Why Are Roofers Dying?

The roofing industry as a whole is a dangerous one.  I know we’re preaching to the choir here, but obviously some companies are simply not carrying the tune.  How do we know that not everyone is on board with safety?  A simple look at the numbers and trends will do it.

Injuries And Deaths Are Increasing

Looking at 2015 through 2019 shows a stark reality.  Numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show the following fatalities for roofers, commercial and residential combined:

2015 – 87 Deaths
2016 – 115 Deaths
2018 – 106 Deaths
2019 – 134 Deaths

In 2020, roofers had a work-related fatality rate more than 15-times the national average.  This makes roofing the 4th most dangerous industry in the United States according to the USBLS.  That is up from 6th place in 2015.  Remember, this is 2020 – a year many roofers had less business activity due to the Covid-19 pandemic.  How many would have died in a regular year?

Injuries are not as directly tracked, so hard numbers are difficult to find.  The NSC (National Safety Council) links all construction trades, including roofing, together.  However, they also show a trend of non-fatal injuries ranging from 72,070 in 2015 to 77,560 in 2019. 

Why Are We Dying?

I don’t think anyone is surprised that falls are the #1 reason for fatality in our industry.  With an average more than 88%, fall fatalities are the single biggest risk a contractor faces. 

Yet there is a plethora of safety items available to protect our teams. Harnesses, scaffolds, tie-offs, edge reminder systems and so forth.  It almost boggles the mind that there can be so many preventative options yet still have such an ongoing problem.  Clearly, there must be something beyond lack of available safety equipment behind the numbers.

Demographics.  The average roofing fatality is in the mid-20s to mid-30s and is male.  There is a tendency among this demographic toward risk taking.  Even if the equipment is available, they may choose not to utilize it.

Cost.  It’s no lie that safety equipment is expensive.  For an owner on a slim margin, the temptation to skip the cost or go with older equipment is ever-present.

Convenience.  Particularly fall-prevention equipment like harnesses is inconvenient and time-consuming to team members.  Plus, it can be darned uncomfortable in hot or humid weather. 

Lack of Knowledge.  If a young roofer is not schooled in the correct use and need for safety equipment, you can almost bet it won’t be used correctly.

Changing The Trend

How can we turn the numbers around, change the trend and save our valuable people?  There are some steps every company owner or manager can take, regardless of the size of the organization.

Safety Program.  Yes, it is an OSHA requirement; no, most companies do not do a very good job.  Your safety program should include safety equipment use, importance of that equipment and consequences for failing to use it.  Additionally, any time new technology or new equipment is being utilized, every person on the roof should be involved in learning how to use it safely.  This is a no-brainer as it meets your OSHA obligation, improves your insurance rates, and protects your most valuable inventory – the men and women on the roof.

Equipment.  We all know equipment is expensive and you may not be in a position to purchase cutting-edge, brand-new safety equipment.  That does not mean you can’t ensure the equipment you have is in top condition.  Never send your workers out with sub-standard safety equipment.  The risk to them, and to your business, is simply not worth it.

Safety Standards.  As a company, you should have written safety standards that all workers are required to know and comply with.  Written safety standards once again assist with your OSHA compliance requirements and can reduce your insurance rates.

Safety Inspections.  If you aren’t on the roof at all times, your workers should know they can expect unannounced safety inspections by a senior member of the team.  These inspections should also come with known consequences should team members be found to be violating safety standards.  Those consequences need to be significant and in keeping with the risk of injury due to noncompliance.

Model Safety.  Don’t be a “do as I say, not as I do” sort of leader.  If safety is to be taken seriously in your company, it is up to you as the leader to model it daily.  Don’t climb up on that roof without your own safety gear in place.  Make sure you are worthy of emulation.

No one is going to change the risks associated with the roofing industry all on their own.  However, every single roofing business owner is responsible for reducing the risks within his/her own company.  If that responsibility is taken seriously, the trends will reverse automatically and more of our roofers will live to see another year.

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Written by: Diana Warwick
Diana Warwick
Diana Warwick grew up in a construction family. Over the decades, she has watched the industry change and evolve. Now, a recently retired RN, Diana is living her dream as a professional researcher and online author. Her strong research background, coupled with years of construction knowledge and innate curiosity, has led to her development as an integral part of a full-service marketing company that specializes in commercial roofing.