There body recovery took 12 hours. There was never much hope that Brandtjen or Jeanetta would be rescued alive from the 9-foot deep trench: one cubic meter of dirt can weigh 3,000 pounds — the weight of a small automobile. Workers die quickly from asphyxiation or crushing injuries. As can be seen from the photo above, a trench box, which is used to protect workers, was next to the site, but not in the trench where it could have saved the workers’ lives.
Workers crushed under tons of dirt in preventable trench collapses are unfortunately not uncommon — this year it seems that it happens almost every week — and sometimes more often.
But this one hit me hard, mainly because, as can be seen in the news videos, this tragedy didn’t happen hidden away behind fences in a major construction site, but in a residential neighborhood, in broad daylight, in the middle of the afternoon, with upset neighbors observing the hours-long recovery operations.
I can’t help wondering how many people observed the workers in that deep, dangerous trench that day as they walked their dogs, drove to work or took their kids to school. If any one of them had called Minnesota OSHA — Brandtjen and Jeanetta would likely still be alive. I find this incredibly frustrating — that obvious hazards that kill people far too frequently can be prevented by a simple phone call from a citizen passing by.
I can’t help wondering how many people observed the workers in that deep, dangerous trench that day as they walked their dogs, drove to work or took their kids to school. Any one of them could have called Minnesota OSHA — Brandtjen and Jeanetta would be alive.
But I’m not faulting anyone for not recognizing the hazard or calling OSHA. Why would someone call OSHA unless they understood the hazards of deep trenches and knew that OSHA requires any trench deeper than 5 feet to be shored or protected with a trench box? How would most people even know how to call OSHA — even if they had heard of the agency? None of this taught in school, and anyway, people generally have other things on their minds, or assume that someone responsible is in charge and taking care of safety, or worried about how afford food and rent.
It’s Not Easy Confronting Employers
On the other hand, think of what a bit of knowledge and direction might do. I’m constantly finding fall protection and trenching hazards within a short distance from my home. I’ve written a do-it-yourself post on how to be your own OSHA inspector. And somehow I seem to have earned a reputation for confronting the employers and calling OSHA when identifying hazardous situations in my neighborhood.
But, of course, I’ve been doing workplace safety and health my whole life, so I’ve learned a thing or two about workplace hazards and how the system works. Most people have no idea.
And even when you know stuff, confronting employers about safety concerns is a pain in the ass. Every time I run across some guys on a high roof without fall protection or down in a trench, I always sigh and consider looking the other way walking on. But how would I feel if one of those guys fell off the roof, or the trench collapses on top of them? (And I have enormous respect for OSHA inspectors who have to confront hostile employers every day.)
So I go through the hassle of taking a picture, talking to the workers — which is never easy, because often they don’t speak English and the supervisor is elsewhere. Or the supervisor is there, but doesn’t want some old codger out walking his dog telling him how to do his job. And then if it’s a job at one of your neighbors’ house — which just happened last week — you run the risk of them getting pissed off at you for holding up work on their house.
Some supervisors fix things right away, but relatively few fix the problem and thank me for pointing out the hazard. I generally have to call Maryland OSHA and file a complaint.
If Maryland OSHA were to inspect every workplace in the state just once, it would take them 138 years, according to calculations from the AFL-CIO. That’s pretty bad, but better than the national average which was around every 165 years before COVID.
OSHA Is Understaffed
OSHA can’t be there on every construction job. Maryland OSHA, to their credit, has been incredibly responsive every time I call them, but they are short-staffed and sometimes can’t make it until the next day. If Maryland OSHA were to inspect every workplace in the state just once, it would take them138 years, according to calculations from the AFL-CIO. That’s not great, but better than the national average, which was around once every 165 years before COVID. It’s slightly better than Minnesota — every 149 years. And significantly better than South Carolina at once every 336 years. But any way you look at it, neither federal nor state OSHA’s can possibly keep track of the thousands of small construction jobs happening every day in every state in the country. They need more eyes and more resources.
So the way things are now, OSHA can’t be everywhere and they generally can’t depend on the eyes of concerned citizens to alert them to even the most obvious hazards.
What Is To Be Done?
What’s the answer to this problem? It’s not hard to figure out if people are up too high on a roof, or down in a trench that’s too deep. If the trench is over a worker’s head — or even their shoulders — we likely have a problem.
I’ve deputized a few people in my neighborhood — even if they don’t confront the supervisor or file an OSHA complaint, they call me. Billboards that encourage people to ask supervisors about safety conditions or call OSHA when they see someone up on a roof or down in a trench might help. Maybe. But what if that actually worked and OSHA got thousands of additional complaints every day? They couldn’t come close to being able to handle all of those.
We can also pressure reporters, when they’re writing about workplace tragedies, to do a bit more digging and educating. OSHA may take 6 months to cite (by which time everyone’s forgotten), but reporters can do a bit of research and talk to experts. They can write about what precautions were likely not taken, and what standards were likely violated. They can look into the employer’s citation history. And they can keep following up on the cases until the generally far-too-low penalties are issued down the line. In other words, they can educate — and hopefully activate — the public. Veteran investigative journalist Jim Morris wrote an amazing piece on the impact of trenching deaths on families and communities in 2017, but we need a lot more of these.
Ultimately, of course, we need a workplace safety and health agency that is much better funded and has stronger tools in order to make it more likely that construction jobs will have better oversight. We need city managers, public works departments and other public authorities to help oversee the safety of these jobs. What if police had a little workplace safety and health training — enough to know when to call OSHA?
And we need much more severe penalties — including almost certain jail time — for employers who kill workers in trenches.
No one should ever die in a trench collapse.