Contractors That Don’t Comply Face Jail Time

excavator lifting trench box

Once again OSHA is focusing on trenching jobsites with the intent of ensuring that everyone in and around trenches are protected from cave-ins. Contractors must safeguard workers and commit to protecting them from cave-ins by properly shoring and sloping trench walls or by using shields (trench boxes) to guard from trench walls that could collapse unexpectedly.

There’s no time for a co-worker or equipment operator to tell someone to get out of the trench once a cave in starts. By the time someone yells the words, another unfortunate worker is buried. It is a lucky individual who has time to jump out of the way but, more often than not, they don’t even see it coming. Why would any contractor risk a worker’s life to save a little time and a few dollars by not installing a protective system?

Failure to Protect Employees Could Lead to Criminal Charges

First and foremost, we must protect our valuable employees so they can go home unharmed to their families and friends every day. Second, we need to ensure that our contractors and employers are not subject to expensive OSHA penalties, lawsuits, the cost of legal defense, and now, criminal penalties. Yes, criminal penalties and jail time.

A drain contractor in Boston has just been convicted for two counts of manslaughter. He was sentenced to two years in jail and three years of probation for failing to provide trench protection for workers. His company is now out of business and he will never be allowed to be an excavation contractor again. His employees were working in an unprotected 14-ft deep trench when a cave-in occurred and buried two of them up to their waists. When the cave-in occurred it also caused a fire hydrant to collapse, causing a torrent of water to quickly fill the trench, drowning them before anybody could help.

During the trial, the contractor’s lawyers argued that there was no proof that the lack of a trench box caused the hydrant to collapse and that the city is responsible for the stability of hydrants. Had a trench box been in place, the workers would not have been trapped and could have escaped the box before it filled with water. Unfortunately, the company did not follow the excavation standard. OSHA reported that the company had been cited twice in the past 10 years for trench violations and was required to provide trench safety training to workers. The company claimed workers were trained but it appears the documentation was falsified following the accident.

Sadly, many people will be affected by this incident, especially the families of the deceased. The company’s other employees had to find new employment. The owner’s life is now destroyed and his family will also be affected. All of this was because the choice was made to save a few bucks in lieu of following the standard.

These types of situations happen too often. Some people believe it can’t happen to them. Whether the decision is made out of ignorance or to save time and/or money, it is wrong and illegal to allow workers to enter into an unprotected trench that is more than 4 or 5 ft deep.

OSHA’s regional administrator, Galen Blanton said, “The deaths of these two men could have been prevented. Their employer, which previously had been cited by OSHA for the same hazardous conditions in addition to other violations, knew what safeguards were needed to protect its employees in a trench but choose to ignore that responsibility.”

The OSHA standard for excavations and trenches are explicit and relatively easy to comply with. No worker, regardless of his/her job, should be exposed to the dangers posed by an unprotected trench even if only for a single minute. Failure to protect your workers from a cave-in is a crime. OSHA is making it very clear that these crimes will be prosecuted. Many District Attorneys throughout the country are also adapting this type of policy. I suspect we are going to hear more about contractors facing criminal charges when employees are killed by cave-ins.

When an accident like this happens contractors will face stiff penalties, even if the contractor is not criminally charged. The company will have to fork out a lot of money to pay OSHA penalties and for their legal defense. Ensuring that this doesn’t happen is an investment in your workers and your company.

Are you ready to adopt the concept of 100% trench protection at all your jobsites that involve excavation work? It can be accomplished. I know of many companies within NUCA who have already adopted this concept. Under no circumstances do they permit any worker to enter into an unprotected trench, even for a moment.

Most of our readers already know they can choose between different methods and different types of protective systems. I call them the 3 Ss of trench safety: shoring, shielding, sloping. Companies can buy or rent shoring and shields. If space permits, you can always slope the trench wall.

Other Trenching Hazard to Consider

I don’t want you to think that cave-ins are the only cause of trench-related accidents and fatalities, so keep in mind that there are other safety concerns. According to OSHA you also need to be addressing struck-by hazards related to handling materials, equipment, and vehicles. Struck-by accidents are the second-leading cause of accidents on trenching jobsites. This is an area where workers need training about the hazards and how to avoid them.

In addition, you should pay close attention to confined space entry operations, work zone hazards, fall hazards, overhead power lines and underground utilities, and the use of personal protective equipment. It is a never-ending battle but accidents can be prevented. Set a goal for zero accidents this year. The old saying goes, “If you can conceive it and you believe it, you can achieve it.”
You can help by promoting the concept of using TRENCH PROTECTION in your communities, at your chapter meetings, with your subcontractors, and your contractor buddies. Ah heck, share it with your competitors too, because you could save the life of a fellow construction worker. We’re all in this industry together.

George Kennedy is Vice President of Safety for the National Utility Contractors Association (NUCA) and is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP).

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