Until a few years ago, I — like most builders and remodelers — didn’t give safety on the job a whole lot of thought. But then I got a call from my job-site foreman that changed everything. “You better get down here,” he said. “OSHA’s here.”

In hindsight, OSHA’s visit shouldn’t have been a surprise. We were working on a multifamily project, a series of townhomes in a busy part of town. And we were setting trusses with a crane. Any inspector could have seen from half a mile away that there was dangerous work in progress. Even so, we weren’t ready.

First the inspector asked to speak to whoever was in charge of safety — the designated “responsible person.” My crew just stared at him, dumbfounded. We had no such person on site. Next he asked to see our written safety plan. We didn’t have one of those, either. Then he walked around the site looking for violations. Those were easy to find, because we were setting trusses without following OSHA’s rules for that activity. But he also found other, less obvious violations.

It’s tempting to think that inspectors are just trying to rack up citations for every possible thing that might be wrong on your site. In truth, their goal is to get you to change your policies and practices — to put someone in charge of safety, to create a written safety plan, to really satisfy all the safety requirements, especially the ones designed to prevent serious injuries like falls and electrocutions. The citations they write are supposed to get your attention. And in our case, they did.

I was cited for not having my workers trained in safe practices — a “serious violation” with a $2,000 fine. I was also cited for not properly bracing the trusses and for putting my workers at risk of falling from the trusses — two more $2,000 fines. We also got popped for using stepladders “for purposes they were not designed for.” And we were fined for unprotected openings (such as a 1-foot-wide hole in the concrete slab floor), improper electrical cords, and tripping hazards.

All of these violations would be easy to find on just about any residential job. So if you’re a typical residential contractor and OSHA shows up on your site, you’ll probably get socked in roughly the same way.

An Informal Hearing

Taken together, the fines added up to $9,600. But OSHA gives first-time offenders the opportunity to come into the agency’s office and informally resolve the complaint. So after I received the official paperwork in the mail, I went to the office in Braintree, Mass., and sat down with an OSHA official in his office, one on one. The meeting was not confrontational at all — the official was friendly, even supportive. I didn’t get the feeling that OSHA was interested in punishing me, as long as I cooperated and agreed to bring my company into line with the rules. I was able to settle the violations for a $4,700 fine (less than half the original amount). And the agency let me set up a payment plan, so I didn’t have to pay everything at once.

What I did have to do immediately was create a written safety plan. OSHA had let me know beforehand that my meeting would go better if I showed up with a written plan in hand, so I had purchased a generic one on the Internet and customized it with some of my company’s details. That’s the plan I still use today. Even though it’s boilerplate, I’ve found it to be practical and useful for training my crew and planning out the methods we use on any particular task.

The safety plan is a fat document — almost 400 pages. But my employees don’t have to read and study the whole thing in one go. Short individual chapters and sections cover the basics of various operations on the job. So the day before we’re framing walls, for instance, or setting trusses, I can say, “Take a look at such-and-such a chapter this afternoon, and we’re going to talk about it in the morning.” It’s been an effective way to keep everybody aware of the rules.