Senior Shawna Nagy smooths a jewelry box she is building in Scott Ferrante’s construction trades class at Southgate Anderson High School. Guest speaker Keith Woodcock addressed the class Tuesday about the importance of safety codes in the trades.
By TOM TIGANI
Sunday Times Newspapers
SOUTHGATE — Building safety codes may date to ancient times, but they’re just as important to saving lives as ever, students at Southgate Anderson High School learned Tuesday.
Keith Woodcock, owner of C4 Code Education and Consulting, brought that message to the classes of Scott Ferrante, Anderson’s construction trades teacher, and John Nasarzewski, who teaches drafting and design.
“Construction codes are the basis for us to make sure we have safe structures,” Woodcock told students.
As examples of the importance of codes, he talked about the situation in Japan following the recent earthquakes and tsunami, noting that codes there are much tougher than those in the United States. As a result, Woodcock said, most of the building collapses there involved small, stick-built homes.
“None of the high-rises there failed,” he said.
Michigan lies along a big earthquake fault line, Woodcock said, and though the state isn’t as notorious for quakes as other parts of the world, building codes here are being upgraded to take that geological reality into account.
His presentation included accounts of the history of how and why building codes have come to exist, dating all the way back to Hammurabi’s Code in 1750 B.C. Even back then, Woodcock said, structural safety was taken very seriously, as evidenced by laws that called for the deaths of builders or their sons in the event anyone was killed by the houses they built.
More recently, he said, modern building codes in the United States came about largely in response to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, which happened March 25, 1911. As a result of numerous building safety issues, Woodcock said, 146 workers died in the fire, marking the largest single fatal building incident in the country until Sept. 11, 2001.
The Triangle fire prompted legislation that led to the creation of fire and safety codes to be implemented at the time of construction, he said.
Training is required for trades workers in order to stay abreast of those codes and build compliant buildings, said Woodcock, 54. He is a senior commercial building inspector with Dearborn’s Economic and Community Development Department, which had no involvement with Tuesday’s presentation.
“Builders, plumbers, electricians, heating and cooling workers, excavators, concrete workers; they all need licenses,” he said. Failure to obtain a license, Woodcock said, can result in stiff fines and penalties. A first offense can cost from $5,000 to $25,000 or land a rogue contractor in jail for up to a year.
“It’s easy to cut corners and think you’re putting money in your pocket, but you’re going to get caught,” Woodcock said.
Keeping a license, he said, requires continuing education and recertification, with fees that must be paid by builders and tradespeople. Students at Anderson and other schools can take advantage of some training before turning 18, however, by learning from licensed people in the field.
“Working for licensed contractors gives you better training, and you learn about concepts like how time is money,” he said.
“You can’t shortchange yourself and have less steps,” Ferrante said. “I’m still going to school. This is the last time you can get that training for free.”
Despite the costs, continuing education has its benefits as well, Woodcock said, as builders learn about estimating, job costing, designing, contracts and risk management — all of which are critical to being a successful builder or tradesman.
But even a license and training can’t substitute for constant attention to details and safety on every job, Woodcock said.
He recalled an incident a couple of years ago at his cottage, where he was trimming a tree and did everything right — except one.
“I used an aluminum ladder instead of a fiberglass one,” he said. “A tree branch hit it, and boom, I fell 18 feet to the ground and broke my wrist and my pelvis. My hard hat broke, too, and if I hadn’t been wearing it, that would have been my head.”
Contractors and tradesmen might not make the same high salaries as architects and engineers, Woodcock said, but they’re critical to how the future will be built.
“Every architect or engineer requires at least 50 skilled tradesmen to make a building a reality,” he said. “Without tradesmen, nothing can go from the drawing board to reality. Getting your hands dirty is important.”
Woodcock, a resident of Southgate and graduate of Kennedy High School in Taylor, holds a bachelor’s degree in business leadership for code administration from Baker College. He plans to visit other Downriver schools in the near future to speak on the importance of building codes and proper licensing.
Anyone interested in scheduling such a presentation may contact C4 by telephone at (313) 421-1234 or by email at [email protected]