“We were supposed to have another 20 years.” Death in the Trench

Spencer Trench Collapse
Jim and Cheryl Spencer

“Touching” “Infuriating” and hopefully “Educational” and “Motivating” are all words that come to mind reading this amazing article, Death in the Trench, by veteran investigative reporter Jim Morris. You should probably stop here and read it, but I can’t help providing a few reasons why.

Morris, writing for the Center for Public Integrity, tells the story of the 2016 death of Jim Spencer, buried alive in an 8-foot deep trench.  Going beyond the raw statistics (Twenty-six workers died in trench collapses in the United States in 2016 – twice as many as the year before), Morris describes the impact of Spencer’s death on his wife of nearly 40 years, family and community — and why it didn’t need to happen:

When a worker dies of traumatic injury gloom spreads like a webbed crack on an ice-covered pond, reaching far beyond the immediate family to touch former colleagues, lifelong friends and – in Jim Spencer’s case – waitresses, convenience-store clerks and other strangers he routinely engaged in conversation in this western Nebraska railroad town of 9,000 people. His life and thousands of others were extinguished last year because an employer either didn’t know about or disregarded provisions of the 47-year-old federal law that guarantees a safe workplace. The steps needed to prevent trench cave-ins are no secret – or shouldn’t be. Sections 1926.651 and 1926.652 of regulations adopted under the Occupational Safety and Health Act state, among other things, that heavy equipment must be kept away from trench edges and trenches five feet or deeper must be shored up “except when excavations are made entirely in stable rock.”

Shocking, even to me who has been infuriated by trench collapses for 35 years, is Morris’s findings that the heads of the construction company and contractor that employed Spencer claimed that they didn’t know about trench collapses and how to protect workers. And most shocking is an observation by retired OSHA inspector John Newquist, who had investigated more than 100 trench collapses during his 29 years with OSHA. Newquist, currently and health and safety trainer and consultant

sees the same practice that exasperated him as an OSHA inspector: Workers sent into seven- or eight-foot-deep trenches with no shoring, on the flawed assumption that “it’s just dirt.” In 2003, Newquist and several colleagues from the Aurora office went into the field to try to enlighten owners of plumbing companies. They engaged about 180 such firms, a high percentage of which “wanted to keep doing things the way they’d been doing it,” Newquist says. “I was stunned. Some of these people had been around 40 or 50 years.”

Morris doesn’t stop with the crime itself, but goes on to look at the structural problems at OSHA that allow these type of preventable tragedies to keep occurring — low budget, short staff, low fines (the two companies involved in Spencer’s death were assessed fines of $24,800 and $16,800, respectively), and weak criminal penalties — and some of the things that the Obama administration tried to do about it, especially in the area of negative publicity:

Publicity – of the negative sort – also helps. When they were at OSHA, Michaels and Barab made it a point to issue a press release on any enforcement case with a proposed penalty of $40,000 or more; the previous cutoff had been $70,000. They’d also highlight certain problems — heat-related deaths, workplace violence — regardless of the dollar amount involved. The message to workers, Barab says, was, “Hey, I don’t have to put up with this. This is not an acceptable condition and I can call OSHA.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests the shaming policy worked. Michaels, now teaching at George Washington University, and Barab, a consultant and author of the “Confined Space” newsletter, say they both heard from company lawyers whose clients worried more about seeing their names in OSHA press releases than about being fined. Matthew Johnson, a research scientist at Duke University, says his own work shows that the releases – often cited in local newspapers and trade journals – have a measurable impact. He found that once an employer had been publicly reproached, OSHA violations by similar businesses within a three-mile radius fell 75 percent in the ensuing three years. “Even if I look at 20 miles out, this effect stays very strong,” says Johnson, an economist whose paper on the subject is undergoing peer review.

But enough of my musings. I’m going to stop here to give you time to read. And while you’re at it, support investigative journalism. It’s not the statistics, but stories like these that can bring change in this country. You can donate to the Center for Public Integrity here. I just did.

OSHA Press Releases Trench Collapse

3 Comments

    1. Not sure if publicity automatically equals shaming, but if press releases keep people from getting hurt or killed (and they do), then they’re not only acceptable, they’re necessary. I mean, if there was no media coverage of bad things that people do, who would be the next Senator from Alabama?

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