Say the word “OSHA” and the burliest contractor will start shaking in his Timberlands. There is a good reason for that, as I found out last year during an early venture into commercial restoration.

My company was asked to take over a demolition job at the train station in Pulaski, Va. The historic station had been destroyed by fire and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) had done some demolition while conducting an arson investigation. After the ATF people completed their work, we were supposed to finish the demolition and brace the old stone walls to stabilize the site.

The ATF had been working at the site for several days, hauling off debris to the landfill after sifting through it. I assumed everything was in order, since we were just continuing what the federal agency had started. Our crews got right to work and soon filled two containers with debris which were transported to the landfill. Someone raised a question about asbestos and, since no one had a definite answer, the only thing to do was to test so I called an asbestos inspector. His tests revealed that the roof shingles did indeed contain asbestos.

At that point, everything stopped.

The inspector called OSHA to report that we had dumped hazardous material in the landfill. It did not matter that ATF crews had already dumped probably twice as much asbestos-contaminated material by the time we set foot on the site.

We assumed they had analyzed the materials. We were wrong.

As our team met with OSHA representatives the next morning, I quickly realized that our assumption had put the company under the regulatory agency’s microscope. OSHA officials wanted to see our operation and review all documentation of our safety programs. Like many busy restoration contractors, we had focused more on running the business than on completing paperwork. Unfortunately not all of our documentation was current. No one working at the site had a current CPR certification. Every question prompted deeper investigations, and for three weeks the office was consumed with OSHA interviews, reports and forms.

I hired an asbestos contractor to help us work through this mess. At one point our company was facing substantial fines. As the discussions progressed, however, the attitude of the OSHA workers changed from accusatory to collaborative. We convinced OSHA that we were willing to do whatever they required. We produced thousands of pages of documentation to prove our point and, in the end, we were vindicated. OSHA cited us on two simple violations and levied a $1,300 fine – a mere fraction of our cost in lost man hours.

I know that OSHA will be watching when we get permits; our company will be in compliance. The one message I would like to share? Start reviewing your documentation and safety procedures. Once you move from residential to commercial work, the bar is raised. Be sure you have your processes in place for handling asbestos, mold or lead – the hot-button issues for OSHA. It will be much easier (and cheaper) for you to plan for the procedures and training rather than have to get everything completed in a rush.