The Dark Side of Skylights—What you need to know about the danger of skylight falls

Skylights in homes and other buildings have an undeniable appeal. In addition to adding an aesthetically pleasing architectural feature that can “open up” a room and make it feel more spacious, studies show that skylights allow in about a third more daylight than regular windows—beautiful, mood-lifting natural light that can help regulate your circadian rhythms while casting a sunny glow over your decor. Adjustable skylights can even be opened to create a pleasing airflow and give you a better view of the big blue California sky.

Of course, there are downsides too: faded furniture from UV exposure, potential for leaks and moisture damage, decreased energy efficiency and higher bills, expensive repairs…

But in the list of pros and cons, the biggest con may be a potential hazard you never even thought of: the danger of skylight falls—and they are far more common than you might imagine.

An uncovered or improperly protected skylight presents a significant hazard for anyone who needs rooftop access: maintenance, construction, utility workers, roofers, emergency services personnel, and the home or business owners themselves. The glass or plastic that lets the light in is not designed to hold a person’s weight, let alone someone carrying tools or equipment. A lack of barriers, screens, guard rails, or grating can result in catastrophe. Routine maintenance and inspection are critical to keeping correctly installed and protected skylights safe.

Skylight falls can result in severe injury or death.

Statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reveal that over 800 construction workers die on the job each year, and falls are the number one cause of death, at about 30%. Nearly ten percent of all traumatic occupational deaths are due to falls, but that figure soars to 75% for roofers.

OSHA’s 2022 report shows that between 2017 and 2021, 75 workers died from falls through skylights. In addition, from 2015 to 2021, there were 130 reports of severe injury resulting from falls through skylights.

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, falls through skylights have resulted in injuries such as bone and skull fractures, intracranial injuries, internal injuries, and severe pain.

The building owner is responsible for ensuring the required skylight safety measures are in place. Many options are available to guard the skylight and protect people without blocking light.

Protective requirements for skylights vary from state to state, but California has particularly stringent laws and standards for skylight protection. Cal/OSHA 8 CCR §3212 requires that when workers are approaching within 6 feet of a skylight, one of several fall protection measures must be in place, including:

  • Skylight screens must be installed above the skylight. The screens must be able to withstand a fall without breaking the glass beneath.
  • Skylight screens installed below the skylight (e.g., “burglar bars”). Note that this form of protection may present an inherent danger—a falling worker could break the glass above—therefore, it may not be used if it creates an impalement hazard.
  • Protective screens installed at the same level or higher than the working surface must hold 400 lbs, approximately twice the weight of a worker and any equipment they may be carrying.
  • Size and spacing of slats and grillwork must meet regulations.
  • Law requires that these measures be determined and implemented by a qualified person (recognized degree, license, certificate, sufficient training and experience, demonstrated ability, etc.)

Home and building owners should review the complete code of regulations for skylights.

Staying safe around skylights while on the job

According to an alert from the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), “Recent NIOSH investigations suggest that employers, workers, building owners, skylight designers, and skylight manufacturers may not fully recognize or appreciate the serious fall hazards associated with working near skylights and roof and floor openings.”

NIOSH offers essential safety tips for workers when working around skylights, including but not limited to:

  • Never sit on, lean against, or step on a skylight or any covering placed over a hole in a roof or floor. The material may not support your weight.
  • Immediately tell your supervisor about unguarded skylights, roof or floor openings, or other fall hazards in your workplace.
  • Always use a personal fall arrest system (PFAS)

The NIOSH alert also includes vital safety information for employers and building owners.

Other types of skylight accidents

While less common than fall-through accidents, other skylight-related injuries can happen. A leaking skylight can create wet surfaces indoors, presenting a slip-and-fall hazard. Poorly installed skylights or deteriorated support structures can cause skylights to break and collapse, potentially causing severe injury to someone below.

Who can be sued for a skylight accident?

Unfortunately, skylight injuries are frequently caused by someone else’s negligence. Depending on the circumstances of the fall, the injured party may be able to file a personal injury lawsuit against:

  • The building owner, if the skylight did not take the required protective measures
  • The company/companies that designed, manufactured, and installed the skylight if they did not provide proper protection or if the design was defective or the protection failed.

Injuries from a skylight fall can be severe and life-altering. The personal injury attorneys at Aitken* Aitken* Cohn in Orange County represented Ryan Corbin, a victim of a skylight fall injury, ensuring he received significant compensation to cover his lifelong medical expenses. AAC obtained a $10 million settlement to pay for Ryan’s care and rehabilitation. Additionally, the firm played a crucial role in setting up Ryan’s Reach, a non-profit that aided victims of traumatic brain injuries.

If you or someone you love has been injured in a skylight-related accident, you may be entitled to compensation for medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering. The experienced and caring personal injury attorneys at Aitken * Aitken * Cohn can help you build the strongest possible case.

Written on behalf of Aitken*Aitken*Cohn