It’s spring … and the start of trench death season

March 26th, 2009 by Julie Ferguson

Almost with the predictability of the swallows returning to Capistrano, the spring ushers in a season of frustratingly preventable trench deaths. Earlier this week, a Baltimore worker narrowly escaped death after spending 6 hours buried up to his chest in dirt. He had been digging in a 10 foot trench that was apparently unsecured. Firefighters who were on the scene talk about the hazards of a trench collapse rescue. All too often, others die trying to rescue a trapped co-worker- secondary collapses are common. That’s what happened last September when three co-workers jumped into a ditch to try to save a buried colleague – four fatalities ensued.

“It is so sickening that they weren’t in that much dirt, but it was so heavy that it crushed them,” Mahon said. “The dirt was so heavy, it crumbled them forward into a ball.”

Mahon said the trench was about as wide as a pickup truck. The men were buried in an area whose size he compared to a queen-sized bed.

One of the men was buried on top of another, he said, and right next to them the two other men were stacked on top of each other.

“The dirt there is incredibly heavy, sticky,” Mahon said. “Like gumbo, that’s what everyone calls it up here — gumbo. It’s a heavy, heavy clay soil.”

Earlier this month, OSHA issued a $200,000 fine to the employer, John Prouty Construction Inc., O’Neill, Neb., for “alleged” willful and serious violations. Of the citation, Charles Adkins, OSHA’s regional administrator in Kansas City, Mo. commented, “There is no excuse for this accident and these workers did not need to lose their lives. It is appalling to realize there are companies that would allow, or even require, their employees to enter excavations without having cave-in protection…”

These are needless and preventable deaths – authorities sometimes call them manslaughter. Effective trench control methods exist and are well documented. All trenches over five feet deep are required by OSHA to be protected by sloping, shoring, or employing a steel cage or trench shield. We’ve compiled several good resources on prevention and worker training – if you work in road crews or construction, please take a few minutes to read our post from last July, Buried Alive.