When the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was created in 1970, the roofing industry was identified as one of its five original "target" industries—primarily because of our history of falls. Originally, OSHA prescribed a combination of guardrails, safety nets and/or lanyards; NRCA ultimately succeeded in getting OSHA to agree to the current system of a minimum of warning lines and safety monitors for fall protection on low-slope roofs and "slide guards," or brackets, on steep-slope roofs.
Our 36-year record is less than encouraging. The Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks fatalities resulting from falls from roofs, and the total number of fatal falls has remained fairly constant during that time period. However, there was a large spike in fall-related fatalities in 2004—the most recent year for which data are available—and we now are under increased scrutiny from OSHA and the insurance industry. It is true the incidence of falls has improved as our industry has grown, but it also is true the cost of falls has increased dramatically—let alone the human toll.
Data about roof-related falls are not especially revealing. We know ladders are more of a problem than we originally suspected. We know falls through openings—and through bad decks—contribute to our losses. But we don't yet know all the contributing factors that lead to injuries and fatalities.
Drive through any neighborhood in the U.S. and you'll see "independent contractors" installing shingles without any sort of fall protection and often operating outside the scope of OSHA's legal authority. Yet when these independent contractors get hurt—or worse—they contribute to our industry's statistics.
So what do we do? First and foremost, professional roofing contractors—NRCA members—must take the lead. We must look for design and engineering improvements, which may not completely solve the problem but will be a big first step. We must look at new fall-protection equipment entering the marketplace; much of it makes positive fall protection relatively easy and affordable. We must be sure OSHA is spending its time seeking out the bad guys, not just inspecting high-profile jobs. And we must train all the time, reminding our workers carelessness can have horrible consequences.
However we attack the problem, it's time to get serious about it. If we don't, the insurance industry and regulatory bodies will get serious for us. And as professional roofing contractors understand, getting serious is the right thing to do.
Bill Good is NRCA's executive vice president.