Last Fall, I wrote about the failure of my city’s public works department to enforce safe working conditions for the city’s contractors. Their excuse was that it’s hard for a small city that doesn’t pay much to find contractors willing to work on the city’s streets and sewers. So you don’t want to scare them away for violating OSHA standards and endangering their workers.
Happily, not all cities feel that way. Last week, OSHA cited an Illinois contractor in Waterloo, Illinois, for putting workers into trenches as deep as 18 feet on five occasions during its investigation from Nov. 30, 2022 to Jan. 20, 2023. Groundworks Contracting had repeatedly ignored a city engineer’s repeated verbal and written instructions to use trench cave-in protection.
Happily, in this case, a City of Waterloo engineer referred the problem to federal OSHA before anyone was killed.
“With help from a concerned City of Waterloo engineer, our inspectors were able to hold Groundworks Contracting Inc. accountable for its failure to protect employees from the threat of trench collapse, one of the construction industry’s most lethal hazards,” explained OSHA Area Director Aaron Priddy in Fairview Heights, Illinois. “Despite warnings from local authorities, this contractor’s callous lack of concern for their employees’ safety and well-being is hard to imagine.”
Unfortunately, as we see from the number of trenching fatalities every year, a “callous lack of concern” for employee safety is not hard to imagine; in fact, it’s all too common. In 2022, 39 workers suffered fatal injuries in trenching and excavation work. Many of the workers killed worked for companies that were contracting for cities. And it’s not like Groundworks didn’t know what it was doing. Not only had it been warned by the city engineer, but there are photos on the company’s Facebook page of their employee using trench boxes.
OSHA cited Groundworks Contracting for one willful violation, four serious violations, and one other-than-serious violation of federal trenching and excavation standards, and proposed penalties of $77,147.
And as we can see from Waterloo’s example, the size of a city should not be factor in the safety of the employees of contractors a city hires. The population of my town, Takoma Park, Maryland is just over 17,000. The population of Waterloo is only 11,000.