Roofing Torch Program Reduces Fire Hazards During Modified Bitumen Application

CERTA offers a certification program in which authorized trainers deliver behavior-based training to roofing workers who install polymer modified bitumen roof systems.

CERTA offers a certification program in which authorized trainers deliver behavior-based training to roofing workers who install polymer modified bitumen roof systems.

The latest market survey conducted by the National Roofing Contractors Association (NRCA) shows the use of polymer modified bitumen as a percentage of all new roof systems, installed both in new construction and re-roofing projects, comprises about 10 percent of the total low-slope market, according to members responding. The significance of that share of the market for polymer-modified bitumen also highlights the importance of proper training in the use of roofing torches, the most common method for installation of such systems.

Background

In 1986, the Midwest Roofing Contractors Association (MRCA), in conjunction with industry organizations, the Asphalt Roofing Manufacturers Association, and the United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Workers, developed a curriculum to train roofing workers in the safe application of torch-applied roof systems. This program was named the Certified Roofing Torch Applicator, or CERTA, program.

In 2003, insurance industry representatives approached NRCA to address concerns about an increase of losses and incidents involving torching activities conducted by roofing workers. One prominent insurer experienced over $7 million in roofing torch-related claims in 2002 spread over more than 30 separate occurrences. The need for enhanced work practices and focused safety training to address torching activities became apparent, and NRCA arranged with MRCA to adopt and revise the nature of and deliverables offered by the CERTA program.

CERTA now offers a unique, comprehensive certification program in which authorized trainers deliver effective behavior-based training to roofing workers who install polymer modified bitumen roof systems. CERTA-authorized trainers undergo a rigorous full-day training session that includes classroom and hands-on instruction in propane safety, hazards related to torch use, proper techniques for safe installation of polymer modified bitumen, and development of training skills. Individuals who successfully complete all aspects of the program then are authorized to deliver training, under the CERTA protocol, to workers who qualify as certified roofing torch applicators.

MRCA continues to work with NRCA to make sure the program is up-to-date and uses the most effective procedures to develop authorized trainers and enhance the curriculum. Since its inception, roofing contractors who have trained their workers under CERTA generally have experienced fewer torch-related fires, injuries and property damage. Insurance industry claims also are a testament to the CERTA program success—the insurer that experienced over 30 torch-related claims in 2002 now can count such average yearly claims on one hand with a significantly reduced average yearly dollar loss.

Safety Specifics

Trainees in a CERTA class spend a great deal of time on some specific aspects of the use of roofing torches to install a polymer modified bitumen roof system. Those specifics have a direct correlation to keeping workers and others safe, and minimizing the likelihood of property damage. First, the CERTA curriculum focuses on the inherent danger of roofing torches and discusses assessing job hazards and establishing controls for torching operations. Details cover the proper personal protective equipment to minimize or eliminate exposure to burns and the critical need to handle propane properly and make sure equipment is in good condition.

Pre-job planning enforces the significance of determining the hazards unique to the particular worksite and developing the necessary controls to address those hazards. In addition to general working conditions and weather issues that may influence job site safety, specific hazards such as the presence of a combustible roof deck, roof penetrations, concealed attic areas and combustible flashing substrates are addressed and suitable controls are suggested and discussed. Also, attendees get comprehensive information on the types and ratings of fire extinguishers and how they are used most effectively along with the minimum CERTA requirements for appropriate fire extinguishers that must be on a roof. In fact, CERTA requires a fire extinguisher capacity far exceeding OSHA’s fire protection requirements during torch operations— two 4A60BC-rated fire extinguishers within 10 feet of torching activity.

Another important fire prevention protocol is the use of a fire watch system. The intent of the fire watch is that a dedicated individual is charged with inspecting the work area after the last torch, or other heat generating tool, is extinguished. Ordinarily, this is accomplished visually, but it can also be done more scientifically with the use of temperature sensing infrared thermometer. These are inexpensive tools that read the temperature of an area that the tool is pointed at and display the reading in degrees on the screen. The fire watch individual would shoot various specific locations where hot work was done—for example, at roof penetrations, flashings or field areas—noting the temperature for each spot. This procedure would be followed for the same spots a short time later, and if the temperature had increased, the possibility that a fire under the roof surface could be a source of the increased heat being generated would require further steps to determine the nature of the heat increase and the proper action to take.

Historically, many industries and building owners have required a 30-minute fire watch be maintained after the last torch or other tool has been extinguished. Under the CERTA protocol, a two-hour fire watch is demanded of a CERTA roofing torch applicator. The fire watch must be maintained not just at the end of the day but at other break times, such as lunch, so that fires do not start when workers may be away from the work area or inattentive during break times.

Another key element of training for the CERTA torch applicator involves installation techniques that are intended to reduce the likelihood of a fire being started. The techniques include specified thermal barriers to protect combustible roof decks and substrate protection for flashing installations, along with an alternative torching technique that minimizes the use of direct torching.

Certa Works

Installation of polymer-modified bitumen roof systems using propane roofing torches requires adherence to a number of safety procedures and an awareness of the hazards that workers may encounter. The CERTA program has a proven track record of enhancing the safe practices of roofing workers who install these systems and the roofing industry, building owners and the general public are all safer because of its development and use.

Photo: NRCA

Prevent Roof Fires During Torch-Down Projects

Torch-Down Safety While driving to work recently, I heard a news story on the radio: An unlicensed roofer was charged with causing a fire at a local apartment complex. When I arrived at the office, I Googled “fires caused by roofers.” The results included stories from across the nation:

  • Roofing crew blamed for a Chicago strip-mall fire.
  • Roofer’s torch likely cause of huge Arizona construction-site blaze.
  • Roofer’s blowtorch sparks a six-alarm fire in Hamilton Township, N.J.
  • Obviously, using an open-flame torch to install torch-down roofing systems can pose a fire risk. Torch-down roofing is a type of roofing that consists of layers of modified bitumen adhered to layers of fiberglass with a flame torch. Torch-down roofing is used only for flat or low-slope roofs. This process is popular with many contractors, mainly because of its ease of installation and its adaptability. With this system, the modified bitumen can bond tightly to metal flashings while the rubbery additives in the asphalt allow the roofing to expand and contract when other roofing systems may crack. In addition, roofers like torch-down roofing because it is easy to apply. Unfortunately, it can also be dangerous!

    It is easy to make a mistake with the torch that could result in disaster. Consider roofers that are torching down a roof and accidentally overheat something in the attic—insulation, for instance. They end their work for the day, not noticing the smoke coming out of soffit vents. Before long, that smoldering material in the attic heats up and starts a fire that quickly spreads throughout the dry, hot attic and, often, to the rest of the structure. 

    Regulations and Best Practices

    OSHA has developed standards that can help prevent these types of fires. Here are some of OSHA’s fire-protection and -prevention rules from the construction and general industry standards:

  • A fire extinguisher must be immediately accessible for all torch-down operations.
  • A fire extinguisher is needed within 50 feet of anywhere where more than 5 gallons of flammable or combustible liquids or 5 pounds of flammable gas are being used on the job site.
  • No one on a job site can be more than 100 feet from a fire extinguisher at all times.
  • There must be at least one fire extinguisher for 3,000 square feet of work area.
  • All flammable or combustible debris must be located well away from flammable liquids or gases.
  • Combustible scrap and debris must be removed regularly during the course of a job.
  • Piles of scrap and debris must be kept at least 10 feet from any building.
  • A fire watch person should be posted to immediately address any possible smolders or flare-ups.
  • The fire watch person should remain on post for 30 minutes after the torch-down job is finished for the day.
  • While the actions spelled out in these construction regulations are mandatory, roofing professionals should be aware that these are minimum requirements. The National Roofing Contractors Association (NRCA) and the Midwest Roofing Contractors Association (MRCA) have developed a roofing torch applicator certification program designed to reduce fire hazards during torch application of modified bitumen products. According to Harry Dietz, Director of Risk Management for NRCA, the Certified Torch Applicator (CERTA) program teaches installers to minimize the exposure of combustible structural materials to the heat and flame of the roofing torch. The program also spells out a number of safe practices that go well beyond OSHA’s regulations in dealing with roofing torch use. Among other program elements, these include:

  • The requirement for two 4A60BC fire extinguishers during torch work (more than 10 times the firefighting capability required under the OSHA rules).
  • A two-hour fire watch performed after the last torch has been extinguished.
  • Following these guidelines for fire prevention can protect roofing professionals and the public. It can also save roofers money and time, as well as protect contractors from lawsuits and other legal charges. 

    “In 2002, a leading insurer of roofing contractors had over $7 million in torch related claims in 33 occurrences prior to requiring CERTA for its insureds,” said Dietz. “In 2015, that same insurance company reported only one torch-related claim with a loss of less than $10,000.”

    Visit this site to learn more about OSHA’s Safety and Health Regulations for Construction, Welding and Cutting, Fire Prevention. To learn more about the Certified Torch Applicator (CERTA) program, click here.