The revival of a long-dormant residential construction regulation designed to increase safety is threatening the already-thin margins on roofing jobs.
The U.S. Department of Labor directive mandates roofers and anyone else in residential construction who works more than 6 feet off the ground be protected with guardrails, safety nets, harnesses or scaffolding.
The additional safety measures will add about 15 percent more labor time to jobs, said Greg Johnson, vice president of field operations for F.J.A. Christiansen Roofing Co. Inc., Milwaukee, and that will be reflected in higher costs for customers.
“My best guess is that a $5,000 job becomes a $5,500 job,” he said. “That will certainly be passed on to the customer, and, combined with increasing material costs, the timing of this couldn’t be worse.”
The safety regulation went into effect in 1994, but it was unpopular with workers and employers, so in 1999, the Department of Labor issued a directive not to enforce the rule.
But in December, the DOL issued another directive citing the “high numbers of fall-related fatalities in residential construction” as reason to enforce the rule starting June 16.
The National Roofing Contractors Association challenged the DOL directive, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit last week dismissed the petition.
Pending an appeal, the regulation is scheduled to take effect nationwide.
“Even the small residential ranch house, you are technically going to be required to be tied-off 100 percent of the time,” Johnson said. “That is going to drive up costs across the board for contractors and customers.”
Tim French, lawyer for NRCA, said the regulation will be “anti-competitive” for modest roofing companies that could have to buy or lease elaborate scaffolding or restraint systems to comply with the regulation.
“Can they stay in business?” French said. “That was another one of our concerns that led to our challenging the rule.”
He said the NRCA is reviewing the decision and has not decided whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Rod Demlang, owner of Sussex-based Demlang Builders Inc., said his company already started incorporating permanent attach points near the peak of new homes to let roofers and carpenters attach ropes and harnesses. The attach points add about $250 to the construction cost of each new home, he said.
“Ultimately, it’s going to affect the pricing of the homes, but we have not yet adjusted our prices,” said Demlang, who is also vice president of the Metropolitan Builders Association of Wisconsin.
Alan Metzler, owner of Metzler Roofing Inc., a two-person roofing company based in Stoughton, acknowledged residential jobs will take more time due to the enhanced safety precautions, but not to the point where his company will lose work or have to spend money on expensive equipment.
“I’ve got the ropes and harnesses and they don’t take long to hook up,” he said. “It’s going to cost customers a little more, but if I want to stay in business, I’m going to follow the rules.”
There are some companies that won’t follow the rules, however, Johnson said, which puts contractors that do at a competitive disadvantage. He argued larger companies such as F.J.A., which has 144 employees, could lose customers to less reputable operations that offer cheaper and faster jobs by circumventing the regulation.
“This makes it harder for us to compete with the three-men-and-a-truck companies out there,” Johnson said, “that don’t worry or care about the regulation.”
The Wisconsin Law Journal’s Dave Ziemer contributed to this report.