Just the mention of OSHA can send shivers down the spine of a contractor—but should it? I grew up seeing the cartoon drawing of the OSHA cowboy. The cowboy sat atop a horse surrounded by a safety net, complemented with other ridiculous safety items. Undoubtedly, OSHA takes safety seriously and imposes heavy fines for violations. In the most severe cases, incarceration is even possible. While the rogue, overzealous compliance officer may exist, I find most OSHA officers to be reasonable and workable.

Like most things in a big bureaucratic country like ours, things get complicated and may be overly complex. The rules get longer as more people are employed to rewrite them and create programs to implement them. Then, the private sector sees an opportunity. The opportunity is to make money from all the confusion and complexity. This is when employers feel overwhelmed and threats come from all sides. Most contractors have to sign contracts to secure work. The lawyers are the ones who write these contracts and risk shifting is a top priority. Why would we think the safety rules would be immune from risk shifting?

Is This an OSHA Standard?

This explains why so many general contractors have contracts that refer to OSHA rules and regulations and then require subcontractors to adhere to them. This would be fine if not for the trend to overreach and push the rules. 

A good example is the yellow safety vest. Most sites now require construction workers to wear these vests all the time, regardless of what or where they are working. The OSHA regulation is based on workers around moving vehicles and flaggers take top priority, requiring a Class 3 vest. A lot of construction work is not around moving vehicles that threaten workers. 

However, several years ago, a contractor was cited for having workers in an empty parking lot without highly visible clothing. While OSHA eventually reduced it to a minor violation, the die was cast to make all workers wear them. Safety consultants and manufacturers will lead you to believe OSHA requires it. The truth is that the requirement is per the contract you signed with the builder. This is part of the risk-shifting strategy. Why does OSHA not say anything? Because OSHA sets a minimum standard and states may increase it. 

An example is Cal/OSHA; California is known to be a little more restrictive. The ruling also applies to employers; they can mandate stricter policies and most general contractors adopt the most rigorous policy they can find and legally enforce. This is the “more-is-better” philosophy.

While most OSHA compliance officers are pretty reasonable, many private on-site safety personnel fall into the “overzealous” category. I suspect it is like city police officers and the security guard at the mall. They wanted to be a city cop but were relegated to stand next to the Cinnabon store. Most of these on-site safety people are unaware of what OSHA regulations actually state. Instead, they adhere to the safety manual from the general contractor and are led to believe it is OSHA. They believe this is OSHA and spread that belief around.

Caring for Employees is Key

You might find it interesting if you get an opportunity to listen to an OSHA webinar, one done by OSHA people and not consultants or suppliers. 

At the most recent webinar I attended, the OSHA officer said she was less interested in the boxes being checked as she was in seeing a culture of safety and caring for the workers. She shared a story where she cited an employer for failing to provide drinking water to workers within a reasonable distance on hot days. The employer fought the citation as they provided water within 100 yards of the workers and felt it was sufficient. She presented video evidence that while the water was indeed only 100 yards away, there were three fences for workers to climb over to get to it. She also hinted that the employer’s attitude at the time of her visit was not that of a caring employer.

I have been involved with citations and even a few hearings. I can tell you that working to protect your employees as if you really care about their safety and well-being can go a long way to lowering and even dropping citations. I also know they like specific training; training related to your tasks.

An example would be a silica dust exposure plan that should be related to your employees’ tasks. OSHA is about to update heat illness requirements and implement indoor work to the regulations. Here is a tip: the OSHA officer noted that you are within your legal rights to include heat illness in your general safety plan, but she would like to see it separated out as a stand-alone document. Most contractors care for their workers and want them to be productive, quality-driven and safe. It is a shame that our industry is tainted with a few bad apples that affect us all.