Roofers. Who we are and what we do.  The roofing trade, arguably the oldest craft known to man, is a celebration of ethnic and cultural diversity. As such, it embodies the very ideal of America—that it’s not who you are but what you can do that makes a difference. This paper paints a picture of who we are, what we do and what makes out trade unique. I say “we” because I am a roofer. In this paper I will explore the culture of workers that comprise the unionized segment of the roofing industry (from here forward referred to as the roofing industry). As we will see, roofing is a simple term that refers to a highly complex industry.

Twenty-five years in the trade. Twenty-five years have passed since I entered the roofing and waterproofing trade.  Since that time I have had the privilege of working in all phases of the industry as an apprentice, journeyman and foreman.  As an industry insider and a socialized member of the trade, I am intimately familiar with its work assignments, current technology and workplace rituals, and the language and vernacular of the craftsmen themselves. But, most importantly, through my long- standing relationships with roofers and waterproofers in the field, I have always been able to rely on their advice and expertise concerning updates to the trade.  Although I am an experienced member of the trade, I would not have been able to complete my research and produce this ethnography without their invaluable assistance.  As I was soon to find out, my personal knowledge alone was inadequate to do so.

 Damned proud to be roofers.  The behavior patterns among workers in the roofing industry lead to a distinct occupational subculture that is independent of other blue-collar workers. It is a subculture in which its participants see themselves as rough, tough, macho, and hard working, finding dignity in what they do and damned proud to be roofers.

 High wages and good benefits.  One of the attractions of roofing has been good wages, benefits, and time off (most of which falls during the winter months) to pursue personal interests.  Roofers, along with other construction workers are mainly highly paid skilled craftsmen who occupy the top-level positions among blue- collar workers. Besides their wages, roofers receive good medical care for their families and have the expectation of receiving one of the finest blue-collar pensions in any industry at the time of retirement.



Flat roofers and steep roofers. A roofer is known by the type of roofing work he performs, such as, built-up roofer, single-ply roofer, slater, tileman and shingler.  Built-up roofers and single-ply roofers are sometimes referred to as flat roofers because the majority of buildings that they work on have low pitched roofs (less than 1/6 pitch or 4” in 12” slope), whereas slaters, tileman and shinglers are often times referred to as steep roofers because the buildings that they work on have high (steep) pitched roofs.



“Hot roofers and waterproofers: the prima donnas. Built-up Roofers (more commonly known as “hot” roofers”) are the prima donnas of the industry. They perform the most labor-intensive work, require the greatest degree of skills and have the longest periods of apprenticeship training, typically three to five years.  In his work, a hot roofer applies continuous, semi-flexible membranes (felts) in laminations, or plies, alternated with layers of hot bitumen (asphalt or coal tar pitch) and then surfaces the product with mineral aggregate or asphaltic materials.  Within the hot roofer classification falls the sub-classification of “kettleman”, a worker that fires the asphalt and coal tar kettles that melt the bitumen used in the roofing process.  Over the last 20 years this sub-classification has been phased out in some areas of the country and the job has been merged in with the regular duties of the journeyman hot roofer.

Single-ply roofers perform work of a similar nature and on the same kinds of buildings as hot roofers.  The major differences are the material used, the training received, and the expertise and equipment used to properly apply single-ply materials.  These systems are constructed from elastomeric sheeting that is joined together at laps on the roof by means of heat or solvent welding, contact cements, adhesives or other methods depending on the chemical make up of the product.  Single-play roof systems are a relatively new breed in the industry.  Single-ply roof systems emerged in the 1970s, becoming one of the mainstay processes of the industry during the 1980s eventually accounting for 40% to 50% of the flat roof market. (note: as of 1992 when this paper was written)

Waterproofers are the other half of the mitzpa coin linking up with hot roofers and thus completing the prima donna group.  Waterproofing is a highly skilled and specialized segment of the trade requiring the same level of apprenticeship classroom training as that of the hot roofer.  Water proofers work on new construction, industrial and commercial projects only, using many of the same materials applied in the built-up and single-ply process. Their work is comprised of two main processes, waterproofing and damproofing. Waterproofing is a system applied to a structure as a permanent barrier to water under hydrostatic pressure. Damproofing is protection against the penetration of water resulting from occasional exposure to moisture with no hydrostatic pressure. Waterproofers perform below and above grade work, the latter being a cause for frequent jurisdictional disputes with the bricklayer.



Slaters. Declining demand. are highly skilled specialists that work predominantly on commercial buildings, applying a dense, tough, durable quarried rock material (slate) that is practically non-absorbent.  Because slate can last for a long time, slaters may rarely if every work on a re-roof. Due to the fact that architects and specifying slate roofs less and less in modern building plans, slaters have become a small segment of the roofing trade. There are some in the industry that believe working with roofing slate could become a lost art over time.

 Shinglers work mostly on residential units and occasionally on a commercial project. But, unlike tilemen and slaters, they work on an equal number of re-roofs as they do new construction projects because the life expectancy of the materials they apply is from 10 to 25 years, depending on he original quality of the shingles and prevailing local weather conditions. Shinglers apply asphalt shingles with fiberglass or an organic mat fastened in a randomly spaced stair-step fashion. They also apply single layers of mineralized asphalt roll roofing held in place by fastners.

 In some areas of the country, shinglers apply wood shingles and shakes. Generally carpenters have received the jurisdictional awards for wood shingles and shakes, but in areas where roofers have traditionally performed the work (especially in the Northwest and Southwest), they continue to steadfastly maintain their claim and control of the work.



Single-ply roofers get second cousin”” treatment. Status in the roofing trade.  Hot and single-ply roofers click together both on the job and off.  This connection is even tighter between the hot roofers and waterproofers.  The bond or cultural identity that they have is due to several factors: 1. Training and skill requirements are equal, 2. Both types of work are physically hard and exacting, 3. Both types of work have a high potential for injury, occupational disease and job site death, and 4. They will often work on the same project at the same time, although in separate crews doing separate work.  Single-ply roofers are accepted in this group but not quite on the same level as the other two classifications—they are given a little of the “second cousin” treatment.

 Claiming to be a Roofer.  Hot roofers and single-ply roofers co-mingle at the shop (company office and yard), on the job and away from the job. They seem themselves as part of the same culture of work. In fact, many hot roofers and single-ply roofers are trained in both processes. This group rightly or wrongly has made claim over the years to the term “roofer” as if it only applies to them and waterproofers.

This group always refers to the others as slaters, tilemen and shinglers, never as roofers.  The pride of flat roofers and waterproofers in no way diminishes the community’s respect  for the steep roofers, who proudly refer to themselves as slaters, tilemen, and shinglers. Regardless of classification, we are a distinct and proud family of workers within the construction industry.



Becoming a roofer. It’s all in the family. When a young man enters the trade as a pre-apprentice, he is hired by the employer through the hiring hall or by word-of-mouth from family members or friends.  (Note. person, male or female (women make up onl (women make up only 1/5 of one percent of membership and many of those are allied workers in clerical positions.) Informing a family member or friend of upcoming work or encouraging them to maintain their name on the hiring hall list serves as natural conduit to expose interested new workers to the trade.

It’s a hell of a reputation to live up to. Roofers are typically related to each other through marriage or birth. This should not be considered a sign of nepotism, but rather the interior drive in young people to be good roofers like the fathers and brothers. Ted Kittilstved of Local #189, Spokane, Washington, whose father and seven of eight brothers are in the trade, says, “There are no slackers at the Kittilstved house. Everybody wants to be a better roofer than those that started before him. It’s a hell of a reputation to live up to.”

 Hiring. New employee hiring in the industry occurs during periods of peak employment when journeymen and certified apprentices are not available. Wages for pre-apprentices range from 35 percent to 45 percent of journeyman scale and include a minimum of fringe benefits (pension, health & welfare, and few if any other employee benefits).

 Years of on-the-job training and the classroom for “grunts”.  Upon employment, pre-apprentices may make application to the Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (JATC) for apprenticeship status. The JATC interviews and evaluates them on a set minimum of standards such as work history , education, and mental and physical ability. Those applicants that are selected are then indentured into a state or federally approved apprenticeship program. According to Robert Krul, National Apprenticeship Coordinator for the United Union of Roofers and Waterproofers, “An apprentice will typically spend from three to five years in on-the-job training and from two to three years in related classroom study, generally at a community college”.

Training requirement vary state to state. The length of training for apprentices varies from state to state depending on the job classification of the individual and the skill demands of the geographical area. Jay Wells of Local $135, Phoenix, Arizona explains that,  “in the state of Arizona, shinglers and tilemen only serve in on-the-job training apprenticeship and are not required to attend classroom study, while at the same time, waterproofers and flat roofers are required to spend three years in the classroom.”  In contrast to the Phoenix apprentices, all classifications of roofers and waterproofers are required to attend three years of classroom study in Seattle, Washington.

Roofer apprentices. No longer “grunts”.  When a worker becomes an apprentice he not only receives a chance to increase pay, he also to become an accepted social member of the trade.  A bond will now exist that says that other apprentices and journeymen are responsible for the new apprentice’s development and well-being and, at the same time, the new apprentice is expected to learn the traditions of the trade and to be a team player.  Only be earning the respect of the other workers will an apprentice be able to earn his right of passage to journeyman status. Once he gains journeyman status, he will no longer be called a “grunt”.

The practical jokes begin. During apprenticeship, a worker is initiated into the union and, at the same time, he is initiated into the brotherhood on the job.  The practical jokes begin immediately, with the dropping of a new hatchet into the tar kettle or the nailing of work boots and other clothing to the roof deck.  Every new apprentice has been sent down ten stories, on the double to fetch the imaginary “paper stretcher” from the supply truck.  When he returns empty handed and muttering apologetically to the foreman, everyone on the job lets loose with a good belly laugh.  All this is done in good fun.  Everyone enjoys it and it helps to get through the rigorous demands of the work.

Easily falling in with peers. When a young apprentice first goes on the job, he easily falls in with the behavior patterns of his peers. Inevitably, the new roofer is soon stopping with the crew for the customary after work beer, going on hunting trips with fellow workers and attending weekend parties at one of the journeymen’s homes.”

Crews or Gangs.  The ranks of hot and single-ply roofers, slaters, tilemen, shinglers and waterproofers work in groups referred to as a “crew” (West Coast) or a “gang (East Coast) that is made up of foremen, journeymen, apprentices and pre-apprentices . In the roofing trade, foremen are working member of the union bargaining unit and are considered to have equal standing with other workers.

 In Boston and Philadelphia it is the Irish. Ethnicity and religion. Like the importance of immediate family, ethnicity plays a crucial part of the cultural makeup of the trade.  In certain locales of the country, people from one or two ethnic backgrounds make up the bulk of workers. In Boston and Philadelphia it is the Irish. In New York City the Italians, Detroit the Polish, Colorado Springs and Tuscon the Hispanics.  (Roofers in these two areas prefer the term Mexican or Mexican-American. As far as they are concerned, Hispanics are from Spain or the Carribbean.) and in Houston and Washington, DC, the preponderance of the workforce is African-American. (Black is the preferred term.)

In some cities were there is no dominant ethnic group, a number of different groups may share influence, such as Los Angeles, where there is an equal three-way split among African-Americans, Caucasians, and Hispanics. In other cases, a small group may stand out. According to Don Porter of Local #74, Buffalo, New York and a Native-American, “In past years the Iroquois tribes have been 20 percent of the workforce here. Over the past five years that percentage has come down a little due to there being more job opportunities for younger Native-Americans on the reservations.”

One other interesting note on the makeup of roofer populations is that there is a high concentration of Catholics in the Northeast and industrial North Central portion of the country. Paul Bickford of Local #33, Boston, Massachusetts says that “over 75 percent of the local membership is Roman Catholic.” It is believed that Catholic immigrants who were originally drawn to America’s industrial belt because of mining and manufacturing jobs eventually migrated into the roofing trade.

Equally interesting, I found that in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Pocatello, Idaho, there are not a high number of Mormons in the union as one would expect. Bret Prkett of Local #200, Pocatello stated that “the local has only one LDS (Mormon) member”.  I found this fact very curious, but in checking with Local #91 in Salt Lake City, I was told that they had no LDS members. Purkett suggested this may be because, in Utah and Idaho, which are right-to-work states, Mormons are not required to join the union and don’t possibly because the rough and tumble roofer lifestyle does not fit with Mormon religious beliefs.



The craftsman is responsible. Unlike factory workers and many service employees, a roofer’s job is not narrowly defined, nor is it performed under close supervision. Journeymen are given their work location, a “job sheet” or plans describing the work to be performed and told what material and equipment is available to them. The organization of the tasks and how the work is to be performed is left to the craftsmen and their foreman. The craftsman is responsible for the layout of his work and completing it within a certain time.

Mastery over his tools and work environment. On new construction work, and occasionally on re-roof, a journeyman roofer not only coordinates with his immediate crew, but must cooperate with workers from other crafts. Each journeyman knows his part on the crew and the part that his crew plays with other trades in completing the project. Work organized on a craft basis allows the roofer to perform an entire complex operation with mastery over his tools and work environment and allows social integration and cooperation with other tradesmen who share in the pride of creating something.

 Foremen are key if you want to work steady.  The foreman has a great deal of say about the composition of his crew. The selection of roofers on that crew is almost entirely in his hands. A good foreman knows the individual roofers who possess the skills and ability to adjust their behavior to fit in with the other roofers on the crew and other craftsmen on the job. A foreman wants a harmonious crew on the job so that he can properly regulate performance, pace, and quality of the roofing work. Every journeyman that works steady, or expects to work steady, must make known is availability to work, his craft skills, his sociability, his good judgment and initiative to a wide circle of foreman.

You need a dependable kettleman – chili and baked potato too. For the foreman on a hot roofer crew, it is crucial to have a qualified and dependable kettleman that can assure a steady supply of properly heated hot bitumen to the roof.  Most foremen will not accept the shop’s choice for kettlemen if those chosen are not known by the foreman to be competent workers.  The production of an entire crew of roofers can be put at a standstill if the supply of bitumen is too cold or hot, or not in sufficient quantity for the roofers to continuously operate equipment on the roof deck.

A kettleman reports to the job in his pick-up that is loaded with every tool imaginable: those needed to fix mechanical equipment in the case of a breakdown, bailing wire, spare parts that he has scavenged off previous jobs and some home remedy first aid supplies.  An old timer worth his salt will also have a small sheetmetal oven fashioned to fit on the kettle and cooking grate.  Come lunchtime, he is ready to send up chili, pot pies, and leftovers from last night’s dinner to the brown baggers working on the roof.  He may even send up baked potatoes and unshucked corn cooked inside the kettle.  All a hungry roofer needs to do is remove the skin of asphalt from a potato or the husk from an ear of corn when it cools and eat it.

Smart contractors leave planning to the crews.  Every smart contractor knows his crew stands between whether he makes a profit or goes bust on the job. The contractor is well aware that the crew on the job sees the flow of the total product and is therefore best suited to perform organizational and planning functions that in other industries are the function of management.

 Foreman and crew manage their own. The crew and its foreman not only control the flow of production on the job, they also evaluate the work skills and habits of their fellow roofers. A worker whose personal traits don’t fit in with the crew or whose quality of work is below par will be encouraged to find work elsewhere.  Rarely does an employer have the need to fire a substandard worker because peer pressure will cause him to quit on his own. Grievances between roofers on the crew or between the crew and the foreman are likewise settled without management’s involvement.



The roofer mostly owns tools used with one hand. A roofer’s tools and the use of his tools sets him apart from blue collar workers in mass production. The proper use of tools reflects something of the worker himself. As a general rule in the roofing industry, tools used with one hand (hammer, tin snips, wrenches) are owned and supplied by the roofer. Tools used with both hands (ladder, shovel, power equipment) are supplied by the contractor.

Work boots and tennis shoes. Roofer clothing. Because of the numerous work processes of the trade, different clothing is referred or desirable for different work.  Naturally, all clothing must be durable and protect the worker from his environment but, beyond that, requirements get more specific. Hot roofers and waterproofers wear clothing that protects them from the 475 degree hot bitumen used on most jobs.  Typically they wear flat-soled leather, work boots, heavy jeans or bib-overalls, long sleeve shirts and gloves that cover the wrist. In contrast, tilemen and shinglers wear tennis shoes, medium weight trousers, long sleeve shirts and no gloves. Although their hands take a terrific beating during the workday, especially shinglers working with mineralized roofing materials, wearing gloves does not allow them the dexterity necessary to perform their work.

 Respirators and chemically resistant gloves. Water proofers and single-ply roofers frequently wear cartridge respirators and chemical resistant gloves, and hot roofers involved with tear-off (roofing removal) wear protective face-masks and/or protective eyewear. Workers are exposed to toxic solvents and other chemicals when working with waterproofing and single-ply products, and tear-off often times contains asbestos roofing felts.

Waterproofers below grade wear hard hats.  As would be expected, waterproofers that work below grade wear hard hats, but roofers, because they work above all other craftsmen on the job, do not wear them unless required by the project manager. On large projects where hard hats are required, you can often times readily determine one craft from another solely by the color of the hard hats they wear – carpenter green, electrician yellow, roofer white, and so on.

No shirt in the summer, even hot roofers.  When safety inspectors are not present or when roofers can get away with it, some opt for short sleeve shirts or no shirt in order to sport a tan.  I can remember when most roofers went without a shirt in the summer, even hot roofers. It was considered by them to be a macho thing to do. With out knowledge today of the high incidence of skin cancer, chance of hot asphalt burns, abrasions and other exposures it is a foolish roofer that goes without a long sleeve shirt or, for that matter, any of the protective clothing and equipment available to him. Roofers have come a long way in improving their safety habits. One simple sign of improvement is that you almost never see a roofer on a sunny day without a billed hat and dark glasses to protect his head and eyes.

Trade jargon: hot, bear, and thick butts.  The roofing trade has its own particular way of referring to tools and materials used in the process of work.  Acquiring the social jargon of the trade becomes second nature.  Hot roofers refer to hot bitumen simply as “hot”. Shinglers call three-tab mineralized shingles “thick butts” and waterproofer’s calibrated mastic “bear” or  “plastic”.  These short handed terms along with many others used in the trade set roofers off culturally from other craftsmen.

 Screaming Max, one of many nicknames. Among roofers, nicknames abound.  Many of the nicknames seem to have no origin. Others are shortened versions of first or last names, and others yet are terms of insult. I was told of a foreman called Screaming Max, so named because of the way he barked orders to his crew. When called Screaming Max by roofers or friends he considered it a term of familiarity, but let an outsider use the same handle to call him by and a first fight would start.



Stress is a normal fact of work-life. A roofer faces work-related stress on many different fronts. As sociological and psychological stress multiplies in a roofer’s life – long days of summer heat, the hot asphalt, the accidents, the traveling, and the frequent layoffs – the roofer’s job satisfaction and home life are affected. All roofers have had some or all of these stresses and most come to accept them as a normal fact of work-life.

Away from home and loss of work due to weather.  By following the path of his trade, a roofer is frequently away from home and separated from his family, an unavoidable stress in the search for continued employment. The stability of a roofer’s family hinges on his opportunities for finding and keeping work.  It is not unusual for a roofer to be away from home 50 percent of the working year.  Many spend their entire working careers away from home.  As opposed to other craftsmen who may begin and finish a construction project, a roofer’s typical time on a project is from three to forty working days. This short span of time does not allow the roofer to uproot is family and move them with him from job to job.

The roofing industry is characterized by instability and wide fluctuations of activity. The sequence and availability of work, extreme temperatures and rain can and does have a negative effect on work. In northern states a roofer will lose a substantial percentage of his income during winter months.

For some, layoffs are tragic. Cyclical unemployment is a major source of worry and dissatisfaction among roofers. Unemployment in the construction industry during 1992 was 15.7 seasonally adjusted compared to the nation’s civilian unemployment rate of 7.3 percent for the same period. Many roofers adapt well to long layoffs through budgeting and control of personal habits. For others, the layoff is financially tragic. Aside from financial problems, loss of work brings a multitude of stressors to some roofers, some of which may begin well in advance of layoff because the worker constantly worries about when the loss of a job will come.

A roofer only receives pay for actual hours worked. Other than unemployment benefits there is nothing to look forward to except another job. When off the job, boredom sets in while waiting for work.  Marital problems crop up as the husband feels pressure from a perceived or real inability to provide for the family. Drug and alcohol consumption increases in problem users. Non-users are tempted by long days of not working and by the attraction of tavern companionship.

Most roofers have a sense of their self-reliance and independence. They know the insecurities they must face in the industry, and know that they will be in demand and will be able to find work again after a layoff. They may have to go to the hiring hall or begin contacting friends and relations to make the necessary connections that will lead to another job. But they maintain the spirit of confidence. Some find the periodic time off as an opportunity to spend time hunting, fishing, snow skiing and being with family, activities that reduce work loss dread.

 Technology brings new risks.  Technology has brought many new processes and changes to the roofing and waterproofing industry, and with it many new stressors for the workers who ply their trade.  For the roofer and waterproofer, the most noticeable changes are the mechanized equipment and bulk materials. Each technological advance has produced larger units of equipment, capable of increasingly heavier loads and higher speeds of application.  Kettles for heating asphalt or coal tar pitch that just a few short years ago would melt up to 360 gallons of hot liquid material, now come in 1200 gallon sizes with multiple high-BTU propane fired heating devices. These are fully automated requiring minimal adjustment by the operator from the time they are fired until shut down at days end. Motorized equipment used to tear off old roofs has increased injury from flying gravel and insulating materials.

Roofing materials themselves have become larger and heavier than those of the past due to computerized manufacturing capabilities and the ability of newly introduced powerful hoisting equipment. Rolls of single-ply materials can weigh up to two tons. Materials are manufactured to an architect’s or consultant’s specifications without consideration for ergonomic hazards, such as the increased risk of back injuries.  Despite the availability of mechanized equipment, roofers still must manually handle the materials several times between loading and final installation. There are many examples where new equipment used in applying the roof system has led to an increase in the numbers of roofers being crippled or killed from accidents, especially falls, falls being the number one cause of serious injury and death to roofers.

In manufacturing, automation has led to increased boredom on the job for blue-collar workers. The difference between manufacturing and the roofing trade is that in roofing, automation has caused workers to work harder and faster than ever before, a result that is much different than boredom!

Chemicals, the new enemy. Technology’s harshest impact on the roofers’ working environment in recent years has come with the advent of new chemicals used in applying materials. The roofer’s new enemy, the chemicals in single-ply roof systems, are not well known to the worker and not easily identifiable, especially in the case of solvent fumes and toxic smoke with are created from heat welding and sealing laps on new systems.  Because such exposures accumulate slowly in the body and because the symptoms they cause are often delayed or indirect, they are notoriously difficult to document and diagnose.

Waterproofers working below grade in confined spaces receive even higher exposures when working with chemicals such as chlorobenzene, toluene and hydrogen chloride than the roofer who toils in open spaces. These single-ply products, of which roofers and waterproofers have no control over manufacturing or demand for the product by owners, have caused greater and greater degrees of physical and psychological stress. Many health experts believe long-term exposure to these chemicals pose a larger health problem than any of the well-known hazards discussed in this paper.

 Technology, layoffs and jurisdictional disputes.  In the early 1980s, single-ply systems made such dramatic gains that they captured approximately 45 percent of the industrial and commercial roofing market.  The manpower needs of contractors using these new less labor intensive systems were and are 20 percent less than with conventional roofing. One roofer out of every five has been displaced in the single-ply segment of the industry.

Technological change has brought about increasing numbers of jurisdictional disputes between trades in the construction industry.  Work that had been traditionally performed by the roofer is now claimed by other crafts using newly developed materials, resulting in the loss of jobs for the roofer who had previously performed the work. But this sword cuts both ways. For example, the sheetmetal worker, who has historically applied metal roof flashings and normally ties in the roof with the perimeter of the building, currently finds the work being assigned to and performed by the roofer because new roofing materials can be fastened directly to the building walls and edges. This example is just one of many problems that cuts across craft lines, displacing work and ending in lengthy and costly jurisdictional disputes.

A very dangerous trade.  Accidents and illness are major concerns of roofers. The very nature of our work lends itself to potentially dangerous situations. Roofers often work at great heights and come in contact with hot asphalt and ultra-violet sun rays. Waterproofers working underground are subject to cave-ins and a frequently exposed to harmful solvents and chemicals.   According to John Barnhaard, the Safety and Health Director for the United Union of Roofers, “One out of every five roofers and waterproofers is injured on the job every year.  More than one half of those injuries are serious averaging almost 20 lost workdays per injury. Roofers with more than 19 years in the trade have higher than expected death rates due to cancer. In California, for example, the standard mortality rate for roofers is the third highest for all occupations.”

The employer dares not challenge the roofer’s right to determine what is safe. The Federal Occupation, Safety, and Health Adminstration regulates job site safety in the construction industry, but that alone is not enough. The concern over the consistently high rate of illnesses and injuries among roofers prompts the roofers to increase their won control over their work environment to  reduce hazards.  They strive to maintain control by collectively supporting individual and group decisions on whether a particular work practice may be a danger to life or limb. When it comes to safety, the employer dares not challenge the right of roofers to determine what is safe or not safe.  The single characteristic that all roofers share is their perception of danger.

Dangerous work carries prestige. While many roofers feel it is the luck of the draw as to who gets injured, killed or contracts an occupational disease, they all maintain an attitude of fearlessness, especially among themselves.  Roofers talk about the arduous and dangerous nature of their work with pride. Work that is dangerous carries prestige. They see themselves as special.

On the road. A roofer is frequently away from home and separated from his family, an unavoidable stress in the search for continued employment. The stability of a roofer’s family hinges on his opportunities for finding and keeping work. It is not unusual for a roofer to be away from home 50 percent of the working year. Many spend their entire working careers away from home. As opposed to other craftsmen who may begin and finish a construction project, a roofer’s typical time on a project is from three to forty working days. This short span of time does not allow the roofer to uproot his family and move them with him from job to job.



Management rarely overrules the crew. Although it is a fact that roofers work in a stressful dangerous environment, the vast majority of them learn to deal with that environment and accept it. Such concerns are overshadowed by many positive factors which foster satisfaction on the job for roofers. Part of the culture of roofing is the “satisfaction of doing manly work, winning out over the elements, and showing persistence in the face of adversity” (Herbert Applebaum, Royal Blue). Roofers have opportunities to influence decisions and control their work environment. They believe that have a stake in determining the outcome of their labors. Roofers are a classical example of craftsmen who decide how they should do their work. It is a rare occasion when a crew decision on the job is overruled by management.

 A journeyman can always “drag up and boom”.  For the skilled roofer, portability is invaluable in maintaining his independence. Contractors are reluctant to treat a good journeyman unfairly, knowing that he can “drag up and boom” to the next job.

Job Insecurity: Cyclical unemployment is a major source of worry and dissatisfaction among roofers. Unemployment in the construction industry during 1992 was 15.7% seasonally adjusted as compared to the rest of the nation’s civilian unemployment rate of 7.3% for the same period. Many roofers adapt well to long layoffs through budgeting and control of personal habits. For others, the layoff is financially tragic. Aside from financial problems, loss of work brings a multitude of stressors to some roofers, some of which may begin well in advance of layoff because the worker constantly worries about when the loss of a job will come.

 If you fire my brother roofer and I quit. Since roofing tasks usually involve crews, the work inherently fosters cohesive work groups. In these integrated work groups, a community social structure is developed as friendships are formed and grow between roofers who have worked together on previous jobs or meet on the same crew for the first time.  On the crew, channels of communication are established for work and social matters. Crews often go from job to job and many travel to other cities or even neighboring states as an integrated group. When a crew has been working and living together for a long time, the bonds between the men become very strong. In this scenario, if a contractor were to fire one of the crew, the rest would quit in support of their brother roofer.

Pride in their work is something they carry for a lifetime.  Being part of the roofing trade implies that a worker is a certified member of the craft, sharing standing with other workers. Roofers produce something real and tangible and can point to the physical evidence of their work. Pride in craft raises pride in self. A healthy controlled pride, whether individual or collective, leads to a more efficient and satisfied worker. Also, pride in craft has the social benefit of esteem in the community, something workers can wear on their chests and carry with them for a lifetime.

 Got some practice sticking together. Building loyalty. Workers in the roofing community are affected by their work in such a way that their non-work lives are permeated by their work relationships. A major factor in all roofers’ lives is sociability at work and at home.  The two are so intertwined that it is difficult to differentiate where one ends and the other begins. A roofer tends to prefer friendships with those workers that are from his own trade.  Checking with eight roofers from various locations around the country strengthened my belief that in construction workmates predominate as best friends.  I asked each one how many of three close friends were roofers, other construction workers, or had other occupations. The results were as expected: fourteen roofers, six other construction workers, and four from other occupations.

 Brotherhood: Sharing problems and difficulties, joys and dreams.  For the roofer, social interactions begins at work, during lunch-time and after at the bar.  It continues on weekends, during hunting and fishing trips, or even while attending a sporting event. They relate to one another their problems and difficulties and share one another’s joys and dreams. These exchanges foster feelings of comradeship, a sense of brotherhood. Larry Doering of Local #189 Spokane responded, “To the extent we work together, drink together, play poker together, and lie to our wives together, so we’ve also go some practice sticking together.” Togetherness brings comfort to the roofer as it spells out security to him.  And this security can be depended on when treated unfairly by the employer, when in a threatening situation on the street, or in a problem filled home life.





Iles Minoff received his doctorate in anthropology from Princeton University. He taught at St. Xavier College in the Chicago area and taught a class in the anthropology of work at the George Meany Center for Labor Studies in the 1990s. He worked for the labor movement for 28 years, first with the Human Resources Development Institute in the early 1980s where he worked on retraining programs for displaced workers, and later for Union Privilege where, for over 20 years, he developed benefit safety net programs for union members and their families. He has a wonderful and amazing wife, three great daughters, and two, soon to be three, of the cutest grandchildren on the face of the earth.

2 Responses to “Roofers and Waterproofers – Kinsey M. Robinson 1992” Subscribe

  1. Emily Silas January 8, 2016 at 6:27 pm #

    As the wife of a long-time roofer I found this a fascinating read. Thank you!

    • Iles Minoff January 17, 2017 at 4:19 pm #

      Thank you for your comment. Kinsey Robinson story is one of the best. It gave me an appreciation for the life of a roofer. I keep thinking about the part where they are cooking potatos!

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