YOU CAN LEARN A LOT BY TALKING with OSHA inspectors. First, they're not jack-booted thugs who are out to get you. Second, they do have a mission, and if you get in the way of that mission, you may pay the price.

That's a fact that J.B. Stevens Construction Co. of Gainesville, Ga., can attest to firsthand. When a 14-foot-deep trench collapsed on a worker back in November 2004, emergency crews spent more than eight hours before successfully freeing him from his nightmare experience.

As a result, the builder now faces proposed OSHA fines totaling $84,700. OSHA issued the company a total of four citations, and the violations were published online as part of OSHA's regular practice of pillorying bad actors.

“By failing to follow safe trenching procedures, this employer put the lives of employees and rescue workers at risk,” says Gei Thae Breezley, OSHA's Atlanta-East area director. “Hurrying to finish a job while ignoring safety rules too often ends in workers being injured and killed. In this incident, the worker was trapped for over eight hours.”


That's an example of OSHA using the stick.

Now here's the carrot. OSHA will actually help you get your safety house in order for free. As a result, you'll have healthier employees, fewer fines, and a new perk to offer subcontractors.

Cindy Laseter heads up one of the busiest and most powerful OSHA regional offices, in Atlanta. She's frank about what OSHA's mission is—and why. She's especially focused on Florida, where 46 construction workers (including residential and commercial sites) have died so far this year.

“What we have done for the past several years is send teams in to do saturation enforcement, conducting a lot of inspections [in problem areas],” Laseter says. “We have found that we see a dramatic decline in safety violations for three months following this effort, then the number starts to creep up again.”

Over the long term, of course, OSHA wants to break that cycle and keep the numbers low. In a nutshell, the agency plans to reduce workplace fatalities by at least 15 percent by 2008 by enforcing fines and assisting in compliance. It also wants to reduce workplace injuries and illnesses by at least 20 percent using the same good cop, bad cop strategy. It takes these sorts of goals seriously because it faces serious scrutiny from the federal government if it doesn't produce results. You can bet that when that deadline draws near, citations and fines will rise apace.

TRUTH OR DARE Staying out of the OSHA spotlight, it turns out, is more about dumb luck than strategy. OSHA inspectors don't have a rigorous system for choosing which jobs to inspect at any given time. They just drive by.