According to a Recent report from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the state of Texas is the nation’s leader when it comes to workplace fatalities caused by trench collapses. Last year, there were three such fatalities, including one infamous incident that happened here in San Antonio last March.
On March 9 of last year, first responders arrived at a West Side drainage project, after an 8-foot-deep trench collapsed onto a worker. Firefighters from the San Antonio Fire Department arrived at about 4:30 p.m. to find construction workers attempting to save the worker, who was buried in dirt and debris up to his neck. SAFD later confirmed that the worker died during the rescue. The weight of the soil tends to cause problems with breathing and broken bones and tissue. According to the fire chief on the scene, “There was no way any human could survive the tonnage of soil that collapsed on him.”
Though the worker died during the recovery, the efforts to recover the body continued well into the night, in part because the soil was clay, and further collapse would do so in a wall, which would have made it even more difficult later on. Light rain also fell at the time, resulting in even more difficult conditions for the recovery. They were also concerned because hazardous materials were present at the site. Several other workers had been injured, but their injuries were minor.
Trench Rescue Demonstrations May Save Lives
Over the last few years, there have been other trench collapse incidents throughout Texas, including one in Corpus Christi that happened four years ago, in which one worker was killed. That was the last one in that city, and one reason for that may be the trench rescue demonstrations they have been holding in that area in recent years.
Many who watch these demonstrations remark on how little chance there is to survive a trench collapse. Many speculate that the difficulty involved in rescuing workers caught in trench collapses and the tendency for such rescues to become recoveries relatively quickly has informed workers and employers as to the importance of trench safety and keeping workers safe. Many have been quite surprised at the fact that rescues and recoveries have to be done by hand, and can’t be assisted by equipment.
According to OSHA, there were 11 fatalities caused by trench collapses nationwide in 2014 and another 11 in 2015, before the number spiked to 23 in 2016. Of those, there were two in Texas in 2016 and three last year. That is why Texas is number one in the nation. Experts say the biggest factors against survival of a trench collapse are weight and time. The dirt usually weighs 100 pounds per square foot, which means a cubic yard weighs 2,700 pounds. That is about two standard truckloads of dirt.
Trench Collapses Are Always Preventable
The important thing to know is, while trenching and excavation activities can be quite hazardous, all trench collapse injuries and fatalities are preventable, as long as workers and employers follow OSHA safety regulations and standards, which are legally required when performing trenching work. If workers are doing their jobs in trenches four feet deep or more, protective systems must be in place to prevent the dirt sides from caving in. Trenches must also be equipped with ladders, ramps or other ways for easy access and egress, and workers and supervisors must conduct regular monitoring for changes.
If proper precautions are not taken at excavation and trenching worksites, workers are at greater risk. When a trench collapses because it was not properly supported, workers can be instantly buried under more than a ton of dirt, which often results in death. Since employers are responsible for keeping all workers safe while on the job, any worker who has been injured on the job is entitled to Workers’ Compensation at the very least, and if they are injured fatally, their family could be entitled to compensation for their wrongful death.
A Trench Collapse Could Cost More Than You Think
A new wrinkle has been added in recent years that employers should be thinking about, as well. In a first of its kind case now underway in the state of Washington, a Seattle contractor is fighting felony charges after a worker was killed in a trench collapse two years ago. The OSHA investigation into the accident revealed that the worker, who was part of a crew replacing a sewer line in a residential neighborhood, was killed when he was buried in a seven-foot-deep trench that had not been supported. In addition, the trench lacked a method for safe access and egress, which means workers had no means of escape, if there was a problem. Also, no daily inspections of soil conditions were being conducted, even after several days of rain. OSHA inspectors determined that the employer knew about the safety risks, but chose to ignore them, resulting in the worker’s death.
That case is important because it highlights the importance of employer compliance with the rules regarding trench safety. If Texas is leading the nation in trench collapse fatalities, it is clear that too many employers are failing to keep their workers as safe as possible, which is one of their primary legal responsibilities. Unfortunately, when employers fail in that duty, workers are at greater risk for injury or death, even when easily preventable.