Being a solar contractor can mean spending a lot of time on rooftops. With industry tailwinds from federal subsidies, this market is expected to grow, so that means more solar installer boots on commercial roofs.
There are safety risks at any worksite, but commercial rooftops have a set of unique hazards and the inherent risk of working at height. Despite being flat in many cases, commercial roofs still pose fall risks, but there are industry guidelines and safety equipment to mitigate the dangers of working on these rooftops.
Identifying fall risks
The most obvious location for fall risk is the roof’s edge, but there are other common trip hazards found on commercial rooftops like around ladders, rooftop hatches, skylights, and vents that contractors should be aware of.
“Depending on the solar installation, you might have a lot of dunnage and a lot of other steel work on there that someone will have to walk over, which could be a trip hazard,” said Julian Adams, digital marketing specialist with Simplified Safety, a safety equipment distributor. “You want to make sure you have appropriate ways to get around that.”
OSHA notes that installing solar minimizes the amount of walking area on a roof, putting people in more frequent contact with trip hazards. TPO, or thermoplastic polyolefin, is a common roofing membrane used on commercial and industrial buildings. Like other surfaces, it’s prone to becoming slippery when wet or covered in ice.
Then there are pitched commercial roofs. Depending on the angle of the roof, contractors will have to secure themselves with lanyards to attachment points. On corrugated metal roofs, the seams between roofing panels are another trip hazard to be mindful of.
Industry guidelines and equipment
When working on commercial roofs, contractors should consult OSHA, International Building Code and any relevant local building regulations. OSHA’s general rule (1910.28) for working on elevated surfaces like commercial roofs is to have a fall protection system, meaning a guardrail, safety net or personal fall protection system like a harness.
Guardrails must be 42 in. tall, give or take 3 in., when installed on the work surface and must withstand 200 lbs of force. If the roof already has a parapet that is this height, then a guardrail isn’t necessary. Safety nets extend 8 ft off the side of a building and must us a mesh with gaps no larger than 6 in.
Personal fall protection, like body belts or harnesses, are straps a person wears that can attach to tie-off points using lanyards and carabiners to secure them while working at heights. These are common on pitched roofs and in the residential solar installation market.
Simplified Safety specializes in connecting contractors with whatever fall safety equipment they need for their worksite and can familiarize workers with the products. Adams said that solar contractors can feasibly install safety equipment themselves after being trained, and that they should consider building permanent fall protection systems on commercial roofs.
“One of the things with contractors doing solar installations is once they’re done, maintenance and other things are going to need to happen on that roof anyway,” he said. “So having a permanent fall protection system installed before they even do their installation often makes sense.”
As another layer of safety, SUNation Energy, a commercial solar contractor serving the Long Island region of New York, uses a monitoring system composed of high-visual rope and flags to highlight the space within 6 ft of a roof’s boundary.
“Anytime a worker goes outside of that 6 ft boundary on a flat roof, they have to wear full fall protection, be completely roped up and make sure that there’s a spotter,” said Beth Graziani, director of commercial operations at SUNation.
OSHA requires a “competent person,” or an expert on rooftop safety, to determine what safety measures must be taken to work at a site. SUNation outsources its safety inspections to a service called 2SAFE Consulting. After the company’s contractors have installed safety equipment on the worksite, 2SAFE will inspect it. The service also makes routine stops at active construction sites to ensure everything is staying up to code.
“As a company, you always want to push and get things done, and it’s a nice way to have somebody just looking to make sure that everything is done correctly and that everybody is safe,” Graziani said. “I always like knowing that somebody else is going there, even though I’m pushing them to make sure that they’re always doing the right thing. But they always know someone could possibly show up, so it’s like having that extra parent.”
One fall risk unique to solar installation is related to handling solar modules. PV panels continue to grow in scale and watts, the former making them more prone to wind uplift. A common practice at SUNation is using two tie-off points while handling solar panels, one for the contractor and the other for the panel, so that neither are at risk of falling from a great height.
Working on commercial rooftops isn’t a new practice among construction trades and using the many resources available to these industries — be it equipment or workplace safety guidelines — can better protect solar contractors.
“The most important thing is that you know what the safety plan is and what tools you have to do your job safely,” Adams said.