Falling Through A Skylight Often Results In Catastrophic Injuries
One of the most dangerous fall hazards that lead to serious injuries or death are those relating to skylights. Skylights are designed to provide an interior building with more light, acting like a window on the roof, but because of this they pose a great risk to those who may be walking or working around them. Skylight injuries and deaths can have a lot of different causes. But if the reason for the fall includes negligence, you may be able to seek compensation through a personal injury lawsuit. If you were injured–or a loved one died–due to a skylight fall, speak to an experienced skylight injury lawyer to understand your rights and options.
What Are Skylights?
A skylight (sometimes called a rooflight) is a light-transmitting structure, similar to a window, that forms all or part of the roof space of a building. Skylights are widely used throughout the United States. According to the American Architectural Manufacturers Association, there are approximately 275,000 commercial unit skylights sold every year in the US.
Skylights are made out of glass and/or plastic (acrylic) and can provide daylighting, views, ventilation, and sometimes an entry and exit point. The following are some common uses for skylights:
- Daylighting skylights are used to allow direct and/or indirect sunlight, via top lighting. Daylighting also helps save on energy bills by reducing need for electrical lights.
- View skylights provide a visual connection to the outdoor environment for those inside the building. These are common for spaces like atriums, museums, or libraries.
- Ventilation sustainable building skylights provide passive solar heating and ventilation for passive cooling and fresh air exchange in buildings.
- Egress (entry and exit) skylights act as a door or hatch, and provide easy access to the roof or a way of escape in an emergency.
Types of Skylight
There are multiple types of skylights, for example: fixed skylights, ventilated skylights (sometimes called roof windows), tubular skylights, retractable sky lights, and custom skylights.
- Fixed skylights consist of a structural perimeter frame that supports the window portion which is made primarily of glass or plastic. A fixed skylight is non-operable, meaning it does not move and does not provide ventilation.
- Ventilated skylights are one of the most popular types of skylights. These types of skylights are capable of providing a significant amount of additional light to any room while providing some ventilation. Adding a ventilated skylight will give you both added lighting and a view of the sky, and some air flow from outside. These are operable skylights that uses a hinge to open and close. When it is within reach of the occupant, this type of skylight is more commonly called a “roof window”.
- Tubular skylights are commonly used to provide active daylighting in a small space using a tubular daylighting device (TDD). Solar tubes, sun tunnels, or tubular skylights consist of a roof-mounted skylight that condenses sunlight and directs it toward smaller spaces that would otherwise be dark, such as hallways. TDDs can be spotted by their dome covering, often made from acrylic or polycarbonate.
- Retractable skylights provide a combination of daylighting, ventilation, and a view. Like the name implies, retractable skylights can be opened; they roll on a set of tracks, so that when open, the interior of the room is entirely open to the outdoors. When closed, the skylight functions as a fixed skylight, providing lighting and a view to the sky.
- Custom skylights, which vary in shape and size, are used on roofs that cannot accommodate more common skylights. They are manufactured to fit the specific dimensions and needs of the particular roof they will be installed on.
Why are Skylights Dangerous?
Skylight injuries are more common than you might think. They can happen in many different ways. The injuries that they can cause, like brain injuries or spinal cord injuries, are often very serious. And unfortunately, in some skylight accidents, the height of the fall is extreme and cause a life-ending situation.
Skylights can be dangerous for a number of reasons, but at the top of the list are falls and breakage.
Skylights can cause injury for people both inside and outside of the building.
Inside, leaking skylights can cause slip and fall injuries. Patrons, customers, or guests inside the building may also be injured when something falls through a skylight, like during a construction project, or when one suddenly breaks and sends glass crashing down below.
But the most common skylight injuries occur from outside the building when someone falls through a skylight from the roof. The glass or plastic that is used on most skylights is not designed to withstand the weight of a human being and this can lead to serious consequences. Most buildings have safety measures in place, but for one reason or another, these safety precautions are overlooked, inadequate, or non-existent. Learn more below.
How Do Skylight Injuries Happen?
The most severe skylight injuries happen when someone is on the roof and the skylight breaks underneath them. However, skylights can also break and fall, potentially injuring someone below. They can also leak and cause unsuspecting victims to slip and fall inside.
Falling through the skylight
Most skylights are made of glass, molded plastic, or fiberglass panels. When first made, these materials can withstand substantial impact and weight. However, once installed, the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays beat down on the skylight and overtime change the chemical makeup of the material. The skylight can become brittle and may no longer be able to withstand an impact.
If a person sits or leans on the skylight, slips and fall onto it, or walks across it, there is a chance that they could fall through the skylight. Some of the most common victims of fall-through accidents are workers who are doing roof repairs or inspections. They may also occur to average occupants and guests that use the roof for recreational activities (roof deck).
When the skylight is a flat panel, they can blend in with the surrounding solid roof. These flat-type skylights are particularly dangerous when the roof is covered with snow and they cannot be seen for some other reason.
People also assume that skylights are designed to bear their weight and will intentionally sit, stand, or lean on them. In one infamous case of this, Vanderpump Rules star, Katie Maloney-Schwartz, had a near-death experience after she intentionally stood on a skylight and fell nearly 25 feet below after it gave way.
Skylights can break and fall on people below
Another way skylights injuries can occur is when they break and fall from above onto people below. This can occur because of poorly installed or maintained skylights which can be weak or weakened. If the skylight leaks, water can deteriorate the surrounding support beams causing it to crumble which can make the considerable weight of the glass in the skylight to become too heavy.
Skylights are also more vulnerable to the elements than the rest of the roof. Hail and flying debris, for instance, can crack a skylight. And, when it comes to snow, skylights can be the weakest part of the roof. The excess weight of a heavy snowfall can cause a skylight to fail and break which can severely injure anyone below.
Leaking skylights can cause slip and fall injuries
Skylights are far more difficult to seal against the weather than the rest of the ceiling. If they are poorly sealed and let water leak inside, it can leave a puddle on the floor. Anyone walking by who does not see the puddle can slip and fall, causing serious injuries. While slip and falls caused by leaking skylights may be less severe than fall-through skylight injuries, these situations can cause serious injuries.
Can Skylight Falls be Deadly?
Skylight falls clearly pose a risk for serious injury, but they can also cause untimely deaths since they often involve fall from substantial heights.
Falling is one of the leading causes of traumatic occupational death in the United States, accounting for nearly 40% of construction worker deaths in 2017. This statistic includes a number of falls through unprotected skylights.
The glass or plastic that is used on most skylights is not designed to withstand the weight of a human being. The materials used can also deteriorate over time. This makes them a serious occupational hazard for those who work in fields that have regular access to rooftops, such as building maintenance, roofing, HVAC, electrical, plumbing, and telecommunications personnel. The American Architectural Manufacturers Association (AAMA) estimates that there are more than 120,000 roofers alone who are at risk of falling through a skylight at work.
The level of danger that comes with working near skylights cannot be taken lightly. In fact, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has a comprehensive list of 907 fall-through accidents involving skylights dating back to 1983, most of which were fatal. Tragically, all of these falls could have been avoided with proper safety measures in place which we discuss more below.
Skylight Injuries and Workers
Workers fall through skylights and floor openings so often that the CDC, through the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, has issued information for building owners, skylight manufacturers, and others seeking their assistance in preventing these falls. Here are two: Falls in the Workplace and Preventing Falls of Workers Through Skylights and Roof and Floor Openings. Falls are a common hazard found in all types of occupational settings. Studies show that employers, workers, and building owners do not fully appreciate or recognize the fall hazards and dangers of working near skylights
The highest frequency of fatalities due to falls is experienced in the construction industry, where fall incidents are often associated with unstable surfaces, floor holes, and roof openings (such as skylights). Injuries due to falls cause a considerable financial burden with medical costs and worker’s compensation estimated at more than $70 billion a year in the U.S.
Many skylight injuries are the result of product defects, lack of warning, or lack of safety barriers (barricades, exterior bars, screen grating) to safeguard those people working on roofs in and around skylights.
All skylights installed in the US must comply with both Federal and State OSHA Regulations.
In February of 1984, an OSHA Interpretation Letter established that skylights are “an opening in the roof of a building through which persons may fall.” OSHA’s Interpretation Letter required “that skylights in the roof of buildings through which persons may fall while walking or working shall be guarded by a standard skylight screen or a fixed standard railing on all exposed sides.”
When a skylight death occurs, the accident can often be blamed on negligence. Sometimes the skylight accident is the result of the construction company failing to install the skylight correctly. In those cases, the building owner, the construction company, and the skylight installer may be held responsible. Negligence may also be considered in cases where there is a failure to maintain the premises and replace aging or defective skylights.
Skylight accidents also occur when the skylight cannot support the regulated or stated weight capacity. In addition, curbs, railings, and screens must be utilized to protect workers from falling through skylights or an opening in the roof according to OSHA. These skylight safety guards must be put in place before roofing work is to begin and should be in place until construction is completed.
OSHA’s letter further provided: “When a skylight screen is selected for safeguarding the opening, and in the event the skylight is constructed of plastic material subject to fracture (as glass would be), then the skylight must be at a minimum be provided with a skylight screen capable of withstanding a load of at least 200 pounds applied perpendicularly at any one area of the screen.”
They should also be constructed so that under ordinary impacts and loads, that will not deflect down to the glass and break. If a fixed railing is used instead of a screen, OSHA requires that the rails and post shall have a vertical height of 42 inches from the surface to top rail.
These safeguards effectively reduce and, in most cases, eliminate skylight accidents and skylight deaths when followed by construction companies.
Employers are also required to have adequate fall protection safeguards in place to prevent skylight accidents and skylight deaths. These can include fixed covers, catch platforms, harnesses, or safety nets.
Unfortunately, situations that lead to skylight falls, severe injuries, and death still occur. And when the incident is a result of negligence, those who are at-fault deserve to be held responsible so that the victim and their family are not saddled with all the stress, pain, and financial burden.
Preventing Skylight Falls and Injuries
Skylight falls and injuries are preventable. Here is some information on preventing skylight falls, injuries, and deaths for employers, designers and manufacturers, and building owners.
Preventing Skylight Falls for Employers
- Create a comprehensive guide to preventing falls that your employees have easy access to and that complies with OSHA.
- Thoroughly inspect worksites for any fall hazards and address them as needed.
- Put into place procedures and requirements aimed at preventing falls.
- Provide employees with fall prevention equipment, especially around skylights.
- Install screens, railings, or guardrails to prevent falls around skylights.
- Create a training program that helps employees to recognize and prevent falls.
Preventing Skylight Falls for Designers and Manufacturers
- Reevaluate the design and manufacturing of equipment and safety components to decrease hazards and improve safety.
- Create or improve warning stickers or signs on skylights, guardrails, and similar components.
- Additionally, implement more, or more effective, warning signs for doors, stairs, ladders, and roof hatches, especially when they lead to areas that have skylights.
Preventing Skylight Falls for Building Owners
- Inspect your roof, doors, ladders, hatches, and skylights for hazards and fix as necessary.
- Identify hazards that cannot be improved and install proper warning signage.
- Install anchorage points for personal fall protection equipment or personal fall arrest systems (harnesses).
- Install railing systems and/or protective screens around skylights.
- Put into place a protocol for alerting workers to the presence of a skylight(s).
Proving a Skylight Injury or Death Claim
In order to hold a property owner, contractor, or other party liable for a skylight fall injury or death, you must follow the same protocol that applies to almost all personal injury cases. This includes proving:
- Duty of Care
- Breach of Duty
Duty of Care
Duty of care refers to a person’s or a company’s obligation to keep other people safe. Almost everyone has a duty of care at some point in their day. For example, when you are driving to the store for milk, you have a duty of care to prevent a car accident. The question in skylight fall cases is who had the duty of care and to what extent does this duty of care apply? This is the first step in proving a skylight injury or death claim.
Breach of Duty
The next step is to prove that the building owner, contractor, or whoever was negligent, breached that duty. Breaching one’s duty of care is the meaning of negligence. When one breaches their duty of care, their recklessness puts others in danger. Proving whether or not an individual breached their duty of care is a regular part of an experienced attorney’s day. A breach of duty might include something like driving while distracted or failing to close a skylight before allowing guests onto the roof.
Once you have shown that someone had a duty of care, and that they breached that duty, you then must prove that the “breach” was the cause of your injury or of your loved one’s death. For example, you may be able to prove a store owner has a duty of care and breached that duty, but it may not be so clear if that breach led to the injury or if something else altogether led to the injury. In the case of skylight fall injuries, one must prove that the negligent party’s breach of duty led directly to (or caused) your incident.
Finally, you must prove that the incident caused your damages. Damages refer to your physical injuries, emotional trauma, lost income, pain and suffering, and the bills that result (like hospital bills, surgery costs, etc).
This may seem obvious: “I fell from a skylight and broke my back. Of course, the fall caused my broken back.”
However, it is likely the defendant’s insurance companies will look for any way to deny or delegitimize your claim. They may try to say that some or all of your injuries came from a past incident, or that your injuries are not as bad as you claim. This is a common tactic by insurance companies in car accident cases, but of course they use this technique in all personal injury cases. This is where the expertise of a personal injury attorney is important.
Contact an Experienced Skylight Injury Lawyer
The experienced personal injury attorneys at Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA know how to fight on behalf of seriously injured or deceased clients, and win. If you or someone you love has either fallen through a skylight or been injured as a result of a skylight accident, contact Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA today at 727-451-6900 or by contacting us online. We look forward to helping you and your family.