Winter HVAC Prep and the Right Roof Fall Protection Go Hand in Hand

Winter HVAC Prep and the Right Roof Fall Protection Go Hand in Hand

Winter HVAC Prep and the Right Roof Fall Protection Go Hand in Hand

Winter is in full swing, which means there’s a good chance you’ve got the thermostat cranked up at your facility. If you’ve got the heat on, there’re a few things you should check up on to make sure your HVAC system is good to go all season long. Your system likely run all summer, and now that you transitioned to wintertime, it should be inspected, maintained, and/or repaired. You’ll also need to make sure your heat is in good working order before as the temperature dips. Here’s what should be on your radar:

1. Changing Filters:

Filter changes are a big part of maintenance—and a dirty filter can really inhibit your system’s performance. Clogged filters impede the airflow throughout your heating system, which means it has to work harder to maintain your desired temperature. That’s not just inefficient, it also puts a lot of strain on your HVAC’s components in the long run. When your HVAC is running constantly, you should consider checking/changing your filter every four to six weeks.

2. Cleaning:

Debris like leaves, twigs, ang branches can all get trapped inside your HVAC unit. Remove any debris, then, if possible, clean the unit with a hose to spray away dirt and dust—but take care not to damage the fans or any other parts.

3. Covering:

In some units, a cover for the winter is a good idea. This will prevent any debris from autumn’s leaves or winter’s storms from getting into it and causing trouble.

Staying Safe During Rooftop HVAC Winter Maintenance

The problem is, HVAC units are commonly found on the roof, and sometimes near an edge or other fall hazard like a hatch or a skylight. The reason for it being on the roof makes sense to architects or mechanical installers: there’s less dirt and debris on the roof, it provides better security from vandalization, it’s quieter, and it saves space.

Unfortunately, it does create a reason for workers to be on your roof regularly for inspection and maintenance. Even if you don’t plan to send your own employees up there and use a contractor instead, it’s still your obligation to keep them safe. Simply put, if someone’s going on your roof, no matter where or why, you need roof fall protection.

Fortunately, there are a lot of choices. Nets, fall arrest systems, and fall restraint systems are all great options—but for specific jobs. If your roof access is primarily about maintenance and repairs for your HVAC, there’s a good chance you’ll just need a simple solution like a rooftop guardrail system.

But rooftop safety entails more than just simply buying rails and being done with it. Let’s take a look at the basics so you can make the decision that’s right for your employees and your company.

OSHA: The Basics for Roof Fall Protection

OSHA code 1910.28(b)(1)(i) states that “the employer must ensure that each employee on a walking-working surface with an unprotected side or edge that is 4 feet (1.2 m) or more above a lower level is protected from falling by one or more of the following: 1910.28(b)(1)(i)(A) Guardrail systems; 1910.28(b)(1)(i)(B) Safety net systems; or 1910.28(b)(1)(i)(C) Personal fall protection systems, such as personal fall arrest, travel restraint, or positioning systems.”

What are the Highest Concern Areas?

When creating your rooftop safety plan, you’ll need to confirm the following:

1. What is the Actual Fall Clearance?

Fall clearance refers to the minimum vertical distance that is needed between the feet of a worker and a lower level such as the ground or lower working platform. Knowing the fall distance from your roof surface to lower levels is vital when making a fall protection system decision.

Keep in mind that “a lower level” can mean another rooftop or balcony. So even if you have a lower level beyond the roof edge where the HVAC is located, if it’s beyond 4 feet, you still need a guardrail system or another type of roof fall protection.

2. Roof Point of Access

You need to see the whole picture of your roof before you can pick the right rooftop safety system. Sometimes, the access points are as dangerous as the leading edge: this is particularly so if have a hatch, ladder, or outdoor stairs. You might need to protect these areas with a combination of safety rails, safety gates, and/or ladder guards.

3. Traveling to and from the Access Point and the Work Area

After protecting your access point, you need to safeguard the travel to your desired location. You need to protect any travel path that takes you within 15 feet of a fall hazard.

4. Distance between the HVAC Unit and the Roof’s Edge

The bare minimum length of OSHA’s protection regulations between the roof’s edge and where you may need to stand is 15 feet. But you also need to consider other factors, including how long you need to access the area and how often.

Your Rooftop Safety System Options

1. Guardrail System

Like we mentioned before, for simple jobs that require rooftop access, safety rails are often the easiest choice. Safety rails come in two forms, non-penetrating railing and mounted railing. Non-penetrating railings are particularly useful if you plan to reconfigure them down the road or simply just don’t want to risk damage to your roof’s membrane.

A guardrail system is considered passive fall protection because it does not require any action on the part of the worker. There are no harnesses to put on, no systems to inspect. Workers can simply just get out on the roof and do their job.

2. A Lifeline System

Lifelines are considered active fall protection systems – they require the worker or HVAC technician to take action to keep themselves safe on the roof. Since they can be somewhat more complicated to use and can introduce human error into the equation, they require special training for anyone who might be using them.

Lifelines are often applied on flat rooftops, walls, or overhead structures. They include a series of anchor points that have wire rope tensioned between them. To attach to the systems, rooftop workers must don a harness, connect their harness to a lanyard, then connect that lanyard to runners which slide along the wire rope and anchor points.

Anytime you introduce such anchor points into a fall protection system, OSHA requires that a qualified person like a structural engineer or certified lifelines technician to sign off on it. Your staff will also require training on how to put on, inspect, and use all of the equipment.

Like guardrail systems, lifelines can be permanent or temporary. The type of horizontal lifeline you install is dependent on factors like your roof type or building structure.


No matter how big or small the job, if someone’s going on your roof, OSHA requires a roof fall protection system. So before you send your HVAC technician out onto the roof, take a moment to make sure you have the right system in place. Remember, though, while rooftop safety is paramount, compliance doesn’t have to be complicated. If you’re not sure what system is best for your needs, give us a call. We’re rooftop safety experts and are happy to help.

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