In a recent incident an employee was on a roof conducting routine preventive maintenance on a refrigeration unit. As he walked around on the roof, he accidentally stepped on a skylight and broke through. He fell 25 feet to a cement warehouse floor and was hospitalized with severe injuries.

Look up in almost any public building these days and you will see a skylight. If they are not guarded properly skylights can be a source of falls and deaths. The most recent National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) alert on preventing falls says that 808 people died in the workplace from falls; of which 23 were falls through skylights.

Of course, most people would never intentionally stand or put themselves in a position to fall through a skylight. However, mistakes happen quickly and often when not paying attention to the task at hand. The most-common skylight accident scenarios involve workers shoveling snow off an overloaded roof or being fatigued after working on a hot day. There are regulatory requirements for skylight designs that pertain to safety. And if you happen to work in a facility that contains noncompliant skylights, consider pointing out the problem to the facility manager and suggesting a retrofit.

You can bolster your case with a quick Google search. You’ll find many examples of large settlements where workers have fallen through unprotected skylights. Several vendors design retrofit kits that will bring existing skylights up to spec.

OSHA’s skylight requirements for general industry can be found in 1910.23(e)(8). It states skylight screens shall be of such construction and mounting that they are capable of withstanding a load of at least 200 lb applied perpendicularly at any one area on the screen. OSHA also says that skylights must be of such construction and mounting that under ordinary loads or impacts, they will not deflect downward enough to break the glass below them. And the construction must have grillwork with openings not more than 4-in. long or slatwork with openings not more than 2-in. wide but with an unrestricted length.

For construction, the OSHA standard can be found in 29 CFR 1926.501(b)(4)(i). It states each employee on walking/working surfaces must be protected from the hazard of falling through holes (including skylights) more than 6 feet (1.8 m) above lower levels, by personal fall-arrest systems, covers, or guardrail systems erected around such holes.

Designers should know as well that NIOSH also recommends adding a margin of safety to the 200 lb applied perpendicularly per the OSHA standard. NIOSH estimates that a 200-lb person falling against a skylight could apply 400 to 500 lb of force. In addition, skylight vendors are supposed to attach a danger sign and make sure installation instructions identify fall hazards and required protection.

Here’s the NIOSH Guide: www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2004-156/pdfs/2004-156.pdf

— Joe Tavenner

Joe Tavenner, CSP, CFPS, is a long-time Certified Safety Professional who works in occupational safety and design for safety. Got a question about safety? You can reach Joe at josephtavenner@yahoo.com.

Edited by Leland Teschler