Do Roofers Need OSHA?

Last week, I was notified by my boss that I would be shortly starting a very large and important project to restore the roof and gutter system on an historical renovation project for one of the most famous churches in the city of Denver. He also informed me that, since the church is located in a particularly conspicuous part of the city, we would be required to wear a hard hat and work boots during the entire project, as per OSHA regulations. As soon as I heard the news of our government-mandated dress code, I turned to my non-English speaking colleagues and informed them that those of us who would be working on the project would be required to wear cascos. Their only reply to this news was to issue a series of groans and indignant snorts. I nodded and gave them a grimacing smile to acknowledge that I, too, was not exactly excited about the prospect of clamping a piece of rigid plastic onto my head for two weeks.

I don’t want to give the impression that I am ungrateful to OSHA for protecting us from imminent death or disfigurement at work. Indeed, as I’ve written about before, OSHA is responsible for saving my life in at least one other occasion. What I do want to call OSHA’s attention to, however, is the fact that it might not be necessary for people who work at the very tops of houses and office buildings to wear a piece of protective equipment designed to protect the human head from falling objects. Since it relatively rare for objects to fall out of the clear blue sky, rendering us poor roofers unconscious, it might be wise for OSHA to allow us to do our work unencumbered with these bulky, horribly uncomfortable and often dangerous pieces of equipment.

(As an aside, I might mention that I was recently asked by one of my colleagues why the U.S. government was foolish enough to insist that roofers wear hard hats. Such an absurd and paternalistic law, he explained, would be openly mocked and flaunted in his native country. Before I had a chance to answer, one of his fellow countrymen sardonically responded that we needed to be protected from getting whacked in the head by los pájaros. In retrospect, I imagine that this is probably the best answer that can be given to the question, although it would probably take a bird the size of an eagle or a crane to do any significant damage to the human head).

I am sure that OSHA has the best of intentions in insisting that we wear protective headwear with nothing but the heavens above us. I’m sure the thinking runs something like this: "It’s better to be safe than sorry. If we force all roofers to wear hard hats and it saves just one life, our incessant nagging (and lucrative fining) will all have been worth it." What this sort of thinking overlooks, however, is that these sorts of blanket laws can produce precisely the opposite of their intended effect. That is, by forcing roofers to wear hard hats when they otherwise would not choose to do so, the law can actually make roofers more dangerous and unsafe than they otherwise would have been.

As an example of this, consider what happens when a roofer bends over the edge of a roof to install, say, a piece of gutter. With his arms and head dangling over the edge of a roof five stories up, and gravity having its usual effect, suddenly a hard hat becomes a shiny missile hurling down to Earth. This happens much more frequently than you might imagine. As a matter of fact, I can honestly say that in my twelve years of construction experience I have never seen anyone on any construction site ever hit in the head by any falling object — besides a hard hat falling from above. And I can assure you that the workers struck in this manner on the ground were not exactly amused by the irony of the situation.

As another example, consider the physiological effect that is produced when you force a man to encapsulate his head in solid plastic under the blazing sun. As you might imagine, a hard hat traps and secures all the heat of the sun without allowing a man’s perspiration out. A dangerous mixture of suffocating heat and streams of sweat is thus produced that can cause heat exhaustion and blinding amounts of perspiration. For men balanced precariously atop houses and buildings, this is not exactly a physiological condition one wants to produce — especially since heat related sickness is a leading cause of roofer injury. If OSHA has any true concern for its wards, they need to allow roofers to have the discretion to remove their hard hats as safety conditions dictate.

In light of the problems caused by forcing roofers to wear hard hats, allow me to offer a constructive piece of advice to the employees of OSHA. I would like to suggest that you leave those of us who have voluntarily chosen to work in one of the most dangerous trades in America to look out for our own safety. We are grown men just like you are, and we are fully aware of the dangers and risks that our trade involves — and indeed pride ourselves on possessing the courage to cope with those risks. We are also capable of recognizing what steps we need to take to ensure our own safety. Indeed, since we actually work in the trade we are able to better understand the risks and safety precautions better than some office working, OSHA-handbook-reading bureaucrat. Feel free to give us your "professional" advice (if it can truly be called "professional" advice since most OSHA employees have never worked on a roof), but can you please stop fining us millions upon millions of dollars every year because we don’t do our jobs like your handbooks dictate? Then again, who am I to question the wisdom of your handbooks? I’m just an actual roofer, and those fines you take from us put food on your table.

Just make sure you watch your head when you’re out hunting people to fine — you might get hit by a hard hat.