A Sustainable Workforce Starts With You

Yikes, Did I Just See That?

The mantra of the residential and renovation contractors and subs that “Residential is different from Commercial construction. We can’t afford to do all that stuff...” has been repeated in my face for my entire career. I would argue that might have been the case in the past, but, as Bob Dylan sang, “The times, they are a changing.” Maybe it is time that residential contractors and subs wake up to the new reality. In this time of a major labor shortage in our industry, the skilled workers in the residential arena will be in high demand and will begin to demand improvement, not just higher wages but in other areas as well.

This week I have gotten a first-hand look at what is happening in the residential side of the business as a renovation crew has been repairing water damage on the townhouse next to mine. They are doing a great job, but there are some things that I can point out that need to be addressed by the residential industry and the sooner the better. While these points are from personal observation, I know that, with few exceptions for high-rise (usually developed and built by commercial developers, GCs and subs) and mid-rise, they apply across the Residential Construction Industry.

First, Personal Protection Equipment (PPE). The crew that is working outside my office window has none. Sure, they have lime-green logoed t-shirts on, but that is all. They are all wearing shorts and running shoes or soft toed work boots, not steel-toed shoes or boots. Foot injuries waiting to happen.

Second, the crew spent the first two days on the job erecting scaffolding and sawing stucco and lath to gain access to the rotted sheathing behind it caused by a lousy construction detail that passed inspection 20 years ago but would not pass inspection today. They were sawing through stucco with only bandanas pulled up over their faces to protect them from the dust, not respirators. Also, they have no eye protection. So, they were creating a fiber dust storm with no eye or lung protection. And did I mention that the saws that they are using have no dust collection system, so the dust is not controlled for the workers or the neighbors. Granted they did hang plastic sheeting to protect the landscaping, but not the workers and the air was thick with dust particles.

Third, there are no hard hats or fall protection for this crew. I just watched a piece of metal flashing fall past my window dropped by a guy on a 30 plus foot tall ladder. It bounced off the ground and would have bounced off the spotter on the ground had he not jumped out of the way. No hard hat, no tie offs for the equipment. At least someone was steadying the ladder, but if he was a bit distracted by his phone there was a head injury waiting to happen.

Fourth, they are working on scaffolding, but that scaffolding is not anchored anywhere except the ground and the cross bracing is not always connected to the frame as it should be.

I will give them due credit for the work that they are doing. The craftsmanship is good. They do know what they are doing. They do have a walk around before starting each morning, but there certainly is no “stretch and flex” that I saw. I expect that this crew has done this kind of job many times before. The job has passed all the City of Houston inspections and the work is now ready for new stucco.

All this to say that residential work is usually low budget and the workers typically come from the local Home Depot parking lot or if not, that are paid as independent contractors and not employees. No benefits either. Unique is the residential sub or company that has adopted more than the most basic of safety standards. That might have worked for the last 100 years but the next 25 years will see a continued labor shortage in the skilled trades, more demand for jobsite and personal safety equipment, training and even new construction methods emerge.

One of my clients once complained about the construction business that, “We still are building structures in 2-inch increments.” For today’s residential work that may be the case, but as we have already seen in the commercial and industrial side of the industry, the residential side of the business is long overdue for “change” and that change is on the horizon. Until that time, let’s hope that today’s crews are able to avoid the injuries that result from a lack of safety issues like we just pointed out.