Alarming Rise in Trench Worker Deaths Prompts U.S. Agencies to Take Action

The Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) has been stepping up compliance assistance as well as site inspections focused on reducing the trench and excavation deaths after an alarming rise in 2016.

Working in Trenches

Trenches can be very dangerous because one cubic yard of soil can weigh up to 3,000 pounds, which is equivalent to the weight of a small car. In fact, OSHA calls excavations “one of the most hazardous construction operations.”

The gravity of the situation prompted the Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center, an official agency, to release a Hazard Alert.

As more attention has been brought to the subject, the U.S. Department of Labor got involved. They named the issue one of their top “agency priority goals” to reduce trenching and excavation deaths by 10% by September 20, 2019. In their Action Plan, the Department of Labor states that “OSHA will increase inspection activity” and compliance assistance.

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Most Recent Reports

Despite the efforts, just recently in May 2018 there have been two major citations after trench deaths.

A South Florida utility company faces the maximum penalty of $162,596 after the death of one of their employees for failing to provide cave-in protection; safe entry and exit; perform atmospheric testing; training employees on signals used when moving trench boxes and allowing employees to use defective equipment to hoist a compactor. The same company has prior OSHA violations.

In Alabama a trench death brought to OSHA to propose penalties of $139,684 on the construction corporation for willful and serious citations and, separately, $12,934 on a labor recruitment agency.

Companies have only 15 business days from the date of receipt of the citation to contest or comply and request an informal conference with their OSHA director.

Background on Issues

An OSHA issued-press releases highlighted a spike in 2016 of almost double the previous years’ records of employee deaths due to trench-related accidents.

“Trench deaths have more than doubled nationwide since last year – an alarming and unacceptable trend that must be halted,” said Dr. David Michaels.”

In an egregious case in 2016 from Ohio, OSHA cites the employer as “willfully” committing two serious safety violations with initial proposed fines at $274,359. One of their employees was caught in a trench accident but managed to free himself, only to lose his life later that day when the trench collapsed again. He had also been involved in another trench accident a month earlier with the same company.

“This man’s life could have been saved by following OSHA’s safety standards that require cave-in protection in a trench more than 5-feet deep,” said Ken Montgomery, OSHA’s area director in Cincinnati