As he walks up to your jobsite he looks a little too stiff. His hardhat sits on his head like it’s too tight. He holds up his clipboard with soft hands that have never swung a hammer or held a trowel and he scans the site with the eye of a head schoolmaster. He sat in his truck all morning watching your crew and taking pictures, and now he’s ready to lay down the law. It’s hot out but your stomach goes cold as he identifies himself with OSHA. You know he means business, but what you might not know is what makes this guy tick.

OSHA isn’t going away. To reduce the animosity and frustration that comes along with its role, we must realize that as intrusive, and some would say unnecessary, as OSHA seems, our industry has reaped some benefits.

When I started in concrete, we fired up our oxy-acetylene torches and cut rebar without wearing safety glasses, we ran jackhammers without wearing earplugs, we sealed and cut concrete without wearing respirators or dust masks, we wired our own gang-plug outlets with spliced extension cords, and we jumped in and out of the over-dig never seeing a ladder or worrying about cave-ins. I also remember when rebar fall protection caps were first introduced and the guys who were skewered without them.

The reality is, OSHA can’t make you safer — it can only make you wish you were running your site safely when you get fined. It’s not OSHA’s job to make you worried or to cause you problems either. Are all inspectors fair, are some scrambling to fill quotas, and do some enjoy being on power trips? You already know those answers.

Can we be safer?

A better question is: Are we always as safe as we could be? You won’t change the other guy; there’s only one person you can change, and that’s you. So if you want to reduce your own frustration, make changes within your area of influence and seek to understand more of what’s going on around you.

Like the old Indian saying about walking a mile in another man’s moccasins, we won’t understand OSHA folks until we try see where they are coming from. Ask yourself, what makes an OSHA inspector tick? What motivates him to choose a stressful career? What difference, if any, does he think he’s making? What does he know that I don’t know that might help me do my job better? Ask yourself these questions so you can keep a calm, steady head.

Generating a culture of safety isn’t easy, but it beats the alternative. It isn’t cheap, but it’s worth it. It’s possible you are able to read this simply because you wore your safety glasses. I don’t know who came up with the phrase, “Everyone wins when safety begins,” but I do know that without a strong emphasis on being safe, no one goes home a winner.

Craig Cottongim is certified in conflict resolution and is a long-time concrete finisher who is also a writer and communicator. E-mail For more from Craig Cottongim, click here.