Let’s agree: we’ve all made a few bad decisions at some time or another in our lives. If you’re reading this, chances are extremely good that those bad decisions didn’t kill you (yet). But every day roofers go to work, they must make the same decision before they take their first step onto a jobsite: will they (1) prevent falls; (2) protect themselves from the effects of a fall; or (3) do nothing at all. Here is a simple question to ask yourself: “What am I going to do about protecting my future today?”

According to a 1992-98 study of roofing deaths in the United States conducted by the Center to Protect Worker’s Rights (CPWR), roofers have a work-related death rate of 29/100,000, more than twice that of the entire construction industry (15/100,000). While falls account for approximately 33 percent of all construction site deaths annually, fatal falls for roofers average about 73 percent of all of their work-related deaths. More than 90 percent of these fatal falls originate from the roof’s edges. The study found that fall protection was either neglected or omitted in almost 100 percent of these cases.

I provide my fall protection trainees with three sound, basic criteria for making their own decisions about fall protection. It is entirely up to them what they elect to do when they leave the class. I will offer the same advice to the roofing contractor to impart to his employees. Take it or leave it, but, apart from the “right thing to do” moral argument, here are my three primary decision-making criteria.

1. The average cost of a funeral. Obviously this can vary greatly for any number of reasons, but the 2014 figures from the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) show us a national average of $6,000, with costs in some areas exceeding $10,000.

It doesn’t take much imagination to expect an unprotected, unprepared, unequipped and untrained roofer to potentially fall to his death from a roof someday, somewhere. What are the odds it may happen to you or a coworker within your lifetime? According to the 2012 Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, out of approximately 138,000 professional roofers listed in the country, there were 40 fatal residential roofing falls that year. That means there is only a slim statistical chance (0.02 percent) of any individual roofer dying from a roof fall this year. We’re certainly more likely to die in a traffic accident on the way to work. But considering the inherently hazardous nature of roofing work, we should all consider the consequences of our actions (and inactions) before we ever step on site. The family of a deceased roofer will no longer be counting on his seasonal income to pay its monthly bills. We know that savings and insurance will last just so long. Any sudden death in a family can have far reaching and deleterious effects on the personal health and earning potential of the survivors. While it certainly would be difficult to put a number on such a loss, we can all expect it would have an effect on the widow’s or widower’s future earnings and subsequent quality of life. Death is always a total and traumatic loss to overcome and never cheap to survive.

2. The average cost of spinal cord injury (SCI). The bad news is you fell from a roof. The really bad news is you’re alive but paralyzed for life. According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center at the University of Alabama, the direct and indirect costs of medically maintaining a 25-year-old male SCI victim to age 82 (the average roofer’s life expectancy) is on a dramatic rise. The degree and severity of paralysis has to do with what portion of the spinal nerve was damaged. The higher the spinal cord damage, the more severe and life-threatening the paralysis. More severe paralysis equates to more difficult life-support treatment and more costly medical maintenance.

The spinal cord is divided up into different regions. From top to bottom, these include the cervical (C), thoracic (T) and lumbar (L) sections. Damage to the cervical vertebrae is the most common type of spine injury incurred by roofers. The percentage of persons in the United States with tetraplegia (also known as quadriplegia) has increased the most (35 percent) among all SCI victims. The age of the average tetraplegia victim is 24. The initial, upfront (first year) costs of these types of injuries will severely burden most insurance policies. The longer the victim lives, the more likely his medical costs per year will rise and the fewer items will be covered by his policy.

A high tetraplegic injury will affect many of the victim’s life support functions and cost more than $1 million the first year post-accident and, on average, $171,000 each subsequent year. A paraplegic with slightly lesser paralysis can expect to receive medical bills of $500,000 the first year and $50,000-$100,000 each consecutive year. On average, a 25-year-old roofer with a moderate to high percentage of spinal paralysis can expect his medical costs alone to range from $5 million to $10 million over his lifetime.

Opportunistic diseases and disorders often accompany a long-term diagnosis of tetraplegia, which will understandably add to the cost of critical medical care. A forensic accountant is typically consulted by personal injury attorneys to estimate the lifetime-accrued cost of many ancillary effects of the injury to your family. These items may include: the children’s education; home health care; medical transportation; prescriptions; therapies; loss of household services; spousal incapacities; as well as pain and suffering. These can often double (even triple) the below-the-waterline costs incurred from your injuries and subsequent disorders over a lifetime. Even an 80 percent disability injury (e.g., shattered heels, compound fractured legs, knee and hip damage, torn ligaments, etc.) resulting from a short fall can result in expensive medical treatments. These injuries can drastically limit your earning potential and lead to future arthritic complications.

3. Cost of personal fall arrest system (PFAS) equipment. If you had to actually purchase all of your own personal protective equipment to prevent or protect you from fatal falls on the job, you might incur an average initial cost of $1,500. Annual maintenance and replacement of PFAS equipment and refresher training could average anywhere from $200 to $500 per year, depending on the type and frequency of your roofing work. Preventing a roofing fall accident in the first place calculates to less than 25 percent the cost of an average funeral and only 0.03 percent of the cost of a long, disabled life from a spinal cord injury. The good news, of course, is that the OSH Act and CFR 1926 require employers to incur the cost of your initial PFAS and fall protection training within his “cost-of-doing-business” (overhead) accounting category.

The Obvious Conclusion

Any reasonable person would select the efficacy of implementing a PFAS for the performance of the roofer’s task over the other two alternatives. Those roofers that I know who survived a fall assure me they no longer consider the time or money required to rig and work in a personal fall arrest system, only the quality and quantity of the components.

Safe work practice on the construction site can be described as a day full of rather expensive “non-events.” In other words, when safe acts are performed and safe conditions are maintained and verified, nothing out of the ordinary happens and everyone goes home, dirty and tired. And yet, when many of us are confronted with a micro-decision to briefly disconnect our lanyard and walk only 10 feet to our next anchor-point, we are essentially opting for either the death or the disabled options. We all realize the unintended consequence of a bad decision can prove uneventful 99 times out of a 100, but we are never notified exactly when our luck is about to run out. The roofer should get a note in his lunchbox every day stating, “Today might be the day you are predicted to fall. Take appropriate precautions.”