In this article
Roofs play an important role in safeguarding structures from weather elements such as rain, snow and sunlight. Without roofers, buildings would be vulnerable to leaks, structural damage and compromised energy efficiency. Roofers are employed by roofing contractors and construction companies, and sometimes work as independent contractors. They specialise in the installation, repair and maintenance of roofs, ensuring that roofs are structurally sound, weatherproof, and provide adequate protection for buildings and their occupants. Roofers work in a variety of environments and need to maintain their own safety, as well as the safety of the area and the people around them. It is important that they know what safety issues to be aware of and how to observe and promote safety at work.
What is the role of a roofer?
Working as a roofer can involve anything from repairing a single tile or slate on a domestic property to re-roofing entire public buildings such as schools, working on large-scale housing projects, or installing the roofs on large commercial buildings. The duties and responsibilities of a roofer can vary depending on the specific project and work environment, and usually fall into the following functions:
- Repair and Maintenance – roofers are skilled in identifying and repairing various roofing issues. They may inspect roofs for damage, leaks or deterioration and perform necessary repairs or replacements. This can involve fixing damaged cladding, repairing or replacing flashing, sealing leaks or patching holes. Roofers also perform routine maintenance tasks such as checking for weather damage, cleaning gutters, removing debris, and inspecting for signs of wear and tear.
- Installation – roofers are responsible for installing new roofs on buildings. This involves measuring and cutting roofing materials to fit the roof’s dimensions, laying down the underlayment, and attaching roofing materials such as cladding, natural or synthetic slate, clay or concrete tiles, or metal panels. They ensure that the materials are properly aligned, secured and weatherproofed to provide a durable and watertight roof. They may also install skylights.
There are, however, some common tasks and responsibilities associated with the role, including but not limited to:
- Using technical drawings and specifications
- Estimating the type and amount of materials needed for the job
- Working out a project timeframe and budget to propose to a customer and interacting with customers
- Working to building regulations
- Using equipment and materials safely while working at a height.
Specialist roofers can work on historic or culturally significant buildings and may create decorative lead or metal items in keeping with the structure.
Roofers often work as part of a team, collaborating with other construction professionals such as contractors, carpenters and electricians. They may need to coordinate with team members to ensure proper sequencing of work and to integrate roofing tasks with other construction activities.
Whatever the environment they work in, a roofer will be responsible for ensuring the safety of their work, tools and any equipment to protect the safety of themselves and other people.
What are the main health and safety risks roofers can encounter?
Falls from height are one of the main causes of death and injury in the construction industry, with roofers accounting for around 24% of deaths. Any work done from a certain height, such as the work of a roofer, comes with all kinds of associated hazards. The biggest risk for roofers is a lack of safe access. This involves more than just having properly secured ladders. Workers must be able to access roofs in the safest way and that includes entering and exiting roofs. Access passages should be well-structured, and strong enough to hold the weight of the roofer, their equipment and other materials.
Typical methods that roofers use to provide safe access to roofs include:
- General access scaffolds – these must be designed, erected, altered and dismantled by competent people.
- Tower scaffolds and stair towers – the manufacturer or hirer must provide an instruction manual explaining how to erect the equipment safely. Anyone erecting the scaffold or tower must be trained and competent.
- Mobile access equipment (mobile elevated working platforms (MEWPs)) – all equipment must be maintained in a safe condition. If being used as a means of access to the roof, safe access from the MEWP to the roof must be an integral part of the equipment’s design.
- Ladders – a third of all falls from height involve ladders and stepladders. Ladders must be appropriate for the task and maintained so that they are safe to use. Anyone using a ladder must be trained in correct selection and usage.
Falls from roof edges occur when there is a lack of necessary control measures in place. The most common falls occur due to unsuitable roof edges, faulty guard rails, or unmarked openings. Sloping and flat roofs will require their own type of roof edges. For example, some sloping roofs may have secure double guard rails and toe boards around the edges.
22% of all fatal accidents are as a result of falls through fragile surfaces. Typical fragile surfaces include roof lights, non-reinforced fibre cement sheets, corroded metal sheets, glass including wired glass, slates and tiles. All roofs should be assumed to be fragile until a competent person has confirmed that they are not.
The Work at Height Regulations 2005 are referred to the most when it comes to planning work at heights. They outline specific measures to follow, as well as suitable safety equipment to use, for example a safety harness, safety nets or roof anchor systems. The type of safety equipment a roofer will need depends on what the job includes. For example, if they are fixing slate and tile roofs, they will require proper scaffolding. But if they are simply cleaning out a drainpipe, an extension ladder may be appropriate. Without compliance with these regulations, roofers are at risk of serious injury, and permanent health damage such as punctured limbs, broken bones, and even death from falling.
Working at height can also pose risks for others, as a worker falling from a height may injure anyone below when they fall. Avoid working directly underneath someone else where possible, and ensure that any tools or materials kept at a height are well secured so they can’t fall or cause harm.
When working at height, always change tools in secure areas where there is no risk of allowing tools to fall, and don’t use tools without attaching them to a work belt when working at height. Tools being used at height should regularly be checked for damage and check that there is no damage to lanyards, carabiners, attachment rings or belts.
Health and safety in roof work is not just limited to falls from height, as roofers are often exposed to extreme weather conditions, especially when they are working over long periods. For roofers working outside, weather conditions such as high winds, heavy rain, or hot weather can all present health and safety risks. Roofers should assess the weather conditions before undertaking work and not undertake the task if conditions are unsuitable.
Too much sunlight, even on cool days, is harmful to the skin. In the short term, even mild reddening of the skin from sun exposure is a sign of damage. Sunburn can blister the skin and make it peel and longer-term problems can arise. Exposure to too much sun speeds up the ageing of the skin, making it leathery, mottled and wrinkled. The most serious effect is an increased chance of developing skin cancer. Roofers should use a high factor sunscreen of at least SPF15 on any exposed skin and, if possible, wear a hat with a brim or a flap that covers the ears and the back of the neck. They should also drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration. Dehydration is an issue for any construction project, and roofers should drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration and keep from working outside at midday, when it is hottest, if possible. On hot, sunny days, roofers should take frequent breaks to prevent overexertion and heat exhaustion.
Manual handling injuries have a major impact on all workplaces and sectors, costing the economy hundreds of millions every year. Manual handling encompasses a wide range of actions including lifting, lowering, pulling, pushing, and carrying awkward and heavy objects; the risks are endless for roofers who may experience manual handling injuries such as:
- Back injuries
- Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) such as shoulder strain
- Repetitive strain injury (RSI) such as wrist strain
- Soft-tissue injuries to the wrists, arms, shoulders, legs or neck
- Long-term pain in the arms, legs or joints
Repetitive strain injury (RSI) can be caused by a variety of tasks at work, such as forceful or repetitive activity, or by poor posture. The condition mostly affects parts of the upper body, such as the forearms, elbows, wrists, hands, shoulders and neck. RSI is usually associated with doing a particular activity repeatedly or for a long period of time. Continuous standing and bending while working is a common source of discomfort and fatigue for roofers. Frequent changes of body positions, including alternating between sitting and standing, help to avoid fatigue. Roofers should be aware that breaks are important elements of the work. Breaks should be used to relax when muscles are tired, to move around when muscles are stiff, and to walk when work restricts the roofer’s ability to change postures or positions.
Equipment presents a significant risk, so a roofer needs to ensure that all tools and equipment that they use in the course of their job are fit for purpose. Ensuring tools are in proper working condition is key to ensuring safety on a job. Inspect all equipment before use and only use if in good working order. Store all equipment in a safe place to ensure it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands and doesn’t become a hazard in the workplace.
The Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 (PUWER) place duties on people and companies who own, operate or have control over work equipment. PUWER also places responsibilities on businesses and organisations whose employees use work equipment, whether owned by them or not. PUWER requires that equipment provided for use at work is:
- Suitable for the intended use.
- Safe for use, maintained in a safe condition and inspected to ensure it is correctly installed and does not subsequently deteriorate.
- Accompanied by suitable health and safety measures, such as protective devices and controls. These will normally include emergency stop devices, adequate means of isolation from sources of energy, clearly visible markings and warning devices.
- Used in accordance with specific requirements.
Generally, any equipment which is used by an employee at work is covered by PUWER, for example hammers, knives, ladders, drilling machines, power presses, circular saws, photocopiers, lifting equipment (including lifts), dumper trucks and motor vehicles. Similarly, workers providing their own equipment will be covered by PUWER and it will need to comply.
In the course of their job, roofers will encounter hazardous substances. These include, but are not limited to:
- Asbestos, for example in cement profiled sheets, guttering, pipes and floor tiles
- Bitumen and asphalt
- Glues and solvents
- Biological hazards
Asbestos was especially useful in insulation such as for pipe lagging and boilers, and can commonly be found in any building that was constructed before the year 2000, so roofers may encounter asbestos during the course of their work. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), asbestos kills around 5,000 workers each year, which is more than the number of people killed on the road, and around 20 trades workers die each week as a result of past exposure.
When materials that contain asbestos are disturbed or damaged, fibres are released into the air. When these fibres are inhaled, they can cause serious diseases. These diseases will not affect you immediately as they often take a long time to develop, but once diagnosed, it is often too late to do anything.
Many cases of inadvertent, short-term exposure to asbestos will most likely have led to minimal exposure to fibres, with little likelihood of any long-term ill health effects. If you are concerned about possible exposure to asbestos from work activities, you are advised to consult your GP and ask for a note to be made in your personal record about possible exposure, including date(s), duration, type of asbestos and likely exposure levels, if known.
The Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 (RIDDOR) place duties on employers, the self-employed and people in control of work premises (the responsible person) to report certain serious workplace accidents, occupational diseases and specified dangerous occurrences (near misses). Exposure to asbestos is reportable under RIDDOR when a work activity causes the accidental release or escape of asbestos fibres into the air in a quantity sufficient to cause damage to the health of any person. Such situations are likely to arise when work is carried out without suitable controls, or where those controls fail.
Workers must be able to recognise asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) and know what to do if they come across them in order to protect themselves and others. Training for asbestos awareness is intended to give workers the information they need to avoid work that may disturb asbestos during any normal work which could disturb the fabric of a building, or another item which might contain asbestos. If a worker is planning to carry out work that will definitely disturb ACMs, further specific information, instruction and training will be needed. Asbestos awareness training is a requirement of regulation 10 of the Control of Asbestos Regulations (2012), and the supporting Approved Code of Practice L143 Managing and Working with Asbestos.
Lead can be found in construction workplaces. It is commonly used as a specialist material and can be present in older buildings in, for example, roofs or pipework. Lead can cause serious health problems such as anaemia or kidney disease and published research has linked exposure to a small number of occupational cancers. If encountering lead, roofers should limit the amount of dust or fumes they create.
The main types of construction dusts that roofers may encounter include silica dust, which is created when working on silica containing materials such as concrete, mortar and sandstone, also known as respirable crystalline silica or RCS, and other general dust which is created when working on other materials containing very little or no silica. The most common include gypsum, for example in plasterboard, and limestone, marble and dolomite. Breathing in any of these can cause lung or nasal cancer, silicosis, serious lung problems such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and asthma. HSE figures show that 800 people lose their lives to cancer every year because they inhale hazardous dust particles. A further 39,000 suffer from respiratory illnesses caused by the same particles.
Bitumen, also known as asphalt, is commonly used in roofing. Hot bitumen work releases fumes containing polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) / particulate, which, when inhaled, can cause irritation of the respiratory tract, eyes and skin, burns, and possibly lung cancer. Materials such as bitumen and asphalt absorb heat and release it slowly, raising the temperature of the immediate area. Workers around fresh asphalt and bitumen are much more likely to experience heat exhaustion as a result.
Solvents and other chemical products used in roofing also present various dangers for roofers, and others such as construction workers that they may be working alongside, or any members of the public. These highly flammable substances demand the utmost care and consideration during handling. The Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002 (DSEAR) state the legal requirements for managing the risk of fire, explosion or similar events arising from dangerous substances at the workplace, and the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) is the law that requires employers to control substances that are hazardous to health. Roofers should take into consideration the COSHH Manufacturer’s Safety Data Sheets that are available for products used and all products used must be kept securely out of reach of children, especially in residential settings.
Anyone working outside, such as on a roof, in an area with lots of birds, may need to wear a mask to protect them from the harmful pathogens in bird droppings.
The work of a roofer can often involve working on people’s homes. These jobs come with a unique set of risks that can be difficult to manage, especially when working alone. Working in a new unfamiliar environment can be dangerous, exposing a roofer to unknown hazards, such as broken stairs or loose wiring or hazardous materials or working conditions that could put safety at risk. A roofer may also encounter dangerous situations such as dogs, verbal abuse or even physical violence from the public, or they may be unable to get help in an emergency.
Develop and follow a plan for working alone on other people’s homes. This could include having a designated contact to call in case of an emergency. Before entering someone’s home, make sure to check in with a supervisor or a designated contact to alert them of your whereabouts. Look for potential hazards, such as loose wires or broken stairs. Make sure to wear the appropriate PPE when working in someone’s home. We will look at PPE later in this guide.
Many roofers are peripatetic, meaning that they are travelling from place to place, in particular working or based in various places throughout their week. It has been estimated that up to a third of all road traffic accidents involve somebody who is at work at the time. Health and safety laws apply the same to on-the-road work activities as to all work activities, and the risks should be effectively managed within a health and safety management system. Risk assessments for any work-related driving activity should follow the same principles as risk assessments for any other work activity.
Maintaining a safe work environment is important, particularly in the high-risk work environment faced by roofers. It is important that every hazard is met with elimination or, at the minimum, a control measure to mitigate any potential risk.
Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (1999), the minimum a business must do is:
- Identify what could cause injury or illness in your business (hazards)
- Decide how likely it is that someone could be harmed and how seriously (the risk)
- Take action to eliminate the hazard or, if this isn’t possible, control the risk
Risk assessment requires making a judgement on Risk Severity. Risk Severity = probability of risk materialising x impact of risk on, for example, a person or people, a business, a property etc.
Probability may be understood as:
- Low (Level 1) – a reasonably informed person would think it very unlikely this risk would materialise in the foreseeable future.
- Medium (Level 2) – a reasonably informed person would think there is a significant possibility this risk would materialise in the foreseeable future.
- High (Level 3) – a reasonably informed person would think there is a very significant or even likely possibility the risk would materialise in the foreseeable future.
Impact may be understood as:
- Low (Level 1) – any impact that is minimal, having regard to the importance of interests affected, impairment of function and duration. Typically, the impact is isolated and short-lived.
- Medium (Level 2) – any impact that is significant, having regard to the importance of interests affected, impairment of function and duration. Typically, the impact is limited to one function or group, but there is a material operational impact and the effects may continue.
- High (Level 3) – any impact that is severe, having regard to the importance of interests affected, impairment of function and duration. Typically, the impact impairs a critical function and/or has a systemic impact and the effects may be long-lasting or permanent.
Roofers must ensure an assessment has been made of any hazards, which covers:
- What the potential hazard is – the risk assessment should take into consideration, for example, the type of equipment used, the way in which it is used and the environment it is used in
- Who or what could be harmed by the hazard
- How the level of risk has been established
- The precautions taken to eliminate or control that risk
Managing risk is an ongoing process that is triggered when changes affect a roofer’s work activities; changes such as, but not limited to:
- Changing work practices, procedures or the work environment
- Purchasing new or used equipment or using new substances
- Workforce changes
- Planning to improve efficiency or reduce costs
- New information about the workplace risks becomes available
Risk assessments should be recorded and records regularly reviewed and updated whenever necessary. Should an accident occur, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) will request copies of the risk assessments.
There are a number of laws and regulations that apply to a roofer’s health and safety including, but not limited to:
The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 (CDM) apply to all construction work and require that steps are taken to:
- Prevent danger to any person, to ensure that any new or existing structure or any part of such structure which may become unstable or in a temporary state of weakness or instability due to the carrying out of construction work does not collapse; any buttress, temporary support or temporary structure must be of such design and so installed and maintained as to withstand any foreseeable loads which may be imposed on it.
- Ensure no part of a structure shall be so loaded as to render it unsafe to any person.
Under the Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 (MHOR), manual handling which might cause injury is prohibited unless an assessment has been made, and if the operation cannot be avoided, suitable control measures should be in place. In all cases, reasonable alternatives to manual handling should be employed.
Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998 place duties on people and companies who own, operate or have control over lifting equipment.
Why is PPE important
Personal protective equipment (PPE) protects workers from hazards such as trips, burns, electrocution and falls. While there is some PPE that is universal to many trades, roofers have certain PPE which is specific to their job.
- Bump caps – hard yet lightweight head covering to protect from knocks to the head. Head protection is required by law on all construction sites where there is a risk of head injury. It is also important to inspect the safety helmet on a daily basis to ensure that the structure and various components – that is, the outer shell, chin strap and visor – are in good condition to ensure adequate head protection.
- Face masks and respirators – prevent potentially inhaling substances, such as silica or mortar dust. For proper use and to ensure compliance, be sure to fit test the respirator, undergo formal training, always make sure it is clean and never borrow or use another worker’s respirator.
- Safety goggles/glasses – the use of eye protection can stop harmful debris from entering the eyes such as flying particles or dust which can cause serious eye injuries or even blindness.
- Hearing protection – construction sites are loud and roofers are often exposed to much of this noise. Failure to wear dedicated hearing protection equipment such as noise-cancelling headphones, earplugs or earmuffs, either reusable or disposable, can lead to severe damage to the eardrum, tinnitus or even irreversible hearing loss in one or both ears.
- Gloves – wearing gloves helps ensure a stable grip when working. They also protect the hands against harsh chemicals, the effects of the weather, and from cuts, grazes and burns that a roofer might otherwise receive handling tiles, bitumen or nail guns.
- Footwear – it is common for a roofer’s PPE requirements to include safety-toe footwear that protects against the risks of collapsing walls or falling objects. PPE footwear should be slip-resistant and have puncture-resistant soles.
- Protective clothing – roofers should wear the correct protective clothing to match the working conditions and the potential risks of each situation. An example is trousers with removable knee pads which are highly recommended to protect joints and improve comfort when performing jobs involving kneeling.
- Highly-visible vests or reflective clothing – particularly important when working outside in low light and poor visibility conditions. Reflective workwear must fit properly and meet ISO EN 20471:2013 for high-visibility warning clothing. Hi-vis clothing should be comfortable, non-restrictive and provide good visibility during the day, at night, and in poor weather conditions.
- Fall protection – Because the risk of falling is high, a roofer’s PPE should include fall protection equipment depending on the job site and the structures in place. When carrying out specific jobs where there is a risk of falling from a height, roofers might use for example a full harness, a retractable type fall arrester, a lanyard with shock absorber, anchor points, and/or connectors.
- Sunscreen – roofers should use sunscreen with SPF minimum 30 UVA protection or higher, 20 minutes before going outside. It doesn’t matter if they are working in the heat or not, roofers still need to wear sunscreen for sun protection; the shade from a hard hat isn’t enough as UV radiation from the sun penetrates clouds and glass.
- Mobile phone – lone working roofers require a method to maintain contact when working in other people’s homes and whilst on the road.
What training should roofers take?
All those working on a roof need to have the appropriate knowledge, skills and experience to carry out the work safely and competently. Those who are in training or less experienced will require supervision by a competent person. When roofers are trained to work safely, they should be able to anticipate and avoid injury from job-related hazards. Safety training is essential for all roofers appropriate to their role, and training should be directly applicable to the responsibilities and daily practices of the person being trained.
This training for roofers might include, but is not limited to:
- Health and Safety for Employees
- Health and Safety for Managers
- Manual Handling
- Workplace First Aid
- COSHH Awareness
- Working at height
- Slips, Trips and Falls
- Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
- PUWER Awareness
- Asbestos Awareness
- Lead Awareness
- DSEAR Awareness
- Lone Working
- RIDDOR Awareness
Roofers should at a minimum refresh their safety training at least every 2 years and participate in continuing professional development (CPD).
Get started on a course suitable for roofers
Workplace First Aid£20 + VAT View course
Slips, Trips and Falls£20 + VAT View course
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)£20 + VAT View course
Health and Safety for Employees£20 + VAT View course
PUWER Awareness£20 + VAT View course
Health and Safety for Managers£49 + VAT View course
Lone Working£20 + VAT View course
RIDDOR Awareness£20 + VAT View course
DSEAR Awareness£20 + VAT View course
Working at height£20 + VAT View course
Manual Handling£20 + VAT View course
COSHH Awareness£20 + VAT View course
Lead Awareness£20 + VAT View course
Asbestos Awareness£20 + VAT View course