trench collapse

Two construction workers were killed in a trench collapse Friday in St. Paul, Minnesota. The workers were identified as Bob Brandtjen and 66 year old Jeff Jeanetta.

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.

10 thoughts on “2 Killed in Trench Collapse Should Still be Alive”
  1. It would be great if osha had more staff and an increased budget. And it would be terrific if the public were educated and motivated to watch out for hazards to workers. But workers themselves and their representatives have to be educated and empowered to protect themselves and fellow workers. Perhaps some combination of these is conceivable, but asking the police to monitor workplace safety is a bad idea.

    1. Jordan Barab did not ask for the police to “monitor” workplace safety. Rather, he said, “What if police had a little workplace safety and health training — enough to know when to call OSHA?” Well, even that might be too much to ask. But they could and should learn to be alert to deep trenches. Why? Because deep trenches overseen by reckless people, too often become crime scenes. The crimes of “reckless endangerment” and “negligent homicide” are prosecuted but not as often as they should be. It costs more to do trench work properly, and some contractors are willing to save money at the risk of their workers’ lives.

      1. Ed and Chuck: You’re both right. Chuck: Workers absolutely need to be educated and empowered to act. I should have discussed that. But given the times, I despair of that happening very soon in small construction companies with mostly immigrant labor. But a worthy goal. And as Ed says, I’m not asking the police to monitor workplace safety; just to be some additional eyes and ears to contact OSHA if they see something suspicious. We attempted, for example, to train USDA food inspectors to know enough to know if something was wrong and call OSHA. Otherwise, there’s no way they’ll ever know. Until workers are educated and empowered to act on their own.

  2. Excellent piece. I get it, but then again, I am the safety manager for a site prep contractor that does large amount of underground utility installation. As a retired (28 year) law enforcement officer, I am continually amazed by the blatant disregard I witness regularly among small and midsize companies for the lives and health of their employees. Even ignoring the weight on the conscious for negligently and/or willfully contributing to a death or permanently disabling injury of a fellow human, these events will generally spell the financial ruin of the employing contractor and their management and competent persons cadre.

    Keep the articles coming. If each one gets only company or foreperson to do the right thing every time, you’re winning.

  3. Sad they perished. Generally speaking, I find workers of today much more educated than workers of 25+ years ago. A quick google search and one can learn all they want and then some about most safety topics. In that sense, we are in a better place. In recent years, many employees I have confronted knew what was right and chose not to to do so. More so than in the past, I talk to employers who shake their heads in frustration over workers doing things unsafely.

    The biggest challenge for any of us is speaking up. After 30+ years, I sometimes still feel guilty shutting a job down, so I understand hard it can be for a worker. With the shortage of construction labor today, workers at bad actor companies are in a favorable position to walk off the job if indeed they are being forced to work unsafely. If companies cannot not get workers, it would force them to consider their ways.

    The sting of an OSHA penalty goes away quickly. A steady stream of workers walking off the job…much more effective. The challenge, of course, is getting them to do so. At least today, some are in a better position to do so.

  4. Thank you, Jordan, for an excellent overview of the problem of deaths in trenches and for your many years of work on occupational safety and health. These too frequent deaths in trenches are NOT accidents. Rather, they result from gross or criminal negligence and should be prosecuted as such. I see such prosecutions from time to time, but not enough to put fear into company owners and managers. I suggest that the public be educated to recognize these deaths as the result of criminal conduct. Then the public can push their District Attorneys/Prosecuting Attorneys to do their jobs. DA’s should be able to make cases in at least half or more of the trench deaths at negligent homicides (involuntary manslaughter in some states). Five or six convictions a year would bring down the trench death rates.

  5. This one hit me hard too. It happened less than 2.5 miles from my house. Less than a half mile from a university. About a block from a fancy new development along the Mississippi River, with major construction contractors. Simply tragic and so preventable. Devastating.

  6. I support Jordan’s push to stop calling these accidents. But if we are going to be particular about language, we also must be careful not to make unequivocal statements implying that contractors that experience such a tragedy are criminally negligent. I did not see the word “some” before “result from gross or criminal negligence. Generalizing that such incidents are due to bad actors is no better than generalizing these incidents are “accidents.”

    Anyone out there condemning who does not have firsthand experience running their own construction firm cannot fully appreciate the challenges. Yes, there are bad actors. But there are plenty of contractors wanting to do the right thing who face external challenges. Clients want the cheap bid, which encourages shortcuts. If you don’t play the game, your family doesn’t eat.

    It’s a bit like faulting OSHA for all of our safety shortcomings over the past 50 years. It’s not that simple. These trenching fatalities aren’t simply a matter of negligent employers.

  7. It’s manslaughter – and should be charged as such. That might generate some progress when it comes to trenches…

  8. Mr Brandtjen, age 63, was one of the deceased and owned the company. He and the other deceased, Mr. Jeanetta, age 66, had worked together in the past and their sons played ball together. According to his family, Mr Jeanetta had recently been released from prison after “facing a life sentence.” It appears Mr Brandtjen was giving him an opportunity to get his life back together. Parents associated with the private school where Mr Brandtjen’s son attended have already raised over $100k to pay for his funeral and support his son, for whom Mr Brandtjen was the sole provider. Apparently Mr Brandtjen was well known and liked in the community.

    Does this sound like a greedy, scumbag owner who didn’t care for his employees? Isn’t it a bit insensitive to the families to be talking about prosecution and culpability in light of the fact the owner is dead and killed someone he probably cared about?

    There is certainly something to be learned from this tragedy. But I would not put it in the same category of cases involving criminally negligent employers who don’t care about their employees. He was in the hole himself. It appears this was a good man who made a terrible mistake. Let him rest in peace without pointing fingers…he and his family have already paid enough. We should do a better job of investigating the facts before talking about such cases. Practice what we preach as safety professionals.

    I’ve yet to see an exhaustive study detailing the systematic causes of these trenching fatalities and identifying trends. Until we have such data, we are just guessing at effective solutions. Would a big fine or jail time have caused Mr Brandtjen to make a different decision that fateful day? No. He had much more to lose that day…his own life.

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