OSHA Crackdown Hard on Builders

Originally published by: Omaha.comOctober 25, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Some Nebraska homebuilders say a crackdown by federal safety regulators is making it tough for them to operate.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration seems to be more aggressively enforcing rules written in the 1990s to keep workers from tumbling off construction projects.

Workers operating more than 6 feet up must use nets, guardrails or other forms of restraints to prevent falls. There are further guidelines on how those restraints are secured.

The homebuilders say they are struggling to comply with the rules, though, and getting hit with fines that can reach $77,000 for a violation. Nebraska's residential construction industry paid $1.5 million in fines from July 2010 to July 2011, based on the homebuilders' analysis of OSHA data.

"We find ourselves actually working in and out of compliance all day long," said Eric Lakeman, president of L&L Custom Builders Inc. in Bennington. "We may be in compliance in the morning and out of compliance in the afternoon. Well, if OSHA drives by in the morning, I'm great. If they come in the afternoon, it could be a $77,000 fine. That's more money than I made all year."

The builders said the crackdown has some companies pondering whether certain work is worth the risk and are laying off workers as a result.

Lakeman and several other homebuilders flew to Washington Thursday to meet with David Michaels, the assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, and other officials.

The meeting was held in the Capitol Hill office of Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb. Other builders back in Nebraska joined the meeting by videoconference.

The builders told Michaels the rules can be confusing and often are simply impossible to follow. They pointed to requirements that fall restraints be secured with "anchorage points" that support a certain amount of weight. But they aren't engineering experts, they said, and can't determine whether they are meeting that threshold.

Michaels told The World-Herald after the meeting that the agency wants to work with the builders to find solutions to their concerns but also stressed the importance of protecting workers.

Falls remain the top killer of construction workers, he said, and serious injuries inflict a terrible cost on families, communities and the businesses themselves.

"You have to remember that the cost of a fatality or a serious injury is huge, and there is nothing that will drive a contractor out of business faster than having a fatality or a serious injury in their workers because that will raise their workers' compensation costs," Michaels said.

He said many contractors in Nebraska and across the country are building houses and finding relatively low-cost ways to comply with the rules.

"When it's not feasible, contractors and homebuilders can develop alternatives, but we believe that in most cases it will be feasible, and we want to work closely with them to identify those ways that homebuilders can work safely and productively," he said.

Johanns, who attended much of the meeting, said OSHA appeared to be paying attention to the concerns. He said he hopes the local OSHA office and the builders can work through their issues.

For his part, Lakeman said he was encouraged by the meeting.

"Today was big — that they actually made, I thought, some real genuine concessions to work with us, and we'll see. Time will tell whether that actually works out or not," Lakeman said.

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