Workers Memorial Day

Today is Workers Memorial day where we’re supposed to mourn for all workers killed on the job and fight for all of those still alive.

But right now, I’m just going to mourn for one person: Tony Rice, a “dedicated,” “beloved” — and dead —  employee of the city of Eutaw, Alabama.

Rice was doing sewer work when the trench around him and two others collapsed at around 7 p.m. Tuesday evening. The two other city employees were able to escape, but not Rice. It took 7 hours to recover his body as his family looked on.

5,190 workers died on the job in the United States in 2021, the last year for which we have data. It’s a big number, and it’s hard to comprehend or understand the human tragedy that accompanies each of these deaths. The loss felt by friends, family and co-workers. And the anger knowing that almost all of these deaths could have been prevented if safety standards had been followed.

Tony Rice died in a trench collapse in Alabama, one of the 23 states where public employees have not right to a safe workplace because they are not covered by OSHA.

Anyone who reads Confined Space knows there are two things that most quickly send my steam climbing and my fingers clicking: trench collapses and the fact that 8 million public employees in 23 states are not covered by OSHA.

Tony Rice died in a trench collapse in Alabama, one of the 23 states where public employees have not right to a safe workplace because they are not covered by OSHA.

Who Knows What Happened?

The Eutaw city spokesman Corey Martin isn’t sure what happened. But “there are certain things we do to try to be as safe as possible, but there’s always a risk or a danger that you have to understand when you do this kind of work.”

Actually, Corey, one of the things you should “do to try to be as safe as possible” are use a trench box.  Every city public works director knows that. Or should.

And workers don’t have to “understand” that there’s “always” danger — in any kind of work. Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, all workers (except public employees) have a right to a safe workplace; a right to come home alive and healthy at the end of every shift.

And we have OSHA standards that ensure that the “danger” doesn’t kill workers. Workers just need to “understand” that their employer is providing a safe workplace.  And hopefully that there’s a government agency that will enforce safe working conditions.

Apparently “several agencies will be involved in the investigation to determine what went wrong,” but one of those agencies will not be OSHA. And one thing we’ve learned when an agency investigates itself about a workplace incident: it usually ends up being the worker’s fault.

A statement issued by the city stated that “Over the next several days there will be more questions than answers as we move through all of the official processes and also deal with heavy hearts and sadness at a loss of someone who’s close to you. We will forever miss Tony’s smiling face and energy.”

Oh, and they “ask for your thoughts and prayers during this time.”

How could this have happened? More questions than answers?

Because the trench was too deep. Because there was no trench box or other shoring. Because trench safety standards weren’t followed.  And because OSHA trench standards don’t apply to employers in the city of Eutaw, Alabama.

Actually, we already know the probable answer to most of these questions. Why did this happen? Because trenches collapse. Because a cubic yard of soil weighs over 2,000 pounds. Because the trench was too deep. Because there was no trench box or other shoring. And because trench safety standards weren’t followed.

And because OSHA trench standards don’t apply to employers in the city of Eutaw, Alabama.

We may not know the exact details. We don’t know exact how deep the trench was. Most likely more than the 5 feet allowed by OSHA without shoring. Was it 7 feet? Ten feet? We don’t know. One thing we do know is that in Alabama, the trench could have been 50 feet deep and it would have been perfectly legal and city officials would still be wondering how, oh how could such a terrible, unexpected thing happen?

There were several different news stories and videos about this disaster, but only one news video that I found mentioned —  at the very end — that public employees aren’t covered by OSHA.

Fight for the Living

So as we mourn for Tony Rice and the thousands of other workers killed in the workplace every year, what specifically do we fight for? In this case, the answer is clear: ensuring that every employer that digs trenches complies with safe trenching standards. OSHA can’t be everywhere.  So the agency needs more funding — much more.

And the agency needs help — from us. When you see something — specifically workers in trenches that are deeper than their shoulders. — do something: Tell them to get out of the trench. Talk to supervisors. Take pictures. Call OSHA.

Of course, in Alabama, if you had called OSHA about a deadly hazard facing a public employee, you’d get a “wrong number” message.

The second — and probably most important thing we need to fight for is OSHA coverage for public employees. The Protecting America’s Workers Act, which will be reintroduced today by Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT), would require coverage of all public employees in the country. But until PAWA passes Congress and is signed by the President, each of the 23 states where public employees are not covered can pass laws providing them with federally approved OSHA coverage. (and get the feds to pay half the costs!)

Massachusetts did it last year and efforts are currently going on in Pennsylvania.

Every article about this tragedy talks of how “dedicated” and “beloved” Tony Rice was. But if you really love someone, you protect them. If you ask for dedication, the least you can do is to make sure they aren’t crushed under thousands of pound of wet soil when you could have easily prevented it.




10 thoughts on “Workers Memorial Day: Mourn for Tony Rice, and Fight for All Public Employees”
  1. Eutaw, AL is a city of about 2600 that is 73% Black and 31% of its residents live below the poverty line. I’ve actually spent time in that area. Eutaw was hit by its third tornado in 9 months this past January, and it appears Mr Martin and Mr Rice played significant roles in helping the people of their town recover.
    If you do a search for “corey martin eutaw al” you will find articles and photos showing he is a very young man who is very engaged and likely well respected by his community. Having lived in the South my entire life, much of it in rural areas, many rural communities don’t have big Publics Works departments with lots of money. They do what needs to be done to get the job done, sometimes using work practices us safety snobs would call “unsafe.” There was a crew doing the work with him…probably just like these guys from the Eutaw city webpage.
    All of them accepted the work conditions that day. These are proud people. I feel quite confident that if you walked into that town right now and started publicly criticizing that public works department and Mr Martin in front of its citizens, we would never see you again, Jordan. You obviously know nothing about how things work in small southern towns like this. People are VERY close, especially after surviving three recent tornadoes together. I highly doubt this was a case of someone knowingly putting someone’s life in danger.
    This was disrespectful to the people of Eutaw and Mr Martin to be talking about such a fresh tragedy without having a clue about the circumstances….all to support your political agenda. Sometimes you are spot on with things, Jordan. Stick to facts and what you know, Jordan. One thing is for sure. You DON’T know the people of impoverished, rural Alabama because if you did, you would not have used this as an example of public sector negligence.

      1. The median household income in Greene County, where Eutaw is located, is $22000. Greene County ranks highest among Alabama’s 67 counties for percent of its children living in poverty…41%. People there are worried about their next meal, not the tab data on their trench box. Have you ever lived in an area where people live on dirt floors? I do now. There is no tax money for schools or anything else. I bought an office chair for a teacher to have in their classroom because the public school did not have money to provide her one. Beating up a county like mine over safety would be idiotic. People in small communities like that are so tight they routinely put their lives on the line to help each other, and I bet that is why Mr Rice was in a trench at 7pm in a low income housing subdivision. The municipalities with big bucks who neglect safety when they have the resources…that’s another matter. Glad to see you are so passionate. Am sure you’ll do the right thing and send those folks in Eutaw a big check so they can provide better safety for their workers. Take a week and drive around the backwoods of WV, AL or MS and then tell me how much money you think those folks have to implement best practices in safety in their municipalities? Is it tragic? Yes. But it is not their fault they are poor.

        1. Nobody is talking about how poor communities are anywhere in this God forsaken country. If it gave a damn about safety of this man working for a municipality and everyone else who lives and works for next to nothing then the damn government ought to be looking out for them but your grifter republican leaders in the south don’t give a damn about this man, you or me. The point is again that there a thousands of municipalities all over the country that don’t have protection by ANYONE from injuries at work, period. That’s my point.

        2. TB:
          1. It sounds like what you’re saying is that poor people, or anyone working in struggling small businesses or for underfunded public employers don’t deserve a safe workplace, don’t deserve to come home alive at the end of the day. That’s exactly what the Occupational Safety and Health Act was created to prevent: Employers don’t get to choose whether or not to protect their employees, depending on what their budget is. It needs to be part of the business plan, or there should be no business.
          2. Why is it relevant that the town is 73% Black? Does that mean black people should be happy to have any job, no matter how dangerous and how unprotected they are? The Black worker fatality rate increased sharply in 2021 and is now the highest in more than a decade. 653 Black workers died on the job in 2021, the highest number in at least 19 years. Is that because there is more poverty in the Black community and the need jobs and fear retaliation too much to object? Or that they tend to work the most dangerous jobs? All of the above. In any case, there’s a problem. Because even Black workers in lousy jobs in impoverished communities have the same right to come home alive at the end of the shift as white workers in better funded communities.
          3. “Assumption of Risk” is not a thing anymore — and hasn’t for well over 100 years — no matter how poor you are or how much your employer is struggling. So not only are employers not allowed to put workers in a dangerous workplace, employees themselves are not allowed to choose to discard required safety measures. And we don’t know if they “accepted” the working conditions, or they just need a job and were afraid to object. We don’t know if they even understood it was dangerous to go down into a deep, unprotected trench. Were they even trained? And because there will likely be no independent investigation, we will never likely never know.
          4. Since when is trench safety only advocated by “workplace snobs?” A trench box is snobbery? Really? Same with fall protection? Lockout/Tagout? Exposure to asbestos? Snobbery?
          5. I’m sure Corey Martin is a nice guy. But if he puts his employees in clearly deadly situations, and then basically says it’s just one of those things that workers have to accept, he shouldn’t be public works director. Correction: Corey Martin is not Public Works director. He is the city’s spokesperson.
          6. Why should public employees — whether they work for a well-financed state or an impoverished county — not have the same right to a safe workplace that private sector employees have? Or should only big city workers be protected and not small? Only urban and not rural? Only public employees in New York or North or South Carolina, but not in Georgia or Alabama or Ohio? Again, that’s exactly why the OSHAct was created, so that all workers (obviously except public employees) have the exact same right to a safe workplace.
          7. Finally, what is my “political agenda?” Making sure workers come home alive at the end of the shift? That’s not a “political agenda,” it’s actually the law. Advocating that public employees should have the same right to live that private sector employees have? That’s a “political agenda?”

  2. Just so you know, Jordan. I was hospitalized due to a workplace event that was the result of my supervisor’s negligence. My brother had a crippling workplace accident. Multiple male members of my family suffered serious injuries due to their service in the military and got diddly for their troubles. So no need to preach to me about worker rights or ever assume I don’t care. In response to your comments…
    1. I’m sure the public sector people of Greene County deserve more ..better salaries, safety, etc. But where does that tax money come when so many are struggling to survive? If OSHA could magically fine Greene County for this event, who would ultimately end up paying for it? They can’t shut down the school or the public works department because people deserve better. That is the harsh reality. I know my county folks deserve more. That is why some of us who are better off annually give hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund our local police force and fire department. Some of us take off work and fill in as substitutes at our schools because our kids deserve more. Expecting “the government” to fix the problem will not work.
    2. Many people have likely never heard of Eutaw. I was simply trying to paint a picture of a small Alabama town, some of whose people are struggling to survive. The majority of my workforce is poor minorities. Even though we have what some would consider an unsafe work environment, none of them complain about better work conditions. What is on their mind is better pay. That is not to say they don’t deserve better. My point is that I bet if you asked the good folks of Eutaw how you could help them, buying safety equipment would not be at the top of their list.
    3. How much time have you spent managing day-to-day operations at a mine, manufacturing site, or construction site, Jordan? I’ve done all three, and balancing safety with all of the other needs of the business is extremely difficult. Based upon what you say in #1 about there being “no business”…if that was the case, many of our large industrial sites around the country should be put out of business because they fail at even executing minimal safety standards. Is it fair that people have to work at unsafe plants? No Do we deserve better? Sure But life is unfair sometimes. And life is all about assuming risk. That is reality.
    4. I was trying to be funny by using the word “snob” and please note I included myself. Lighten up a bit. My point was that sometimes our profession can come across as a bit holier-than-thou. As a preacher once told me, you don’t preach to a hungry clergy. Likewise, a community whose children are going to bed hungry probably has bigger problems on their minds than workplace safety training. And if you don’t get that Jordan, you’ve never lived in poverty.
    5. Where did you get your information that Corey Martin is Public Works Director? Here is the city’s webpage below. He also has a facebook page and linkedin page and none claim he is Public Works director. How do you know those were “his men?”
    6. I don’t question they should have protection. The big question is “how” will we make such protection more than words on paper. We have yet to figure that one out in private industry. The safety profession has taught me to focus in areas that give the greatest returns because there is only so much time and resources. Is that fair? No But it is reality. We are not taking care of our children. The problem with public sector workers is just a symptom of a much deeper issue. When 41% of kids in a county are living below the poverty line, people’s minds are not always on safety.
    7. Your political agenda is politicizing safety into a democratic/republican struggle…and perpetuating an us vs them, worker vs the man mentality. At times you speak of incidents and people and imply there is culpability when you clearly lack the facts. Good safety pros are neutral and gather all of the facts before coming to conclusions and assuming an employee was a victim of negligence and/or a manager/owner didn’t care about his employee’s safety. It’s one thing to advocate for workers rights. It’s another to vilify people simply because they are a manager/CEO/owner of a business that has a catastrophe when you don’t know the first thing about them. Just as you would bristle at someone implying you were responsible for all of the people who died under your watch at OSHA, many fine people in leadership positions would probably do the same reading your comments about them when one of their employees dies. It’s not that simple.

    1. 1. I’m sure the whole county deserves XYZ, everyone wants to live a safe and comfortable life. You are phrasing a “County” whereas Jordan is phrasing an “Employer.” Two different topics, the county (while taxes/donations) is fueled by the people. The Employer’s OBLIGATION as a company to provide safe working conditions. If the company is not well funded or as a big budget then yes, the employees are at greater risk since less protective is given to employees, compared to a well-off company. That doesn’t mean that morally one company is better than the other, they have access to more resources. But who is responsible at the end of the day for the death of an employee. It all revolves around the employer. As for how a county will increase its budget for public sector is based off the allocation capabilities of the mayor.
      I thank you for lending your time and efforts to teaching students, but please talk with your local state and county representatives.
      2. I have never heard of Eutaw in my life, let alone the struggles that the people may face. The reality is that they must play with the cards they are dealt. Receiving handouts/stimulus checks must be approved by state/government and may help for a short time. If the work conditions/environment is not up to standard. Wouldn’t one think that the capabilities of safety equipment allow for the employee to come home safely. Rather than getting paid more in a dangerous setting. Question what you prioritize education/housing/XYZ verse the ability to live.
      3. I congratulate you on your knowledge from different work backgrounds. Now companies, I assume you are aware, are audited; third parties, customers, vendors may inspect your workplace but also your safety culture, records, and companies SOP’s when it comes to safe procedures. If the company has met the minimal safety requirements based on their work conditions, then employees must make do, (life is unfair). The question is, if they were below the minimum safety standard, why didn’t you or other employees’ whistleblew to OSHA, and if so what was aftermath?
      4. The context matters, if I write a story about the death of let’s say George Floyd, I wouldn’t in the same post say that he got “WWE grand slammed” no it just does not belong, making the legitimacy of my story minimal. You are morally correct when it comes to if children are hungry, the first thing on their mind is not safety training. However, safety training as stated prior can allow the parents to acknowledge the hazards of their workplace, to keep allowing some sort of income into the household. Rather than nothing if they had gotten into an accident or even worse killed.
      5. There is no way to know who’s men worked for who, obviously contacting him is the best bet. No harm to you, but what is the chance that you know everything about my public works in my community. The chances are slim since I do not live in Alabama, let alone the details of events that have happened that do not relate to you. You are very passionate in your writing. You mentioned “Corey Martin” “Community” then “Public Works Department” all in two sentences, without proper context, you can see how one can just assume he works for the Public Works Department.
      6. Concepts are far easier than excitations when it comes to safety. There is noncompliance, budget, and if the company even approves of it. The area of greatest return is a great standard to go by and I agree. *(Children protection) You have stated this point three times over the course of your response, please see previous answer above.
      7. Work is work at the end of the day, the employer is still responsible for their employees (their health and pay) Whereas the employees are responsible for the duties of the company (the companies health, and company’s income). It does not matter if the employer is a great person or we know anything about them, the employer is responsible for your health at work. If an employee does die at a company, then they should be shunned. Have the company be known and responsible, it will bring light to the topic, and builds data for trends that can be used for safer procedures. It is simple, work is work, it is not a personality or a status, it is just a profession.

      1. Thank you for the thoughtful comments. I’m fine with calling out company names. But when we publicly call out individuals, that takes it to another level, especially when we don’t know the circumstances. Many small businesses(like some that do excavating work) and public government entities in small towns are like family. In some cases, people may literally be related. I don’t think we are honoring the family’s of victims by publicly call out the people we THINK did them wrong without facts. We should leave that to them and their attorneys. To me, it’s a bit like calling out the parent of a child who murders someone and branding them a terrible parent. That may or may not be the case. If we want to take the strict approach of, “It doesn’t matter, it happened on your watch.”…well, some of us are probably fortunate we were not judged by that same standard in our lives. I’ve had some bad things happen under my watch as a safety pro. It doesn’t mean I didn’t care deeply for those people who were hurt. And it hurt me deeply once when I was blamed. Maybe that is why I have compassion for others in leadership positions within companies. It is a very tough balancing act. We shouldn’t judge until we have walked in a man’s shoes.

  3. Below are links to some interesting photos on the City of Eutaw’s facebook page. There are a number of other similar photos on this page. Somehow I really don’t think they would publicly post these photos if they thought there was anything wrong.
    Turns out their Public Works Director is Larry Sanford, who has worked for the city for 48 years. His address lists a 750 sq ft home worth $15000. Tony Rice, the deceased, was a member of the street department and apparently ran the brush truck. His supervisor is Broderick Lewis. Many of the Publics Works Dept members likely go to church together. It is obvious from the webpage folks in this town really care for each other.
    This may seem difficult for some in this country to believe, but there are many little towns in the South and Appalachia that are like walking into a time warp. I’m not sure it is safe to assume that “everyone knows better” when it comes to the OSHA standards. But they can get on the internet, right? Some city folks might be shocked to learn what poor access to the internet some rural areas have. It would be interesting to know what percentage of small town municipalities own or have easy accessibility to trenching and shoring equipment. Is it possible that some folks would be better served by educational outreach and access to proper equipment rather than threats of fines and jail time?

  4. I agree with you, a specific person as an employer should not be given criticism without all the facts, however if that said specific employer had the capabilities to further protect/train employees and did not. Then where does the blame lie, to the employee who was unaware? There is no definite answer you can point fingers at. The employer or the company itself, but blame should never be on that employee.
    As for your analogy I believe it is good, however it does show an extreme case because you have now added a third factor. Since a murderer is easily the one to be blamed rather than the parent, because the intent of the third party is present. A better analogy would be if there is a parent and a child at the playground, while the parent watches his/her child play, the child let’s say. Goes on the slide and falls over the guard ledge and as fallen and gotten hurt.
    Where does the blame lie? The Child playing, the parent who is watching over their child, or the playground itself (people who built it). I tried to make this as relatable to a work setting as much as possible without any other underlying factors. Granted there are always factors with every company and worksite. This is just referring to yours without a third party with intent.
    Of course, we should never judge prior, let alone assume others background nor knowledge on any topics. Like in all things in life, there are different ways of seeing problems and how to solve them. We as safety professionals should not judge nor criticize others, in turn receive the same openness and respect for the stances/sides we take.
    Thank you for your post and bringing light to a different view with more morality, it is very much appreciated.
    Thank you Jordan and Team for the weekly post and updates, I look forward to reading your next post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Confined Space

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading