If ever there was a year for contractors to make safety a priority, this is it. Occupational Safety and Health Administration fines — already a multi-million liability — are set to jump more than 80 percent in 2016.

With OSHA fines of nearly $20 million annually, that’s an especially big “bombshell” for roofers.

The Congressionally approved “catch-up” increase — OSHA’s first since 1990, which quietly got tucked into a bipartisan budget act in November —allows OSHA to increase fines up to 82 percent. The agency now has until August 1 to do so, says Duane Musser, vice president of government relations for the National Roofing Contractors Association.

If OSHA raises fines the full amount, the current “serious” fine will jump from $7,000 to $12,740 and the maximum for death or repeat offenders will balloon from as much as $70,000 to as much as $127,400. Musser thinks that’s almost a foregone conclusion. And based on testimony from David Michaels of the U.S. Labor Department, OSHA’s assistant secretary, that seems accurate.

“The most serious obstacle to effective OSHA enforcement of the law is the very low level of civil penalties allowed under our law,” he testified. For example, he compared the $1 million penalty for tampering with water systems the Environmental Protection Agency can charge compared to the $70,000 penalty for willful death OSHA can levy. “OSHA’s penalties are not strong enough to provide adequate incentives,” he concluded.

Falls are the most common OSHA violation and roofing is the most fined aspect of contracting. The latest available statistics for 2013 to 2014 show roofing contractors alone received more than $18 million in penalties for violating OSHA standards. That compares to the overall residential remodeling industry statistic of just over $1.2 million.

“OSHA is one of the biggest concerns that our members have in terms of making sure they’re in compliance,” Musser said. “Anytime you see large increases in OSHA fines, that’s significant. And the way this happened in Congress was a big surprise. So in that sense it’s a significant bombshell.”

And not just for roofers, says Robert Criner, president of Criner Remodeling and National Home Builders Remodelers chair. Criner worries that the fine increases signal that OSHA is trying to raise more money. He also wonders whether OSHA will be as willing to negotiate fines as the agency has been in the past.

“This is another scenario where I wish they would spend more money on education to help contractors as opposed to just penalizing them,” he says. “We’re always trying to educate our employees and keep up with the latest requirements.”

But he worries higher OSHA fines will drive some unscrupulous contractors further “underground.” “When it becomes very, very hard to play by the rules, there’s some people who choose not to,” he says.

He urges contractors to take extra care with safety and supply workers with necessary safety equipment not for fear of the new fines, but rather because it makes good business sense.  

“It hurts my business to have injuries. It increases my insurance,” he says. “I make very little money without my employees working. So keeping them safe is for everyone’s benefit.”