How to Work Safely on a Roof

Construction Worker Climbs Ladder
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For safety and stability, the top of the ladder should extend at least three feet above the edge of the roof.

Many homeowners will never need to venture up onto their house's roof. But some may find it necessary to climb onto the roof to find the source of a leak, to make a minor repair or to remove tree branches and other debris from the roof. If you are in this group, there is some important safety information to keep in mind.

Some roofs are too steep for the average person to walk on comfortably, and it is best to leave steep-slope roofs to the professional. The same is true of tile and slate roofs. Both can be damaged easily, and loose pieces can cause falls. If you have a roof that is not too steep, and one with a surface that can be safely walked on, follow these guidelines.

Wait for the Right Conditions

Climbing on a roof should only be done when conditions are conducive to safety:

  • Even a little morning dew can turn roofing shingles slippery, and a sudden gust of wind can knock you off balance. So wait for a dry, calm day.
  • Wear soft rubber sole shoes for traction.
  • Long pants with thick fabric will protect your legs from the ceramic granules that cover roofing shingles and from a hot roof surface, should you have to kneel on the roof.

Ladder Safety

Climbing up on a roof almost always involves the use of a ladder, so make sure you have the right equipment and know how to use it:

  • Do not place ladders near power lines. Dozens of people each year are electrocuted when metal ladders accidentally touch overhead power lines.
  • All ladders, even step ladders, have a Duty Rating, which is the maximum weight the ladder is designed for. The rating includes the weight of the person on the ladder and the weight of tools and materials he or she may carry. Unless you are a professional roofer, do not carry anything when you use an extension ladder.
  • If you need tools, use a rope to hoist them up in a bucket once you are safely on the roof.
  • For extension ladders, the top extension section should overlap the bottom section. Place the ladder on level ground away from the house's wall, about one-quarter the distance from the ground to the roof edge. The ladder should lean at about a 75-degree angle.
  • The top of the ladder should extend at least three feet above the edge of the roof. You may be able to get onto the roof if the ladder is only a few inches higher than the roof edge, but it will be difficult if you are not used to climbing ladders. But it will be worse on the way down. It is very difficult, and scary, to get back onto the ladder in that situation.
  • Brace or tie off the bottom of the ladder. It is also a good idea to place sawhorses or some other type of warning or barrier around the bottom of the ladder to help keep people away while you are working.
  • When climbing, keep your hips inside the rails of the ladder. Don't lean out or reach to the sides. Always keep both hand on the rungs as you make your way up or down the ladder.

Up On the Roof

Once on the roof, follow common sense safety precautions: be aware of where the edge of the roof is at all times; and don't lean out over the edge of the roof.

  • Pine needles, leaves and other debris can be slippery, so avoid walking on them.
  • Keep tools you are not using at the moment in a large container, such as a 5-gallon bucket. Loose tools can become slipping hazards.
  • Be aware of where extension cords, ropes and other tools and materials are at all times. They can cause you to trip or slip.

Safety Equipment

Pros working on steep roofs have a variety of safety devices they routinely use, and some this equipment can be purchased or rented by homeowners. Attaching this safety equipment to a roof usually involves prying up the edge of shingles and nailing to the roof deck to secure the safety gear. If you repair the area properly after removing the safety equipment, the roof will not leak.

  • Roof brackets support 2x6 lumber standing on edge. Placed the barriers a short distance up from the edge of the roof, they can prevent falls and keep tools from rolling off of the roof.
  • Personal fall arrest systems consist of a full-body harness, a means to attach the anchor to roof trusses, a lifeline and a shock absorbing lanyard. Should you fall off of the roof, the system will stop the fall at a preset distance.

Working on a roof can be dangerous, but by taking a few precautions, the job can go smoothly and safely.