On Oct. 21, 2016, a trench caved in killing two men. Robert Higgins and Kevin Mattocks were working in South Boston in an unprotected trench which was approximately 12 ft deep when the cave-in occurred causing the men to be trapped. The cave-in also broke an adjacent fire hydrant high-pressure water line which filled the trench in a matter of minutes, drowning both men as fellow workers attempted to rescue them.
The OSHA investigation found their employer, Atlanta Drain Service Co. Inc., failed to provide a protective system in the form of shoring, trench shields or sloping which would have protected the workers from the cave-in as they installed a water and sewer service. A trench box or a shoring system may have also prevented the water line from breaking. In addition, OSHA found that workers had not been trained as required by OSHA.
I find it hard to believe that any employer that performs this type of work would permit their employees to enter into an unprotected 12-ft deep trench. I know they would not permit their workers to play Russian roulette with a gun, but that is exactly what they do when allowing workers to enter into an unprotected trench because, like a bullet, a trench collapse can kill a worker instantly or cause the worker to suffer great trauma. If a worker is buried completely, they will usually suffocate in about 6 minutes. However, in this case, it appears that the workers may have drowned because they were trapped and unable to escape from the trench as it quickly filled with water.
OSHA’s inspection determined that Atlantic Drain and its owner, who oversaw the work on that day, did not:
- Install a support system to protect employees in an approximately 12-ft deep trench from a cave-in and prevent the adjacent fire hydrant from collapsing.
- Remove employees from the hazardous condition in the trench.
- Train the workers in how to identify and address hazards associated with trenching and excavation work.
- Provide a ladder at all times so employees could exit the trench.
- Support structures next to the trench that posed a hazard.
- Provide employees with hardhats and eye protection.
As a result, OSHA has cited the company for a total of 18 willful, repeat, serious and other-than-serious violations and is proposing $1,475,813 in penalties. It appears the company cannot say it was not aware of the dangers because OSHA also cited the company in 2007 and 2012 for similar hazards.
OSHA, working with the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office and the Office of the Inspector General, has succeeded in getting both the company and its owner indicted. Accidents like this are not only about OSHA violations and penalties, it’s also about life and death. This company and its owner are about to find that out as they experience the wrath of OSHA as they are now facing two counts each of manslaughter and other criminal charges in connection with the deaths.
Sadly, two workers are dead due to an employer’s failure to comply with safety regulations. This accident could have easily been prevented if the employer had simply provided and required the use of trench boxes or shoring, which could have been rented for a couple of hundred dollars. Instead, two families have lost their loved ones.
What concerns me about situations like this is they are preventable. I am also concerned that there are employees working in similar situations today and every day because their employers want to save a few minutes of time or a few bucks. If you are reading this, I hope your company is not one of those who are playing Russian Roulette with workers lives because if you are, sooner or later something will happen and you and your company could be facing the consequences. Is it really worth taking the chance?
This month, NUCA is holding its 2nd annual Trench Safety Stand Down. NUCA is asking all companies that are involved with trenching and excavation work to take some time and stop work during the week of June 19-24 to address trench safety issues and to remind employees of the dangers associated with working in and around excavations. For more information about NUCA’s TSSD and how to hold a stand down, visit www.nuca.com/tssd. Hold a TSSD and you could save the life of one of your most important assets — a trench worker.
George Kennedy is NUCA’s vice president of safety.