Working on a roof safely

Working on a roof is a dangerous occupation. Generally, falls in general account for more deaths and serious injuries in construction, with falls from roofs being most common at 24% of all falls. Any work at height is high risk, and roof safety systems should always be used. Precautions may vary from job to job, depending on its nature, but high safety standards are always needed.

The law

• There is a range of law relevant to roof work safety. The principal elements are:
• The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974;
• The Work at Height Regulations 2005;
• The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999;
• The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007;
• The Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998; and
• The Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998

The Work at Height Regulations 2005 should always be used when working at height to plan the work. It lays out a hierarchy of the different measures that can be taken, and where work must be undertaken at height, it specifies the use of safety equipment. This includes the use of safety nets, roof safety harnesses and suitable roof anchor systems.

Roof Safety

Roof ladder safety system
Working on roofs is very perilous, even if it is ‘popping up for a quick look’. People should always be trained, competent, and fully aware of all the necessary risks and how to mitigate them. Contractors should always explain and agree the methods needed for undertaking the work safely to clients.

Key issues are:
• Safe access to roofs
• Roof edges and openings
• Fragile surfaces

What you need to know

Everyone involved in managing or carrying out work on roofs should be aware of the following facts:
High risks: almost one in five deaths in construction relate to roof work. This is not only people who are cleaning or checking roofs – like homeowners or maintenance people, but also professional roofers who have failed to adhere to roof safety procedures or are not using the correct roof safety equipment, like working on roof without scaffolding.
Main causes: the main causes of death and injury are falling from roof edges or openings, through fragile roofs and through fragile rooflights. Deaths and injury are mainly caused by falling from roof ages or openings, through fragile materials or rooflights.
Equipment and people: Most accidents could be avoided through proper training and the use of appropriate safety equipment.

Safe access to roofs

How to access the roof should be planned in advance to ensure the use of the safest access method for the work being undertaken.

Typical methods to access roofs are:
• general access scaffolds;
• stair towers;
• fixed or mobile scaffold towers;
• mobile access equipment;
• ladders; and
• roof access hatches.

Roof edges and openings

Falls from roof edges occur on both commercial and domestic projects, on new builds and refurbishment jobs, sometimes due to working on roof without scaffolding. Many deaths occur each year involving smaller builders working on the roof of domestic dwellings.
It would be easy to assume that most falls occur from commercial buildings, they are often taller, and may contain more fragile materials than domestic roofs. However, many of the deaths occur in residential buildings, whether new builds or refurbishments. Sloping roofs are highly dangerous, and edge protection is needed for larger jobs, whilst shorter term work (minutes rather than hours) should always use properly secured ladders to access the roof and specially designed roof ladders on the roof itself. It may seem more cost efficient to use ladders on work that only lasts for a day, but the risk of injury and death should out way concerns about cost. Flat roofs should always use the simple protections of a secure double guardrail and toeboard around the edge.

Fragile surfaces

Fragile garage roof
All roofs should be treated as fragile surfaces, until a properly trained person confirms they are not. No sheeted roof should be trusted to bear the weight of a worker. Always follow a safe system of work using a platform beneath the roof where possible. Work on or near fragile roof surfaces requires a combination of stagings, guard rails, fall restraint, fall arrest and safety nets slung beneath and close to the roof. Roof lights are a particular hazard, as they can be obscured by light conditions, be recessed, or concealed by paint. Roof should be carefully inspected to ascertain if they are present. This should always be done using the maximum precautions necessary. When they are found, they should be surrounded by barriers, or covers should be used, with a warning label.

Personal Protective Equipment

At a minimum, safety wear should include
Appropriate trousers – working on roofs means protecting legs from cuts, grazes and splinters, so shorts are not recommended.
Protective footwear. Steel toecaps (or equivalent) are needed to protect against dropped objects. Midsole protection is needed to prevent puncture or penetration by nails and other sharp materials. Rigger boots should be avoided, as they can cause sprains and there have been reports of cement burns.
• High visibility clothing is needed on all construction sites where there are vehicles. However, it is good practice to wear it on all jobs.
• Safety helmets. There are two reasons to wear safety helmets when working on roofs. The first is to protect against anything that may fall off the roof, when climbing up or down, or when on the ground. The second is protection in case of a fall.
Safety glasses should always be worn in situations where material is likely to fly into the eyes. This includes all cases where cutting or sawing is taking place.
Knee pads should also be considered, to protect the knees from strain and damage, due to compression and wear on the joint.
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Summer and Winter

In summer, sunscreen should be used to protect against sunburn and skin damage, that in the long term could lead to skin cancer.
In winter, warm clothing, that gives freedom of movement should be worn – like jackets and fleeces, hats and gloves. Being cold increases the likely hood of falls, as it numbs sensation, causing people to loose their grip, stumble or trip.
Precautions for all roof work
Risk assessment and method statements
All work to be carried out should be risk assessed. Simple work may need very little; complex jobs should always be assessed in depth. Risks must be identified before work begins and all precautions and equipment in place before the work starts. Always remember to avoid working at height if possible, even if it seems more complicated than just getting on the roof.
In terms of accessing the roof suitable methods must be used. For simple jobs this may be a roof ladder, for more complicated jobs, working on roof without scaffolding is not recommended.

Edge protection

guard rail roof
Adequate edge protection is needed for anything but the quickest and simple jobs – remember a short term job is measured as a few minutes, not hours.
• a main guard rail of at least 950 mm above the edge;
• a toeboard and brickguard - when there is risk of objects being kicked off the edge of the platform;
• Intermediate guard rails or suitable alternatives with a gap of less than 470 mm.
A parapet may provide suitable protection but should be carefully assessed.

Work platforms

A secure working platform is needed where the roof does not provide this. For example, working on a chimney on a pitched roof.

Fall mitigation

If the platform and edge protection are not enough for real safe working, safety nets or soft landing systems, such as bean bags or inflatable air bags, should be used to help mitigate the risks of falling.
Nets must be installed by competent riggers
Personal fall arrest systems such as harnesses, do not prevent falls but only minimize the consequences for the individual worker. They require a strong anchorage point, user training and regular monitoring by management. This includes inspecting equipment to make sure it is safe to be used – for example, checking wear and tear on ropes.

Falling material

Rubbish chute on roofing site
Material should not be left to accumulate on the roof (or on the site in general)
Never throw anything from a roof or scaffold – instead use enclosed rubbish chutes or lower material to the ground in containers
Prevent access to danger areas underneath or adjacent to roof work or use other suitable safeguards when this is not possible. Work in public areas should be carried on whenever possible when the people are less likely to be around. – For example work on schools should be carried out in the holidays. Where this is not possible, nets or similar should be used to catch falling materials.


Competence in the installation and use of safety measures is vital. All people working on a site should have suitable training and knowledge of both risks of working at height and how to prevent death and injury both to themselves and others.

Weather conditions

roof in the rain
The Work at Height Regulations 2005 specifically state that work should not be carried out if weather conditions could endanger the health and safety of workers. This includes, rain, ice, wind, and if possible extremely hot weather (due to the risks of dehydration, sunburn and inability to see clearly due to excessively bright light, that may bounce of roofing surfaces).

Short-duration work

Short-duration work includes tasks such as inspection, replacing a few tiles or minor adjustments of a television aerial.
The minimum requirements are
• a safe means of access to the roof level;
• on a sloping roof, a properly constructed roof ladder,
• or on a flat roof, a harness attached to a secure anchorage, with a short enough lanyard to prevent an actual fall off the roof i.e. no part of the body leaves the roof.
Mobile access equipment may avoid the need for scaffolding, and are often appropriate for short-duration minor work.