Learning how to properly handle Occupational Safety & Health Administration inspections was the topic of the Plumbing And Mechanical Contractors Association of Northern Illinois' latest safety breakfast. Featured speaker was Lord, Bissell & Brook partner Steven Adelman.

"The best defense is a good offense," Adelman advised, supporting his point with tips to devise a good, routine safety plan before an encounter with OSHA. A solid plan, according to Adelman, includes regular inspection of equipment, consistent use of safety checklists and periodic training of employees, all of which should be documented.

Contractors can protect themselves by asking the general contractor to alert them if OSHA arrives on the scene, according to Adelman. Otherwise, it's legitimate for an OSHA inspection to be under way without the subcontractor's knowledge. Adelman said contractors also have the right to attend the opening conference, where the OSHA inspector explains why he is there.

One myth about OSHA inspections Adelman singled out is that inspectors have an automatic right to peruse the scene. Contractors always can ask for a subpoena before inspectors begin a walk around.

Adelman said many contractors fear getting belted with heftier penalties and fines if they interfere before or during the examination, but he advised that nothing is wrong with aggressively, not offensively, exercising caution. He also noted many inspectors are more than willing to comply with requests for union and company officials to arrive before the ball gets rolling.

Employees can make or break the inspection process, Adelman warned. Therefore, it is important that understanding is not lost between inspectors' jargon and workers' interpretation.

"Don't guess if you don't know something," Adelman said. "OSHA takes that as an admission."

Post-inspection action can ease any possible sanctions that will be imposed. Adelman insisted a proactive approach, such as immediately rectifying a violation while the inspector is there, conveys concern.

"When you show you don't care, they're going to stick it to you, because they're going to make you care," Adelman said.

Adelman described the different types of violations OSHA can slap on a jobsite. Violations deemed willful or repeated can draw $5,000 to $70,000 fines. Each serious or non-serious offense is subject to a $7,000 penalty. Imprisonment is possible if death results from a willful violation.

Contractors can contest a citation and reduce penalties at an informal conference, which must be set up within 15 days after the inspection. The contractors' own photos, diagrams and measurements might mitigate penalties, according to Adelman, who urged supplying this type of documentation at a hearing.

Then next PAMCANI safety breakfast will meet Sept. 20 to discuss OSHA Changes in the Respiratory Protection Standard.