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State’s lead law leaves contractors at loose ends

By: Joe Lanane//September 15, 2010//

State’s lead law leaves contractors at loose ends

By: Joe Lanane//September 15, 2010//

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By Joe Lanane

Industry groups still are confused over which contractors need lead paint renovation certification even though the Wisconsin regulation has been in place since April.

The regulation requires home-renovation contractors be trained in lead paint cleanup before working on any house built before 1978, the year lead paint was made illegal. The law applies to interior spaces larger than 6 square feet and exterior areas larger than 20 square feet.

Megan Taylor, Wisconsin Builders Association development director, said the industry is struggling to interpret whether the Wisconsin Department of Health Services requires both general contractor and subcontractor certification.

Taylor said the law lets certified general contractors hire uncertified plumbers, electricians and other subcontractors, but the generals do so at their own risk.


“Then they’re also taking on all the liability of the subcontractor because they then become responsible for controlling how they operate,” she said. “If those subs violate those rules, they not only get fined, but the general contractor also does.”

Shelley Bruce, supervisor of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services’ Asbestos and Lead Certification Section, has helped enforce the law since it went into effect April 22. She said her office focuses more on education, but, she said, the lines between general contractors and subcontractors are blurry.

The best recommendation, Bruce said, is for every contractor to earn certification. The generally eight-hour certification course costs as much as $500 and offers guidance on proper techniques for lead dust containment and protective gear.

About 10,000 contractors have completed the coursework, she said. The department estimated there are 25,000 contractors in Wisconsin.

“That being said, there are times when a subcontractor doesn’t have to be certified because they are just going to work on already-open wall cavities,” Bruce said. “Same thing with plumbers because then they’re not actually doing work that’s covered under the rule.

“There are many ways contractors and subcontractors can satisfy this rule, and it’s up to them to work out how to do so.”

Samantha Dickman, president of training company Testudo LLC, Madison, has held daylong training seminars educating contractors on the lead requirements. She said despite the large number of contractors to have taken the course, many are still unfamiliar with the new regulation.

“Contractors don’t even know this rule exists because there hasn’t been a lot of information released,” Dickman said. “A third of the calls I get are from contractors asking if they need certification or not.”

The liability of hiring unlicensed subcontractors frustrates many general contractors, and that sentiment is shared by Bruce’s agency, she said.

“We feel it, too,” she said. “I totally understand why this is confusing and hard on them because they’re trying to figure out how to do this efficiently and avoid getting in trouble.”

Jeff Beiriger, executive director of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Wisconsin Association, said many subcontractors already licensed to perform lead-renovation work have done so because they often work alone. He predicted many more subs will follow once the need arises.

“Employers aren’t rushing to spend money on a training program or take their mechanics out of the field for a training program, but once that need arises that will change,” Beiriger said. “The first time they have to say no to a job because they’re not qualified to do the work is when they’ll go get qualified.”

Dickman and Taylor reported declining enrollment in training courses, and Bruce said the same trend applies nationally in preparation for a federal Environmental Protection Agency rule, similar to Wisconsin’s rule, that goes into effect at the end of the year.

The priority, they all agreed, is ridding older homes of lead paint.

“It’s everyone’s burden to take care of this and make sure we’re not poisoning homeowners,” Dickman said. “If there was lead poisoning to occur, the contractor is going to be fined, licensed or not.”


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