Trench Deaths: You Don’t Send Your Family To Die

Trench Collapse Zachary Hess
Zachary Hess

And speaking of trench collapses…

We wrote earlier this year about the tragic death of 25 year old Zachary Hess, a JK Excavating employee who was buried alive in a 25 foot deep trench, and the fact that OSHA had cited the company before for trenching violations.

A former Department of Labor colleague sent me a news report of that tragedy that I had missed. The heartbreaking part is where Hess actually made a Snapchat video of the sorry condition of the trench he was about to die in.

Hess’s mother, Cindy, has been speaking about her son’s death. (You can see her speaking at a Workers Memorial Day event here and for a Turner Construction event here.) She’s made it her mission to ensure that these tragedies never happen to any one else’s son.

The interesting part of her statement is her realization that 100% of trench collapses are preventable — so why did her son go 25 feet down into a trench that he undoubtedly knew was dangerous?  This is a question that often arises with trench collapses. Why didn’t the worker just refuse to do the job?

Sometimes workers probably don’t know that the trench could kill them or that the law was being violated.  Maybe they’d worked down in similar trenches before and nothing bad had happened. And the boss had said not to worry. And other experienced employees would go down in deep unprotected trenches so how dangerous could it be?  And some have families to support and can’t afford to risk losing their job. And anyway, some think, “If the trench collapses, someone can just dig me out.”

Cindy Hess ascribes her son’s willingness to go into the trench to his strong work ethic and his love for the job. They were behind schedule on this project and he was proud that the company counted on him to do the hard jobs. And he was young and full of life and invincible.

After Hess’s death, Daniel Wood, JK Excavating safety specialist, stated that “On behalf of JK Excavating, on Thursday December 28 we did not just lose an employee in this tragic incident, we lost a family member!”

Well, maybe. But that’s not the way anyone would treat their family members.  You don’t put them in dangerous situations. You don’t send them to their death.  You take responsibility for safety on the job. You train your employees about the hazards.  You learn from previous OSHA citations. You make sure the workplace is safe. Period.

And if anyone is inclined to jump on down into a 25 foot-deep trench because the job is behind schedule and he wants to impress the boss or help the company or show how tough he is, you stop him. Just as if it was your own kid.

Because you’re family, right?

Trench Collapse

6 Comments

  1. Well written and I agree with your concluding paragraph– I know that my son was not adequately trained to recognize the dangers involved with this extremely difficult excavation.
    His death will not be a statistic, I can not bring him back but I will help educate others…
    I cry everytime I go by a job site and see the neon shirts of workers, it is something I will have to live with the rest of my life, the loss and tragedy of a preventable death.

    1. Thanks Cindy. And thanks for all the great work you’re doing. I listened to both of your presentations from beginning to end and they made me cry and made me sick. I can’t imagine your pain, but your work will definitely save lives. And that’s something.

      1. Thank you…I feel so powerless, only thing I can do proactively for him, but appreciate your article and l like your writing style, last sentence was extremely powerful.
        Thanks again…

  2. Jordan, you perform much needed exposition of these companies that
    are permitted to cause the deaths of our youths.
    Thanks,
    NATALIE mARRA

  3. So, how do we reconcile the paradox of he did know it was dangerous and yet he still did it?

    I see it in a similar vein as all unacceptable conditions in life: we (often) know something is wrong and yet we do it or allow someone else to do it. Then, when an undesirable consequence happens, we shift blame to others, discounting our own involvement.

    I’m not immune to it, just last weekend, I allowed a coach of 7th graders to taunt players on the other team, when instead of being amused, I should I stepped up and stopped it, right there, right then. I failed the kids and myself. The coach will likely repeat the incident, just as the trench incidents will likely repeat until everyone involved owns up and stops the dangerous behavior.

    BTW, education is laudable, but not the answer. Everyone there knew it was dangerous and yet it happened.

  4. I was not a witness to the incident and obviously neither one was Jordan. I have no idea if my son or his co-worker who was the alleged competent person on job whose sole responsibility is to keep the man safe in the hole by accurately assessing soil conditions and hazards. My son was not adequately trained that part is not a guess his state of mind of completing the dig is an opinion and here-say
    The answer is education as well as greater fines from both a federal level from OSHA and criminal prosecution from a local/state level.
    All behavior is reinforced be either positive or negative reinforcement I think Jordan’s point is that excavation workers may intellectually know it is dangerous but not really appreciate the danger.
    Education
    Greater oversight and penalties
    And lastly you NEVER blame the victim.
    .

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