight forward impact test utilizing an existing drop bag,” he says. “The topic that we continue to get hung up on is the durability of materials. We have spent quite a bit of time and effort reviewing all possible options to validate the durability of plastic glazing through existing and trusted outdoor exposure and accelerated weathering test procedures.

“Currently, the draft includes some rather strict language in the draft document. However, some are still concerned with the inclusion of plastic glazing due to a wide variety of reasons, some valid and some may not be. We will be addressing this issue head on during out next [conference] call, to come to a decision on how to proceed–in order to bring this draft up to the committee level.”

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