Safeguard the Bottom Line as Lumber Prices Rise

Although contractors may be cautious about spending right now, consider the cost per linear foot of steel safety rail systems is almost equivalent to the cost of building two-by-four safety rails due to the skyrocketing cost of lumber.
By Deb Hilmerson
September 14, 2021

Many contractors bid jobs a year ago with no clauses for increased direct project costs. Then the onset of COVID-19 created construction delays and shutdowns. On top of that financial standstill, contractors now may be experiencing material and skilled worker shortages. Some may even be turning down work because they can’t find enough skilled labor.

This situation could be putting contractors’ bottom lines at risk in more ways than one. And shortcuts aren’t the answer.

ridiculously high lumber prices and untrained workers

Lumber is in short supply and expensive when contractors can get it. Extraordinary residential market demand has driven up the cost of standard grade two-by-fours by an estimated 140% to 150%. If contractors are still using two-by-fours for safety rails and leading-edge fall protection, and didn’t plan for rising lumber prices, that’s a direct hit on their bottom line.

Worse, most of the two-by-fours contractors are using for wood safety rails are for temporary purposes. It’s not much different than tossing extra cash directly into the landfill at the end of each job.

Then there’s the other challenge associated with using two-by-fours: The industry doesn’t have as many skilled workers as it did before the pandemic. And if contractors are not using experienced carpenters to build and install wood safety rails and leading-edge fall protection, there can be safety and compliance issues. Someone could fall and die. The contractor might be cited by Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The risks are worth the rewards

Many leading contractors started moving away from using two-by-four safety rails years ago. Those that had the expendable income to invest in construction-grade, engineered safety systems are now saving money on costly disposal fees, extensive material and labor cost, OSHA fines and project delays due to material availability. And they are profiting from the reuse and re-renting opportunity this one-time investment offers.

Although contractors may be cautious about spending right now, consider this: Just a couple years ago, the cost per linear foot for safety rails made with 13-gauge hot-dipped galvanized steel was about twice that of using two-by-fours. Now with the skyrocketing cost of lumber, the cost per linear foot of steel safety rail systems is almost equivalent to the cost of building two-by-four safety rails. Even better: Once contractors pay for the galvanized steel safety rail system, they make money reusing/re-renting them for subsequent jobs—and the project lifespan of the safety rail is 15 or more years.

Building two-by-four guardrails is time and labor intensive, and requires skilled labor. On the contrary, if contractors invest in an OSHA-compliant system that is easy to install with minimal components, they can assign the task to someone just learning the trade while the experienced workers can be used more efficiently.

The bottom line is risks go down and profits go up. And contractors are better prepared the next time lumber prices soar or they are short on skilled workers.

But of course, nothing is quite that simple. Demand for construction-grade, engineered safety systems is on the rise and there’s also a steel shortage. Steel suppliers are doing what they can to keep their existing customers going. This indicates two things: Contractors’ direct competition may now be switching to engineered safety systems, which will make bids even more competitive moving forward and give them another revenue stream. And if contractors can swing this important investment in your company’s future, the time to act is right now.

by Deb Hilmerson
Changing a mindset takes a mountain of grit, something that describes Deb Hilmerson perfectly, from her hard hat to her steel toe boots. Her 30 years in construction as a field laborer, Safety Director and Consultant at companies like 3M Worldwide and Mortenson landed her in the right place at the right time to transform archaic equipment practices on construction sites as President/CEO of Hilmerson Safety.

Related stories

Prioritizing Asset Issues Improves Fleet Productivity
By Rachael Plant
Getting your ducks in a row is sometimes easier said than done, especially when it comes to fleet management. But new software can aid in this process.
Proactive Tire Management to Avoid Blowouts
By Rachael Plant
Fleet-management software not only helps monitor the status and health of your fleet, it can even help predict and prevent tire blowouts.
Four Fleet-Management Tactics to Grow Business, Cut Costs and Boost Morale
By Christina Hartzler
A case-study of how Big-D Construction overhauled, modernized and digitized its fleet-management system.

Follow us

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Stay in the know with the latest industry news, technology and our weekly features. Get early access to any CE events and webinars.