Sign Legislation and Regulations to Pay Attention to in 2022
With 2022 underway, it’s a good time to pause, take stock of the landscape, and plan for the months to come. There are a lot of areas to think about when preparing for another successful and profitable year, but one that is often overlooked is the legal and regulatory landscape.
On the federal, state, and local level, wide-format and signage printers could have their business heavily impacted by changes to the laws and regulations that govern the types of signage they can help customers produce. Sizes, locations, messaging, and materials may differ depending on where in the country you operate. And those restrictions are always changing, as new laws are passed, new ordinances put into place, and new focuses on enforcement. Making it a priority to stay informed on what could be on the horizon could mean the difference between your shop being fully prepared for whatever might come your way, or being caught out and left to scramble when something changes unexpectedly and your customers are expecting you to fix it. Every shop should make it a point of getting involved with their local communities and staying on top of changes that could impact them in their cities, counties, and municipalities.
It would be impossible to cover every issue to watch in every jurisdiction, but here is a look at a few of the major points that everyone should be aware of in 2022.
A Renewed Focus on the Environment
Marcia Kinter, the VP – Government & Regulatory Affairs at PRINTING United Alliance, notes that on the state level, in particular, she anticipates a renewed focus on pollution standards in the coming year. “We see quite a bit of activity on that,” she says, “and we’re going to be tracking it from a regulatory point of view for both the environment and safety.”
She notes that it’s about more than just VOCs — although those are certainly a concern as well — but also about the materials being used, as well as the end-of-life plans for when graphics and signage are taken down. States, she says, “are really starting to have more questions about the recyclability of materials.”
Gary Jones, the director of Environmental, Health, and Safety Affairs at PRINTING United Alliance, notes that on the VOC front, there are air pollution regulations being worked on currently in several states, with several more looking at proposing stricter regulations in the coming months. “That will impact print,” he stresses, noting that many of these states are looking at the print industry in particular for some of the reductions, rather than just rolling print technologies into larger regulatory frameworks. For those based in these particular states — Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Indiana, and New Mexico are just a few states either already debating the proposed changes or considering bringing bills to the floor — it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with what changes are being considered, and how it could impact your business, and don’t be afraid to let your voice be part of the process in giving feedback before any of these proposals are finalized.
Kinter stresses that it’s not just the analog print processes that need to be paying attention, either. “It’s not just analog but also digital processes they’re looking at,” she notes. “We want to develop informational pieces and strong outreach programs to educate printers on regulatory requirements, since a lot of [digital] printers don’t realize these rules do apply to them.”
Wisconsin, in particular, says Jones, “is working on two fact sheets on air permitting for digital operations, which apply to wide-format printers. We’re seeing, as digital units are getting larger and faster — and emitting more — that it is triggering air permit requirements in some states. Some have low thresholds, based on total emissions not the equipment itself,” so knowing what the regulations actually are in your location and what needs to be done to stay compliant for your facility specifically is critical.
But the environment isn’t the only concern — safety regulations will likely be in the spotlight in 2022, notes David Hickey, the VP of Advocacy at International Sign Association (ISA). While he doesn’t foresee any new regulations, necessarily, he does see a renewed focus on enforcement in the coming months as the federal government resets its priorities.
“We are anticipating that the Biden Administration will soon be launching a renewed focus on OSHA enforcement,” Hickey says. “Under the Trump Administration, enforcement lagged due to different priorities and redirection of resources toward COVID-related programs. Now, the current administration has announced programs and changes in enforcement priorities that could have significant ramifications in the sign and graphics industry.”
What this means is that shops will likely see an increase in inspection events, as well as a renewed focus on following up on employee complaints. Kinter, in fact, recommends shops use a bi-monthly checklist to keep safety and training moving forward and the shop on its toes. She also suggests sending out reminders when it is time to post OSHA-required forms, since violations are ramping up.
“Generally, employee complaints are rising,” agrees Jones, “which has triggered more inspections. One thing I would stress for the wide-format market, and folks printing signs in particular — especially installers — is that it’s all about the fall protection. We’ve had several citations on that, where employees of print operations were observed not properly wearing fall protection, and that triggered an enforcement action. I strongly recommend looking at overall compliance and making sure to include a strong focus on that.”
Specifically, he notes, shops should keep excellent records on training offered, who took it, how often it is renewed, what the shop regulations are, and that employees don’t just know what safety devices are — such as harnesses which are supposed to be used in every situation — but that they have received training on exactly how to wear and use them. Since “enforcement action” means fines that can start as high as $30,000 per incident, it is in a shop’s best interest to stay ahead of this, and make sure it can prove that it takes safety seriously if an inspection or audit is called for.
That is even more true in 2022, as Jones notes that the Build Back Better plan currently making the rounds in Washington, D.C. could, if passed, increase those fines to as much as $70,000 or higher. “It is something shops need to be paying attention to,” Jones stresses. “It can get very expensive, and if an employee gets injured, not only is it life-altering for them, but it could also open the shop up to liability, depending on the circumstances.”
That said, Build Back Better, which is more of an infrastructure plan than anything else, could have positive impacts as well, says Hickey, which means that shops should be paying attention to it for more than one reason, and how it effects their business could vary greatly depending on the type of work. “It’s likely that the recent infrastructure law could have funding opportunities for sign and graphics companies. The federal government will be spending hundreds of billions of dollars over the next several years on highway, bridge, public transit, railway, and airport projects, and with all these projects will be a need for signs and graphics. Make sure you’re proactive in working with your local community leaders to find out about these projects so your business can take advantage.”
City of Austin, Texas v. Reagan National Advertising of Austin, Inc.
On a different level, one case currently in front of the Supreme Court could have a major impact on sign printers specifically that could resonate for years to come if the court rules to uphold the original ruling.
In the case, City of Austin, Texas v. Reagan National Advertising of Austin, Inc., the basic argument that the 5th Circuit ruled on was that all signage should be treated the same, whether it is “on premises” signage where a business is advertising itself on its own property — and those signs could be digitized in the local regulation being challenged — or they could be “off premises,” which are all signs that aren’t on property owned by the business itself — and could not be digitized. The court originally ruled that those two types of signs should be treated the same way, and it is that decision that has been appealed up to the Supreme Court.
Basically, says Jones, “The limitation now is that if you want to advertise your business — eat at Gary’s Restaurant — and then on that same sign you want to advertise for someone else — go eat at Marci’s Crab Shack — that now makes it an off-premises sign. You’ve gotten a third party on it.”
“ISA has been heavily involved in the Austin v. Reagan case, including submitting two amicus briefs in support of Austin, because we believe that states and local jurisdictions should have the right to use the traditional regulatory distinction between on-premise signs and billboards if they so choose,” Hickey says. “The on/off distinction has worked for decades, it has served both sign industries well, and it is location-based and content-neutral. If the Supreme Court affirms the 5th Circuit’s decision and gets rid of the traditional on/off distinction, the result will be incredibly disruptive, as thousands of local sign ordinances across the country will immediately be considered unconstitutional. Longer-term, such a decision could result in government officials restricting all kinds of signs even more harshly. For example, communities could start regulating even more based on ‘content-neutral’ aspects, such as size and type, which would adversely affect business opportunities for the print sector.”
He continues that having the Court uphold that decision could make for very rocky times ahead for the industry. “If the 5th Circuit’s decision is affirmed by SCOTUS and the on/off distinction is eliminated, there will be plenty of movement when it comes to local sign ordinances, because thousands of jurisdictions are going to have to return to the drawing board to ensure that they are in compliance. This will result in a significant amount of regulatory uncertainty across the country when it comes to regulating signs.”
The briefs have all been filed, and the case is before the court, which is expected to rule sometime in the spring, most likely. It could go one of a few ways — it could rule to toss out the 5th Circuit ruling, upholding the status quo and no further changes are needed. It could choose to uphold the ruling, which would, as Hickey points out, mean that sign regulations across the country will suddenly be unconstitutional and will require every jurisdiction with signage regulations in place to rework them to once more be legal. Or it could choose to take a more neutral stance, sending it back to the lower courts to re-open the case and re-evaluate it, which will lead to a longer process.
“If they affirm,” Jones says, “then on-premises signs can carry commercial messages, which could also mean changes for things such as wayfinding signage. The whole landscape of how signs are regulated could change.”
COVID-19 Is Still Here
It is important, says Jones, to continue to pay attention to local COVID mandates, even as you — and everyone — struggles with COVID fatigue. “It is still out there,” he says, “the pandemic is not over.” There are still new regulations coming down, sometimes daily, and others are being challenged in courts across the country, such as vaccine mandates, and requirements for proof of vaccination. Keep a close eye on those on a regular basis.
“We continue to follow what OSHA is doing,” says Kinter, “but we’re also looking at other areas, such as the states. Virginia and Oregon now have permanent COVID standards, and California is looking to enact one. I personally don’t think OSHA will [enact a federal standard] but it will be more enforced on the healthcare side.”
“OSHA’s regulation was a vaccine mandate for companies with 100 employees or higher, but it was challenged and is currently under a stay,” Jones elaborates. “And the federal mandate is under a stay. But there are changes every day.”
“It’s crazy,” he continues, “since COVID hit, it’s been 24/7 coverage, but even though we all have COVID fatigue, we still have mandates, regulations, rules, and requirements that need to be followed. We have to stay at the forefront and stay on top of it.”
Preparing for 2022
So, what should a shop be doing to prepare for the coming year with all these changes to consider? First and foremost, says Kinter, go back and do a full safety audit. Ideally, this is something the shop does regularly to ensure everything stays compliant across the board. “I have seen so many things that could have been easily prevented, fines that could have been prevented,” she says, “if shops had just taken a day at the beginning of the year to conduct an audit and see where to make improvements.”
Jones agrees, “We have seen that a lot of folks are so busy trying to keep the doors open, to keep customers happy, that [safety] tends to fall by the wayside, and then something happens. And then we get the call and start asking questions like where is your program, [and they don’t have one].” Go through the shop’s current safety programs, make sure they are up-to-date with the laws and regulations, and that training is current for all staff. “And most importantly, make sure to document it. When it comes to OSHA, if you don’t document, as far as they’re concerned, you didn’t do it,” he notes.
“So many issues are totally preventable,” Kinter stresses again. “I know printers don’t like to document, but they need to take the time to make sure all their ducks are in a row. And that includes the environmental as well — it may seem overwhelming, but if you have a program, and you go through it every year, and then highlight safety throughout the year,” it won’t seem as daunting.
At the end of the day, says Hickey, print is still going strong, and it is important to ensure that printers are part of the conversation, not just an afterthought. “Don’t ever forget how important the signs and graphics you sell are to the ability of our society to communicate and be safe,” he notes. “We saw during the pandemic how critical signs and graphics were to keeping businesses open, or directing folks to healthcare options, or even just spreading positive messages to our communities. Our industry is part of our nation’s ‘critical infrastructure,’ and our voices are just as important as any other sector of our economy. Get to know who’s making policy decisions that affect your business and let them hear your concerns.”
Don’t wait for changes to take you or your business by surprise. Taking the time at the beginning of the year to evaluate the legal and regulatory landscape and taking the time to ensure the shop is fully compliant, can mean the difference between huge fines and issues, and being able to operate the business without that unexpected burden. And with margins running so tight in today’s market, taking the time to be aware of the legal and regulatory issues that could impact the business could very well mean the difference between staying in business or shutting the doors. And as the new year — with new priorities and changes on the horizon — starts to pick up momentum, now is exactly the right time to familiarize yourself with everything that will — or could — come your way.