A minimal investment in roof brackets will immediately reward you with much greater roof safety and convenience. But if you have to spend a lot of time up there or have an especially steep roof, we recommend that you also buy a roof harness system (about $300). It’s the next best thing to a parachute. We’ll tell you what to buy and how to use it, and give you some general roofing safety tips too.
If you don’t own one already, buy ($200) or rent (about $30 per day) a sturdy extension ladder that extends at least 3 ft. above the roof edge. Aluminum is the lightest, but fiberglass ladders provide better protection against electrocution in case the ladder accidentally touches a power line or live wire. If possible, set the ladder on firm, level ground. On uneven ground, place squares of plywood under one foot to level the ladder base and then secure it with wire or rope tied to stakes. Fasten the top of the ladder with rope or wire tied to a secure anchoring point such as a 20d nail driven into a rafter. That will keep it from sliding sideways as you step onto the roof.
Stepping from the ladder to the roof or from the roof to the ladder is precarious and can be unnerving. Here are a few pointers to make it easier and safer:
When it comes to roofs, even the best safety equipment is no substitute for common sense and good judgment. Here are some tips for working safely on a roof:
Nail a row of roof brackets about 18 in. up from the eave and about 4 ft. apart. Position the brackets directly over a rafter or truss (Fig. A). Install each bracket by lifting a shingle tab and sliding the bracket under it. Then pound 20d common nails into each slot, making sure they hit the rafter or truss.
Lay a 2x6 plank across the brackets and attach it to the brackets with screws. Make sure the 2x6 extends at least 6 in. but not more than 12 in. past the end brackets. Set another row of roof brackets and planks about every 8 ft. up the roof, or as close together as needed to make your work safe and convenient.
Bracket nails must go into roof framing supports below the sheathing.
Build a ‘slide guard’ with roof brackets and 2x6s as a first line of defense
Once you’re safely up to the roof, you’ll want to set up roof brackets and planks all along the eave. These serve a dual purpose. They allow you a safe place to step onto and rest tools and materials. And they also act as a slide guard that will help prevent you from falling off the edge of the roof if you lose your footing higher up and slide down.
Photos 1 and 2 show how to fasten the brackets to the roof and secure the planks. Each roof bracket should have a label on it with complete instructions. Read and follow them carefully.
First locate a truss or rafter—the roof brackets must be nailed through the sheathing and into these structural members. The exposed rafter tails on our roof made this easy. If you’re not so lucky, listen and feel for a solid spot as you tap across the roof with a hammer. When you locate solid wood, carefully slide the blade of a pry bar under the shingle to separate it from the shingle underneath, and gently bend the tab up. Then you can place the nails where they’ll be covered by the shingle (Photo 1). If you feel the nail miss the rafter (it will penetrate easily), pull it out and put a dab of caulk or plastic roofing cement on the hole to seal it. Then move the nail over an inch and try again.
Rafters in older homes are usually 16 in. apart, while trusses in newer homes are usually 24 in. apart. Both have 1-1/2 in. of nailing surface. Measure from the first bracket to find more rafters or trusses. Complete the slide guard by adding the 2x6 plank (Photo 2). Now you can safely work your way up the roof by adding more brackets and planks about every 8 ft. When you’re done on the roof, remove the brackets and planks in the opposite order, starting at the top and working down (Photo 6).
Strap on the safety harness according to the manufacturer's instructions. Tighten the straps for a snug fit. Double-check all the buckles before you go onto the roof.
Fasten the roof anchor to the peak according to the manufacturer's instructions. We drove six 1/4 x 2-in. lag screws through the roof boards into the rafters. Predrill 3/16-in. holes. Then use a wrench to tighten the lag screws.
Clip the end of the safety rope to the ring on the roof anchor. Then clip the lanyard to the D-ring on the back of the harness. Squeeze the rope-grab and slide it along the safety rope to reposition the lanyard on the rope as you move around the roof.
Relocate or remove brackets by pounding up to slide them off the nails. Keep the lowest set of planks in place until you’re done on the roof. Store tools and supplies in a bucket hung from a roof bracket.
On low-pitched roofs where footing is no problem and the eaves are less than 12 ft. or so from the ground, you may feel safe working with just roof brackets and planks in place. This is OK. But for the ultimate in roof safety, especially on steeper roofs or big jobs, invest in a safety harness and rope. Photos 4 and 5 show how to set up the harness and rope (technically called a “personal fall arrest system”). The roof anchor must be fastened securely to solid wood like a rafter, truss or ridge beam, not just through the roof boards or plywood. Models vary slightly, so read the manufacturer’s instructions and follow them carefully. Here are a few of the key points:
The harness is only one part of a personal fall arrest system. It’s called a “system” because all the components—the harness, lanyard, rope-grab, rope and roof anchor—are carefully engineered to work together. You can also check at roofing suppliers (see “Roofing” in the Yellow Pages or search online). Consider splitting the cost with friends or neighbors and sharing the kit.
I don’t know a single carpenter or roofer who hasn’t had a close call on a roof, but most will readily admit they were doing something stupid at the time. Roofs are inherently dangerous places, but if you follow our suggestions and stay focused on safety, you’ll greatly reduce the chances of an accident. And with the roof brackets and personal fall arrest system in place, if you do slip, at least you’ll live to tell about it.
Roof brackets are available at hardware stores, lumberyards, roofing suppliers and home centers for $5 to $10 each. Buy enough 90-degree brackets (Photo 1) to place one bracket every 4 ft. along the edge of the roof below where you’ll be working. Use brackets designed to hold a 2x6. Larger planks are too hard to step over when you’re getting onto the roof. You’ll want additional rows of brackets and planks about 8 ft. apart across the roof to rest supplies on and provide secure footing.
Buy the best 2x6s you can find. Make sure the knots are small (under 1 in. diameter) and don’t go all the way through the board.