Rick Schwolsky, Editor-in-Chief
Rick Schwolsky, Editor-in-Chief

Here's a good one: As of this past February, the 14th to be exact, young carpenters and roofers, and any other 16- or 17-year-olds trying to get a start in the construction trades, are banned by the Department of Labor (DOL) from working "upon or in close proximity to a roof" because of the inherent dangers of working at heights. This includes young bucks helping to install top-floor joists, roof trusses, sheathing, roofing, trim, and gutters, along with mason's helpers, junior painters, and HVAC go-fers. I guess we should be thankful that the DOL was talked out of banning minors from working above 6 to 10 feet, although the agency has left that door open for review at a future date.

In fact, the vast majority of comments collected by the agency, "supported the prohibition of roofing work and all work on a roof," and many suggested bans set at stepladder heights. There was only one dissenting voice, that of the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), which protested the ban on the grounds that it would "jeopardize valuable career-advancing opportunities, and that proper supervision, safety instructions, and training are sufficient to reduce or alleviate any heightened risk of injury without sacrificing the benefit of work experience." Thanks ABC, we couldn't have said it better ourselves.

The DOL's response to this was to extend exemptions for "apprentices and student learners." But even that is problematic because of the low percentage of young construction workers actually enrolled in any kind of formal training program. This is a gray area that I would worry about if I were a contractor with any young crewmembers.

Don't mistake my dismay over this new rule as disdain for safety regulations. I fully support and encourage every effort made by government agencies, construction companies, and safety trainers everywhere to push hard and improve jobsite safety. But when something like this comes down the road, well, it's hard not to get worked up. I don't know about you, but I'd much rather be setting trusses with an athletic, fit, and eager-to-learn junior-carpenter, than with a tired, hungover, I'd-rather-be-someplace-else 30-year-old.

I started growing calluses wrestling wheelbarrows of concrete into place when I was 14. I could have easily fallen into foundation holes higher than some roofs the DOL is trying to protect against. I started growing forearm muscles and losing my fear of heights when I was 16 as the youngest framer on my crew. At 17 my friends and I were walking 2x4 top plates and setting trusses like we were walking down the sidewalk.

For sure, young workers need extra attention and training to make sure they know what to do and how to do it, and more importantly what not to do and how to work safely. It's just ironic to me. I can remember when I was old enough to go into the Army during the Vietnam War, but too young to buy a beer. Today's kids are old enough to fight in Iraq–but too young to climb a ladder. Give me a break.

Go to Department of Labor Web site: http://www.dol.gov/esa/regs/fedreg/final/2004027182.htm