trench

I’m frustrated. Every few months I go on a tirade about workers who are needlessly suffocated and crushed to death in easily preventable trench collapses.  Then I assume the message has been sent (whatever good it will do) and I can move on to other subjects for a while.

Unfortunately that “while” never lasts long when it comes to trench collapses.

In this week’s “Weekly Toll” (temporary redubbed the “Monthly Toll” due to my vacation interruption), I reported on 5 trench deaths — two each in two separate events. 41-year-old Marcos Santiz-Lopez and 25-year-old Brandon M. Colburn were killed when the 10-foot deep trench gave way at the construction site in Punta Gorda, Florida.  Two brothers, Pete Bencker, 59, and Ron Bencker, 68, were killed in a trench collapse in Michigan, and one so-far unnamed worker was killed and another injured in a trench collapse on April 21, in Canyon County Idaho. In April, a construction worker died after he was trapped in a trench that collapsed while he was working on a home in Spring City, Tennessee.

Last month OSHA cited a company for sending workers back into a deep unprotected trench just hours after they narrowly escaped a partial collapse. The trench collapsed again, killing one of the workers.

Even more troubling, last month OSHA cited a company for sending workers back into a deep unprotected trench just hours after they narrowly escaped a partial collapse. The trench collapsed again, killing one of the workers. OSHA proposed $234,000 in fines. It remains to be seen whether criminal charges will be sought in that case.

Failure to Learn

So what does it take for employers to learn that they can’t send workers down into unprotected trenches?

More information? Not likely. There’s nothing new here. 2300 years before OSHA — Heroditus wrote about how the Phoenicians had figured out how to prevent trench collapses that were plaguing their army. There is plenty of material on the OSHA website, and as I’ve pointed out many times before, OSHA’s trenching and excavation webpage provides information on trenching hazards and solutions, including a safety video.  (Or you can do a Google search under “trench safety” which will conjure up about 10 million hits in half a second.)

Inspections and monetary penalties?  OSHA inspections and fines may be somewhat effective, but they don’t seem to be doing the job adequately.  Look at the cases described below, cited by OSHA earlier this month.

On November 16, 2021, OSHA inspectors responded to a complaint and found H&W Contracting workers in an unprotected trench in South Dakota. Then, just six days later, OSHA responded to another complaint and found that the same company’s employees were working in five separate unprotected trenches as they replaced storm sewers with new ones. That’s two times in seven days. OSHA proposed one willful and three serious violations and proposed $122,838 in penalties from the Tea location and one willful violation with proposed penalties of $95,718 for the  for the other.

The OSHA press release noted that “The discovery continues H&W Contracting LLC’s history of disregarding the serious and often fatal dangers associated with working in an unprotected trench and federal law. Since 2019, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited the company three times for similar violations.” Total penalties came to over $218,000

And last Tuesday, OSHA announced that it had proposed penalties of $449,583 and issued three willful and one serious citation to A4S LLC after a trench collapse in Breckenridge, Colo., caused fatal injuries for one worker and necessitated the rescue of two others. OSHA later determined that trench collapses at the site had occurred several times in the months prior.

Teach Your Employers Well

Will a penalty of over $218,000 teach H&W Contracting a lesson or will almost $450,000 have an effect on A4S LLC? And more important, will these penalties send a strong message to other construction companies who cut corners on the backs of workers? Maybe for some.

But almost certain jail time for employers who knowingly send workers to their deaths in unprotected trenches (or even endanger them in unprotected trenches) will send a much stronger message that’s impossible to ignore.

We’ll never know in this case.  In the South Dakota case where an employer was cited twice in a week, criminal prosecution and jail time may be deserved, but it’s not an option because under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, criminal prosecutions are only allowed in the case of a willful violation that has contributed to a death. Happily, OSHA got there on time — both times — and no one was killed. But the agency is limited in this case to civil penalties.

A company could put workers down into deadly unsafe trenches every week. Even if the trenches collapse evert week but only, seriously and permanently injure workers, instead of killing them, there can be no criminal prosecution under current law.

In fact, under current law, H&W or another company could put workers down into deadly unsafe trenches every week. Even if the trenches collapse evert week but only, seriously and permanently injure workers, instead of killing them, there can be no criminal prosecution under current law.

Nor can OSHA, with its small staff and tiny (shrinking) budget, come anywhere close to monitoring all trench jobs across the country.

The National Utility Contractors Association has declared June 2022 “Trench Safety Month.” OSHA will collaborate with the association for “Trench Safety Stand-Down” week, June 20-24. Let’s hope a few more employers get the message.

Change the Laws to Protect Workers

But “hope” is not an effective policy. Increasing OSHA’s budget significantly and changing the law to allow criminal prosecution for endangering workers would be much more effective. the Protecting America’s Workers Act (PAWA), which has been introduced in the House of Representatives, would allow felony criminal penalties against employers who kill workers, as well a employer who knowingly violates a standard which causes or significantly contributes to “serious bodily harm” to any employee.

PAWA needs to be passed.

But laws — like the PRO Act — also need to be passed to make it easier for workers to join unions. Increased unionization would also better protect workers by providing more training and enabling them to better exercise their right to a safe workplace without fear of retaliation.

Workers lives depend on it.

4 thoughts on “Trench Deaths: Failure to Learn”
  1. Same as it ever was! I worked in open trenches while working summer jobs when I was young (stupid and powerless). I never realized how lucky I was to not be killed in those trenches until reading your numerous posts about trench fatalities. Keep spreading the word Jordan! Thanks!

  2. Today I spoke to 50 construction workers and related the story of a young man who recently lost his life on a construction site. There was little emotional reaction. And then it hit me…this is not the right time. People are still trying to process Uvalde and Buffalo…not to mention one million Covid deaths and a terrible war in the Ukraine.

    It’s ironic we ponder the question, “Why don’t people get it?” right after one of the most horrific school shootings in history. Why are we surprised that trench deaths continue? They are just a symptom of much deeper issues in our society. We could ask the same question of many issues, some of which cause many more deaths than excavation-related fatalities each year.

    Ask any school teacher or social worker what keeps them going when so many cannot be saved. It’s the relative few they do save that keeps them going. As safety professionals, we often focus on those who don’t “get it.” We expect people to change behavior, to see our point of view, etc. etc., and get frustrated when they don’t…rather than focusing on the few we can truly help and finding personal joy and satisfaction in that pursuit.

    In a world where people are being constantly bombarded by everything that is wrong, our profession needs to focus on the positive, such as stories about employers who are doing the right thing. I am not proposing we sweep the catastrophes under the rug. But we have to realize that we are competing for attention with so many other issues that are using up the emotional energy of people. I’m afraid industrial fatality statistics and fatality stories are no longer an effective way of getting the attention of people…especially the younger people.

  3. The people that are being referred to here are no different than you (and me) not completely stopping at every stop sign. What goes on at many jobsites is nothing more than taking short cuts, and hoping they won’t be caught…It’s not complicated

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