One of the most dangerous fall hazards that lead to traumatic brain injuries or wrongful death are those relating to skylights. Skylights are designed to provide an interior building with more light, with roof openings that serve as windows. However, they pose a significant risk to those 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 financial compensation through a personal injury lawsuit.
If you were injured or a loved one died or experienced a head injury due to a skylight fall, get legal advice from an experienced skylight or construction accident lawyer to understand your rights and options.
Types of Skylights
There are multiple types of skylights, including fixed skylights, ventilated skylights (sometimes called roof windows), tubular skylights, retractable skylights, 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 skylights can provide a significant amount of additional light to any room while providing some ventilation. Adding a ventilated skylight will give you better lighting, a view of the sky, and airflow from outside. These are operable skylights that use 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). A tubular skylight, sun tunnel, or solar tubes 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 natural sunlight, ventilation, and a view. As the name implies, retractable skylights can be opened; they roll on a set of tracks so that when open, the room’s interior is entirely open to the outdoors. When closed, the skylight functions as a fixed skylight, providing lighting and a view of 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 roof they will be installed on.
Why are Skylights Dangerous?
Severe skylight injuries are more common than you might think and can happen in many different ways; however, falls and breakage are at the top of the list. The injuries they can cause, like traumatic brain injuries or spinal cord injuries, are often severe. And unfortunately, in some skylight accidents, the height of the fall is extreme and can cause a life-ending situation.
Skylight injuries happen to people both inside and outside of the building. For example:
- 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.
- Outside: The most common type of skylight injuries occur from outside the building when someone falls through a skylight from the roof. This is because the glass or plastic used on most skylights is not designed to withstand the weight of a human being, and this can lead to serious consequences.
Most buildings and other commercial properties have safety measures in place, but for one reason or another, these safety precautions are often overlooked, inadequate, or non-existent. Learn more below.
How Do Skylight Injuries Happen?
Severe skylight injuries most often occur when someone up on the roof has the skylight break beneath them. Though skylights can also break, potentially falling on and injuring someone below. In addition, slip and falls can happen to unsuspecting victims if a skylight is leaking.
Falling Through a Skylight
Most skylights are made of molded plastic, fiberglass panels, or glass. When first constructed, these materials can withstand substantial impact and weight.
However, after it’s installed, the sun’s harsh ultraviolet rays beat down on the skylight and change the material’s chemical makeup over time. As a result, the skylight can become brittle and may no longer be able to resist an impact.
If a person leans or sits on the skylight, slips and falls 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 doing roof repairs or inspections. However, 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, it can blend in with the surrounding solid roof. Therefore, these flat-type skylights are particularly dangerous when the roof is covered with snow, or 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, 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 at ground level. This can occur because of poorly installed or maintained skylights which can be weak or weakened.
Moisture damage from a leaky skylight can deteriorate the adjoining support beams causing them to crumble. When this happens, the beams are no longer able to support the weight of the skylight glass.
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 heavy snowfall can cause a skylight to fail and break, severely injuring anyone below.
Leaking Skylights Can Lead to Slip and Fall Injuries
It is more difficult to seal skylights against the weather in comparison to the rest of the ceiling. Poor seals can allow water to leak inside, leaving a puddle on the tile or concrete floor.
Anyone walking by who does not see the puddle can slip and fall, causing significant injuries. While slip and fall accidents caused by leaking skylights may be less severe than fall-through skylight wounds, these situations can still cause injuries that require medical attention.
Can Skylight Falls Be Deadly?
Skylight falls pose a clear risk for serious injury, but they can also cause untimely deaths since they often involve falls from substantial heights.
Falling is one of the leading causes of fatal construction accidents in the United States, accounting for nearly 40% of construction worker deaths in 2017. This statistic includes falls through unprotected skylights.
The glass or plastic 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
- Telecommunications personnel
The American Architectural Manufacturers Association (AAMA) estimates that more than 120,000 roofers alone 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 an all-inclusive list of 907 skylight-related fall-through accidents dating back to 1983, the majority of which were fatal injuries.
Tragically, all 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 owners of commercial properties 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 on construction sites, where fall incidents are often related to floor holes, unstable surfaces, and roof openings like 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.
U.S.-Installed Skylights Must Comply With 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.”
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.
In addition, railings, curbs, and screens must be used to protect workers from falling through roof openings 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.
These safeguards effectively reduce and, in most cases, eliminate skylight accidents and skylight deaths when followed by construction companies.
Negligence Can Often Be Blamed for Fatal Falls
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 circumstances where:
- Aging or defective skylights that should have been replaced were not replaced.
- The skylight cannot support the regulated or stated weight capacity.
- Negligent security failed to maintain the premises.
Employers are required to have adequate safeguards in place to prevent skylight accidents and deaths. These can include fixed covers, catch platforms, harnesses, or safety nets.
Unfortunately, situations that lead to skylight falls, severe injuries, and occupational 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, manufacturers, and building owners.
Preventing Skylight Falls for Employers
- Create a comprehensive OSHA-compliant guide to preventing falls that your employees have easy access to.
- 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 safety belts and fall prevention equipment, especially around skylights.
- Install forms of protection, including 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.
Protection Against Falls for Building Owners
- Inspect your roof, doors, ladders, hatches, and skylights for hazards and fix them 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 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
To hold a negligent property owner, contractor, or another 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 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 breached that duty, you must prove that the “breach” was the cause of your injury or your loved one’s wrongful 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 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 resulting bills (like hospital bills and surgery costs).
This may seem obvious: “I fell from a skylight and broke my back. So, of course, the fall caused my broken back.”
However, the defendant’s insurance companies will likely look for any way to deny or delegitimize your personal injury claim. For example, they may say that 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 they use this technique in all personal injury cases. This is where the expertise of a personal injury attorney is essential.
Contact an Experienced Skylight Injury Lawyer
A skilled personal injury lawyer at Dolman Law Group Accident Injury Lawyers, PA, knows how to fight the insurance company and responsible parties and win on behalf of seriously injured workers.
If you or someone you love has either fallen through a skylight or been injured because of a skylight accident, call Dolman Law Group Accident Injury Lawyers, PA today or contact us online. We look forward to helping you and your family.