By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Santa Rosa fire inspector Toby Rey has spent a lot of time on roofs.
From the age of 16, he worked as a rough frame carpenter, dangling high above the ground as he pounded nails into trusses and rafters.
During his 22 years as a firefighter, Rey also has scrambled across his share of roofs, some of them burning.
And as an inspector in the city’s fire marshal’s office for the past six years, one of his jobs has been to ensure solar panels on roofs comply with setbacks designed to keep firefighters safe.
So in early August, when Rey briefly inspected solar panels on a home under construction near the fairgrounds, he didn’t bother wearing safety equipment.
“I just used my judgment and determined it was a safe roof to be on,” Rey said.
But local Cal-OSHA officials, who enforce workplace safety laws in the state, saw something different – a serious safety hazard. And last month they slapped the Santa Rosa Fire Department with a $2,700 fine.
The investigation was launched when Cal-OSHA spotted a photo of Rey on the roof on the front page of The Press Democrat on Aug. 7. The story highlighted the friction between solar panel installers and fire inspectors over new fire codes for placement of solar panels.
But Cal-OSHA officials said Rey had failed to use “fall protection measures” while atop the roof, which they said was 24 feet off the ground.
When firefighters fight fires, they are exempt from Cal-OSHA rules regarding heights and other risk inherent in doing their jobs, said Dean Frye, a Cal-OSHA spokesman. But inspections fall under the same requirements that apply to anyone doing construction.
In this case, a harness or other fall protection measure has to be worn by employees “whose work exposes them to falling in excess of 7 & ½ feet from the perimeter of a structure” or other unprotected edges or steep slopes, according to the code.
Rey said he knows what kinds of roof surfaces to avoid, and noted he did not go on a tile roof that same day because of the risk of slipping, he said.
“My position is I didn’t do anything wrong, and right now the battle is between my managers and OSHA,” Rey said.
The city is contesting the fine. It claims the state’s rules are unclear and not evenly enforced. An informal hearing between city and OSHA officials to resolve the case took place Wednesday afternoon. The city can appeal the fine to the full board and to the courts, if it chooses.
The last time the city was fined by Cal-OSHA was 2003, when the public works department was cited $450 for allowing workers to ride on a flat-bed vehicle. The fire department has had no such fines since 2001, the earliest year searchable by the state’s online database.
Santa Rosa Fire Chief Mark McCormick said he’s concerned because the rules do not appear to be widely enforced or even known.
“I’m not aware of other any other fire agency or building department in the state that that requires fall protection be in place for their inspectors when they go to do an inspection,” McCormick said.
Federal OSHA requirements have exemptions for inspectors, but California, which is one of the states that opts to impose stricter safety standards, does not, McCormick said. State law contains no exemptions for inspections of roof construction, but there is an exemption for inspections of skylights, McCormick said.
“It seems like it’s not real clear and there’s somewhat of a discrepancy,” McCormick said.
He also argued that fire inspectors who go up on a roof for perhaps 10 minutes should not be governed by the same rules that apply to workers who might be up there for hours at a time.
Fryer said he was surprised to hear a fire chief claim ignorance of what he said were widely known worker safety rules.
“It is the law and it is very well known to those who do any kind of work on structures above the ground,” Fryer said.
He said he was unaware of any exemption for skylight inspectors, but said the notion that inspectors don’t need safety gear because their time on roofs is brief misses the point.
“It only takes one step to go over the side,” Fryer said.