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Homebuilders decry new safety regulations

October 21, 2011
KEYWORDS builders / safety
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Posted with permission from: www.stltoday.com (St. Louis Post-Dispatch):

roofingSt. Louis-area homebuilders are pressing their case that new rules to prevent workers from falling from roofs could add thousands of dollars to new home prices and threaten contractors struggling in a hard-pressed industry.

Their complaints are drawing attention in Congress, which has been examining regulations from the administration of President Barack Obama with an eagle eye. Intervention by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., prompted the Occupational Health and Safety Administration to temporarily ease up on enforcement of the new rules across the country and offer more cooperation in complying.

"It just didn't pass the common sense test that we should be coming in with really aggressive, overbearing kind of regulations on this particular industry that is on the ropes right now," McCaskill said.

On Friday, 10 builders or representatives of the St. Louis-area housing industry aired their concerns in a conference call with OSHA officials in Washington arranged by McCaskill.

"It's almost impossible to do what they want in every situation and in some situations we're going to be spending a whole lot more money and guys are not going to be any safer for it," argued Bob Behlman, of Chesterfield-based Behlman Builders Inc.

The homebuilders also are upset about what they view as draconian penalties for violating the rules, up to $7,000 per worker on the job for a violation regarded as serious.

The residential fall protection directive, as it is called, went into effect Sept. 15 after being on hold since the Clinton administration. OSHA officials say advances in technology led to the decision to end what amounted to a 17-year exemption for residential contractors. OSHA points out that homebuilders initially went along with the change.

The government's safety agency describe a compelling need to address the biggest cause of fatalities in the homebuilding business. In the last five years, falls claimed the lives of 632 workers in the residential construction industry, according to a government tally.

"It's no secret to anyone that the housing industry is depressed. But that's really no excuse for more workers to die," said Jordan Barab, a deputy assistant secretary in the Labor Department. "Who wants to tell a little girl that her daddy isn't coming home because the economy is so depressed that we couldn't protect him?"

Barab noted that worker harnesses available for as little as $100 can help comply with rules. "Will it take a little more time? In some cases, yes. A little more expense? Yes, in some cases. But we're talking not only about saving lives but protecting workers from serious injuries that can have lifelong consequences," he said.

Builders in the St. Louis region say the new rules are far more complicated and can require scaffolding or railing around roofs. Builders say they don't object to such precautions in some instances but need flexibility to design alternative protection plans that meet OSHA's definition of feasible. But that definition, they say, is unclear.

Jim Brennan, owner of Chesterfield-based McKelvey Homes, one of the larger residential builders in the region, described the OSHA directive as "the kind of heavy-handed regulation that stifles the economy and ends up costing jobs."

"We've had a real good track record in St. Louis," he said. "We're blessed to have a skilled, union workforce. But profit margins have really suffered with the economy the way it is and something like this can tip the scale," he said.

Harry Miller, safety director of the Carpenters' District Council of Greater St. Louis, said he regarded the new rules as overdue, even if their timing is bad.

"I don't think OSHA is picking on anybody. I think they're trying to do their job. Some of the people complaining are the ones who are trying to fly under the radar and not get caught."

The rules endured criticism from Republicans in a House Subcommittee on Workforce Protection this month. McCaskill got involved after hearing complaints during Congress' recess. Responding to her complaints about the severity of the penalties, Labor Department Deputy Secretary Seth Harris agreed to give builders with good safety records a 30-day grace period to fix violations during which they could not incur additional fines. Harris said builders would get a 10 percent reduction in fines, on top of other reductions OSHA allows when builders are attempting to comply with rules.

 

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