Trench Death: ‘Mom, I got in a ditch today, and it started caving in on me and I got out’

Trench
D.J. and Ashten Meyer

There is so much sad and infuriating about this story that it’s hard to know where to begin. How about here?

Donald J. “DJ” Meyer was buried alive last December 10 at the bottom of an unshored 12-foot deep trench in Belton, Mo. Meyer, an employee of Arrow Plumbing, had a 9 year old son, Ashten, and was a single father after his wife had died four years before.

OSHA issued fines totaling more than $700,000 for violations leading to Meyer’s death, and — and this is where it gets really bad — for similar violations at another site two weeks later — mainly not using a trench box in a trench more than 5 feet deep and not training employees about the hazards of trenches. Less than $300,000 of the$714,142 fine was related to the incident that killed Meyer. The additional $420,083 fine against Arrow came from what they found at the second site: workers in an unprotected 13 foot trench. It was the second-largest fine issued by OSHA under the Trump administration.

Mike Hendricks of the Kansas City Star tells a heartbreaking story of Meyer’s death and the wreckage it leaves behind.

Meyer’s mother, Theresa O’Hare, was devastated by her son’s death, but was moving on with her life, raising her orphaned grandson, when OSHA issued its citation and she realized that not only had Arrow killed her son, but then went on to put more workers in the same danger just weeks later.

“I just could not believe it,” O’Hare told The Star. “Why couldn’t this man understand or learn his lesson from the death of my son?”

The man O’Hare is referring to is Arrow owner Ricky Smith.  Arrow had received several willful citations (making it vulnerable to criminal indictment), partially because Smith had attended a trench cave-in safety course two months before Meyer was sent to his death in the 12-foot deep trench. Smith has contested the OSHA citations, and in an all too common practice among employers who kill workers, he blamed Meyer for his own death.

While Smith declined an interview last week on the advice of his lawyer, he told The Star back in December that he couldn’t understand why Meyer had climbed into the unprotected trench that killed him.

He said a metal trench box was available near the job site, and he didn’t know why Meyer hadn’t used it.

“He was a competent person by his knowledge of what he was doing, his experience,” Smith said at the time. “He had training in trenches before he came to work for us.”

“I don’t know what the footage is you need to shore, because we didn’t do it anyway.”

But OSHA found no trench box at the site, and there was also evidence that workers had not been trained. Meyer’s cousin, Tim O’Hare, who had recommended the job to him, described the situation:

It scared him to work at the bottom of a 12-foot trench with no shoring to keep the walls from caving in on him.

“Oh, for sure,” he said, “but we just did it.”

He wasn’t aware of the federal rule requiring shoring or sloping for trenches more than 5 feet deep until after he left the company, and while he was there he never received formal training.

“I don’t know what the footage is you need to shore,” he said, “because we didn’t do it anyway.”

And most tragically, even Meyer was aware that he was risking his life every day, according to his mother.

D.J. often told her about the chances he took.

“He would say, ‘Mom, I got in a ditch today, and it started caving in on me and I got out,’ ” O’Hare said. “And I told him, ‘Please, you’ve got to be safe for Ashten. You’re the only parent he’s got.’ ”

Ashten’s mother had died of a medical condition four years before his dad did, and for that reason the boy clung to him all the more.

“Every morning,” O’Hare said, “my grandson would ask his daddy, ‘Are you coming back home?’ And Daddy would say ‘yes’ and they would hug and kiss each other.”

The morning he left, he told his mother he’d be late because the boss wanted the job done that day.

 “When I heard it was 12 feet deep, I knew from previous experience it was a body recovery.” — Belton Fire Chief Norman Larkey

Trench Lessons (not) Learned

I’ve written most of this before, but it seems you can’t repeat it enough.

  • According to OSHA, 23 people died and 12 were injured nationwide in trenches in 2016. Through the first five months of this year, the death rate was on pace to surpass last year’s total, with 15 deaths and 19 injuries recorded as of June 1. “Dave Redlin, a construction safety consultant in an Overland Park, MO, said the allegations against Arrow Plumbing are far from an anomaly. Plumbing contractors often cut corners while working underground, he said. ‘It’s an epidemic.’ To save time and money, companies will sometimes ignore the requirements even after, Redlin said, one of their own workers dies on the job.”
  • OSHA has effective Excavation and Trenching standards that require trenches over 5 feet deep to be protected through shoring or sloping. The webpage also has fact sheets. And if small employers are confused, they can take advantage of OSHA’s small business On-Site Consultation program.
  • You generally can’t dig your way out of a trench collapse. A cubic yard of soil weighs up to 3000 pounds, the weight of a mid-sized automobile. A trench collapse may contain three to five cubic yards of soil. Do the math. Even if you’re only buried up to your waist, successful rescue is unlikely; you’re probably going to die.  Even if your head is out of the soil, every time you exhale, the soil will press down on your chest, making it impossible to take another breath.
  • You are unlikely to be able to rescue someone from a trench collapse. The soil is heavy, and the trench will continue to collapse, endangering anyone who jumps in attempting to dig out a co-worker. That’s why trench “rescues” quickly become body “recovery,” which typically takes hours. As Belton Fire Chief Norman Larkey said about Meyer’s death, “When I heard it was 12 feet deep, I knew from previous experience it was a body recovery.”   The lesson: Only prevention will save lives.
  • OSHA penalties are too weak. The maximum OSHA penalty for a serious violation is only, and for a willful .  Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, OSHA can only pursue criminal penalties if a willful violation results in the death of a worker. So a company can keep putting workers into deadly trenches indefinitely, and as long as their luck holds out and no one is killed, no one will go to jail.  Employers can also be indicted under criminal penalties by local authorities as we saw recently in New York.
  • OSHA generally doesn’t have enough inspectors to get to workplaces before someone is killed.  It would take 159 years for OSHA to inspect every workplace in the country just once. And if Republicans in the House of Representatives have their way, things will get much, much worse. The House committee bill cuts OSHA’s enforcement budget by $13.5 million, or 6.5% below the FY 2017 budget. (Sometimes OSHA is able to get there on time.)
  • You too can address this problem in your own neighborhood if you see worker in a trench that’s over 5 feet deep. Do-it-yourself instructions can be found here.
  • Workers often don’t know how dangerous a job is or how to make it safe.  Even when workers know a job is dangerous, they will often continue to do it anyway — especially if they’re not protected by a union — because they need the job to feed their family.  Being put in a position to choose between your job and your life is not a position anyone should be in — especially when we’ve had a law on the books for more than 45 years guaranteeing that all workers (except public employees) have a right to a safe workplace.

Finally, I defy you to watch the video of his mother without making full use of a box of tissues.

Blame the Worker OSHA Trench Collapse

3 Comments

  1. These incidents make me so angry. I guess I should thank you for keeping me engaged! Trenching was one of the first topic areas you had me work on. I will always remember investigating trenching incidents-especially the one in NM where 2 men died. It changes you.

  2. Mr. Barab, you don’t cite your source for the statement “According to OSHA, 23 people died and 12 were injured nationwide in trenches in 2016”, but a simple search of the (public) OSHA Accident Investigation page returns 38 records coded by OSHA with the keyword “Trench” for incidents in 2016. From the brief description provided with each, one can see that maybe 5 were coded incorrectly (not related to a trench cave-in), but there were clearly more than 30 deaths due to trench cave-ins. Did you have more information from your tenure at OSHA during this time frame on which you concluded only 23 of these fatality incidents were related to trench cave-ins?

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