Instead of waxing poetic about the year just ended or going on about what may happen in the year to come, I am going to limit this to one topic. Something that is, without question, one of the most important topics for the roofing industry: worker safety — and specifically fall protection. That was “most important,” not “most popular.” So why start the year with a message that will arguably turn many readers off? Because I believe so long as roofers are being injured and killed in falls at work, I am morally bound to speak up about it.

I received a call from an OSHA inspector a few weeks back. It was concerning roofers and fall protection, and the difficulty they were having selling full fall protection to roofers. While I believe in protecting roofing workers from falls, I had to agree with the many roofing contractors this inspector encountered. They were concerned about using personal fall arrest systems due to, among other things, the trip-and-fall hazards they pose during tear off. I argued that roofing work is accomplished by teams and that personal fall arrest systems are designed for use by individuals.

I argued for reviving the slide-guard rule and was reminded that, “You never used it.” Ouch. It is the truth: we had an exemption (in many cases) from today’s more onerous rules, but we did not use it. The OSHA inspector was not on the call in an official capacity, and I was not representing anyone other than myself. The conversation ended without a resolution to the issue discussed. We would have to admit, however, that we came away from the call understanding that both of us worked on imperfect sides of this argument. And that there is, without question, a disconnect between OSHA and the roofing industry (including the roofing workers whom OSHA is chartered to protect).

I firmly believe the roofing and building industry can do a better job with fall protection. I also believe OSHA could do better, and it could do better by working with the roofing and building industry to develop standards that are more reasonable. By reasonable, I mean effective in stemming the tide of falls in construction while taking all other considerations into account.  And there are a lot of “other considerations.”

For example, is it safer for a re-roofing job to take three days instead of one, allowing for the erection and dismantling of guardrails or scaffolds? In some cases it would be, but I would submit that in many cases it would not.  This should be the year that OSHA steps back and takes an in-depth look at rules covering fall protection for roofing workers. There is a possibility that real change and a reduction in the rate of injury and mortality related to falls could come about, if only the industry and OSHA were focused and working together.

As I intend to continue with this topic in 2014, I will endeavor to spend more time observing roofing work in progress. I plan to document how OSHA and the roofing and building industry are doing implementing OSHA fall-protection standards, and to report on it later. Let me know about the safety issues affecting your jobsites.

Have a safe and rewarding 2014!