OSHA has done a good deal of good work to protect the working man. But in Ohio at least, OSHA is expected to be self-funding, as the agency is managed by the states. Inspectors are not terribly well-paid, and are often in very short supply. One political trick is to pass a law offering a very high standard of protection then employ so few inspectors the standards are essentially meaningless. At least until someone gets hurt. Then the inspectors swarm. For example, the 1991 Hamlet, North Carolina chicken processing plant fire killed twenty-five and injured fifty-one employees who could not escape as fire doors had been chained shut to keep people from using them to take an unauthorized break. The plant had not been inspected in the eleven years of operation. At the time North Carolina had only three inspectors to cover the entire state, which meant that if they did nothing else industrial sites could not expect more than one inspection every twenty years.

The simple fact is that most OSHA inspectors are overworked in the extreme. They only show up at a site after an accident, or after a complaint is filed. Filing a complaint can be used by disgruntled employees or unions as a harassment technique, though it would be wrong to assume all complaints are illegitimate. I have seen an extension ladder extended across an empty swimming pool as a makeshift scaffold for work. Calling it 'unsafe' is a major understatement. Sometimes doing things right takes time and costs money, and for many contractors and employers money is the only value. On another occasion I refused to use a scaffold with major cracks visible on the boards. Less than twenty minutes later another worker used said scaffold, the boards broke and so did his leg after a ten foot fall. I have seen ladders used with major cracks and cords so taped up that a short to ground was only a matter of time. While most contractors (at least those I have worked for) are serious about safety the simple fact is some people will never care.

All of the jobs I have worked where an OSHA inspection took place were large jobs, and always after a complaint or accident, as in the above-mentioned scaffold failure. In each case the response was the same. The OSHA inspector headed to the General Contractor's trailer to present his credentials. There the GC attempted to delay the inspector as long as possible. Meanwhile word went out among all the sub-contractors. Our foremen were dispatched to shut down the job. We put away all tools, wrapped up all extension cords, stacked ladders and locked everything up, then went out to the job trailer to play cards and shoot the breeze until the inspector finished and left the site.

The reason for that is simple. Confronted with an empty job site, after an accident or complaint the inspector who sees no one working at all becomes extremely pickayune. Every single tiny violation he or she finds is written up. As workers, we were glad to be in the trailer. Employees are expected to refuse to work in any situation which seems unsafe. The burden of proof is on the employee, and if a violation is found both the employee and employer are fined with fines of $500 or more common. The fine is supposed to encourage employees to refuse unsafe matters. But I guarantee the workers who refused to work on that horizontal extension ladder twelve feet above an empty swimming pool would not have worked for long had they refused. The truth is once in a while you can say 'no' to a responsible contractor. But consistent refusals and anal retentive attention to accident reports (cut fingers and the like) are taken into account when it comes time to man-down the job. Nobody says anything if your cut needs stitches. But if it does not, you're just supposed to grin and bear it.

The simple fact is that nobody on a job wants to see OSHA. They can't be there often enough to shut down the fly-by-night guys, and if they find something it will cost you money. If you are working when they come by, they're more likely to find something. Nevertheless, they do contribute to worker safety. Damaged ladders (which may not be repaired although some repairs are easy and safe) are taken out of service at the end of the job, if not right away. Bad extension cords are taken out of service as well as defective scaffold parts. Ground Fault Circuit interrupters are installed in all temporary power outlets are always used, and believe me they would not be were it not for OSHA and other regulations. Also the standards they establish can be used to prosecute unsafe contractors after an accident. The owner who ordered the fire doors chained shut received a twenty year sentence, less than one year per fatality, but a powerful message nonetheless. Worker fatalities and serious injuries have fallen steadily since OSHA was established. It isn't perfect, but nothing out there is better.

Any employee injury, however small is supposed to be written up and Workman's compensation paperwork filed. Your employer will tell you this, but he does not really mean it. Small injuries are very common in construction, and they seem to come in bunches. In 15 years I've had three injuries significant enough to file a claim. Two involved around three stitches, one a week off with a sore back. In the real world, even seeing blood isn't enough. Only when you see below the skin or the bleeding won't stop do you file. Afterword you will be contacted by the ambulance chasers.