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What We Learn from OSHA’s Enforcement of Roof Fall Violations

Roof Falls and Safety Measures

Roof falls are a common source of serious injuries and death. OSHA Investigates Many of these cases.

Falls are the leading cause of death on construction sites. Some of these workers fall off of the roof. In addition, painters and roofers are also at risk of roof falls.

The unfortunate fact is that many of these deaths are avoidable if the employer follows Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules that are intended to protect the workers.

However, the construction industry tends to cut corners when it comes to occupational safety measures. This is a problem in both commercial and residential construction.

Roof Falls Are One of the Most Common Injuries

Falls from roofs are the most common type of fall injury that workers suffer. In general, OSHA statistics show that falls account for roughly a third of the construction deaths.

From 1992-2009, a census of fatal occupational injuries conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that roof falls accounted for approximately one-third of the construction fall fatalities in the United States. In other words, roof falls are the cause in approximately one out of every ten construction deaths.

Common Causes of Roof Fall Injuries and Deaths

A number of different things can cause fatal falls from roofs.

Here are few examples:

  • Roofing contractors can trip over tools that were left on the roof or other debris and can fall over the side.
  • The employer may not have the proper guardrails or safety harnesses that can prevent falls either off the roof or to a lower level.
  • Workers can slip on a wet or icy roof when they are working in adverse conditions.
  • The roof can collapse if it is flimsy or unstable.
  • The employers may use bad judgment in having employees working on the roof during windy conditions.

OSHA Guidelines to Protect Construction Employees

There are a number of different OSHA rules that exist to protect employees and independent contractors who are working on roofs. These guidelines impose affirmative obligations that employers must follow. OSHA has an entire Subpart that is devoted to fall protection.

  • Any laborers who are working above a certain height must be provided with
  • Employers must assess the environment to see if fall protection is required. When working on a roof, the employee is working at sufficient height that the employer will need to provide fall protection. (29 CFR 1926.501)
  • The fall protection must comply with OSHA rules. Generally, this means that the employer must erect a guardrail, provide a safety net or a personal fall arrest system.
  • OSHA rules to prevent falls from roofs depend on whether the roof has a low or steep slope. This will dictate the type of fall protection that is required.
  • The employer has some ability to choose which type of fall protection to provide based on the type of activity.
  • Employers must provide a fall protection safety training program to workers who might be exposed to fall hazards. 29 CFR 1926.503(a)(1)

Lack of Fall Protection Is a Common OSHA Violation

In fact, in fiscal year 2018, fall protection was on the list of the top ten rule violations for which OSHA penalized employers. Specifically, the problem was that employers in the roofing industry did not provide adequate fall protection at their worksite.

It is generally very easy for OSHA to determine that an employer has failed to comply with fall protection rules. It does not require a great deal of investigation for OSHA to find that there was inadequate protection.

In some cases, OSHA can assess heavy penalties and fines in the event of egregious violations. The larger the OSHA fine, the more of a possibility has that an injured worker or their estate has to sue the employer for gross negligence. OSHA has an egregious citation policy that will greatly increase the amount of fines for certain violations.

Large OSHA Enforcement Actions

Here are some examples of violations for which OSHA will penalize an employer:

  • 2018 fine for $1.007 million in Florida – On the 19th investigation of one particular commercial roofing company that OSHA performed, the regulator threw the book at the company with a steep fine. The employees were found to be working for the roofer without fall protection. The company had previously received 42 citations from OSHA. After this investigation, the employer was placed in the Severe Violator Enforcement Program.
  • 2016 fine for $307,824 in Ohio – This was the fifth investigation in two years where the employer received citations for fall protection violations. In addition to not having adequate fall protection, the employer was cited for not properly extending ladders to avoid falls.
  • 2018 fine for $149,662 in Florida – The company received a fine for a repeat violation for a failure to provide fall protection. The company also failed to maintain written certification records verifying fall protection training was provided.

As you can see, OSHA will progressively increase the fines the more the company violates rules. The regulator will steeply punish repeat violators who have a history of egregious failures to follow rules.

In looking at the actual OSHA investigation results, the one thing that is clearly obvious is that roof falls are almost always fatal. In fact, every OSHA roof fall investigation dating back to March 2019 has involved a fatality. When an employee falls from height, there is an overwhelming chance that they will not survive.

What Happens in OSHA Investigations

Nearly every single OSHA enforcement action reads the exact same way when it comes to a roof fall. In nearly every enforcement action, the employer did not provide the proper fall protection.

Here are the most common types of roof fall accidents as apparent from OSHA enforcement actions:

  • The employee falls off the roof because they lack guardrails or the proper personal fall protection equipment.
  • The employee falls through the roof. Sometimes, this can be a fall through a skylight. Other times, there is an uncovered hole in the roof.
  • The employee slips on the roof and falls. Often, the employer does not have the proper fall protection.

Too Many Construction Workers Die Unnecessarily from Roof Falls

Roof falls are one of the most common yet preventable accidents. All it takes is an investment in proper fall measures and equipment along with training and nearly all of these injuries can be prevented. However, hundreds of people die each year in roof falls for reasons that are largely avoidable.

Many of these cases involve negligence that is so profound that the estate is able to file a negligence lawsuit against the employer instead of having to go through the workers’ compensation system.

When their conduct is bad enough, construction companies can be held legally accountable, In any event, injured workers can qualify for workers’ compensation benefits.