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Published: Fall, 2004; Vol 6, Num 4

 

Spike in Trench Fatalities Spurs Action

Her husband had health problems so she'd become more active in his excavation business. Together with an employee, they were using a John Deere with a hydraulic arm and scoop bucket to dig a trench for a sewer line in a Tacoma (WA) neighborhood.

As she walked along the edge of the 4-foot wide, 9-foot deep trench, a wall collapsed, dragging her in and burying her beneath the sliding mud.

Firefighters arrived within 15 minutes, but it took two and a half hours to dig her out.

Tamara Kresse, 41, married for 15 years and the mother of a teenage daughter, died on the scene.

"All she could say," said her sister-in-law, "was 'What am I going to do if I lose him?' All I can think about now is how ironic it is that he's lost her."

* * *

Kresse's death was one of six trench fatalities reported on Jordan Barb's Confined Space blog for the week of October 25. One man escaped but another was killed in a 10-foot trench collapse in Kansas City. Two were killed in a 14-foot trench cave-in in Illinois. One died in a collapse in Michigan. And one was killed in a trench in New Hampshire when he was struck in the head by an object.

According to Kresse's sister-in-law, "It was a freak accident," but what is freakish about something that is so commonplace?

Recommendations

1. Improve training in evacuation hazard and awareness assessment for OSHA Inspectors and Compliance Assistance Specialists

2. Target tougher enforcement, designed to reach small employers and those that have previous trench safety citations

3. Improve training and share training resources

4. Increase the frequency and quality of all training for contractors, aiming at field management and supervisory personnel, jobsite competent persons and skilled and unskilled workers

5. Get help from other key stakeholders such as municipalities, police, fire and rescue, permit examiners, One Call Centers, owners and construction users, insurance companies, safety and risk management organizations, trade journals and learning facilities

6. Start a public health-style campaign to improve upon current marketing, public relations and outreach efforts to improve excavation safety while also counteracting misperceptions among Hispanic workers that OSHA is part of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)

Trench fatalities are a serious problem in construction. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), in 2003, 53 workers were killed in trenching and excavation mishaps. This compares to 33 in 2002 and 36 in 2001. Indeed, since 1990, trench fatalities had never exceeded 43 in any given year. After the spike in 2003, OSHA investigated 34 of the deaths and reported its key findings.

Cave-ins caused 71 percent (24) of the 34 fatalities. Of the remainder, nine were caused by struck by incidents and one by electrocution.

"The main reason trenches collapse is that they are not properly protected," says LHSFNA Occupational Safety and Health Director Scott Schneider, who also serves on OSHA's Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health (ACCSH) and joined the committee in making new trench recommendations to OSHA.

The data support Schneider's assessment. In the investigated fatalities, protective systems were properly employed in only 24 percent of the trenches. In the remainder, a protective system was either improperly used (24%), available but not in use (12%) or simply unavailable (64%).

Further, despite the fact that environmental conditions were a contributing factor in 68 percent of the fatalities, the competent person was not onsite when the fatality occurred 86 percent of the time. Most of the time (65%) the employer had not identified the soil type even though soil type is a factor in trench cave-ins.

Also, a disproportionate number of fatalities (36%) occurred on Mondays. "This is probably because rain or other factors changed conditions over the weekend," says Schneider. "A competent person has to inspect trench work in progress before each shift and after any changes in conditions."

The OSHA investigations showed that schedule time was more important than safety in 88 percent of the incidents. "It happens all the time," says Schneider. "It's a shallow trench, not too long. Everyone there wants to keep moving, and they don't take the time to ensure protection."

In 2003, 72 percent of the fatalities occurred in trenches less than nine feet deep. Only nine percent occurred deeper than 15 feet.

The most commonly killed employees were construction laborers (53%), with plumbers and pipe fitters following next at nine percent. Most (58%) were killed while installing pipe.

Fifty-six percent of these fatalities were Hispanics, and 52 percent were foreign-born. For 44 percent, Spanish was their primary language. At least 30 percent had been working for their employer for less than a year, and most (59%) worked for a subcontractor.

"Here, we see that almost half of the workers killed were foreign-born, didn't speak English well, were working for a subcontractor and had been on the job for less than a year. They were vulnerable," says Schneider.

Only six percent were union members. "Since, nationwide, about 20 percent of construction work is union, you'd expect union fatalities to be near 20 percent. This figure shows that union jobs are safer," says Schneider. "It indicates that supervisors and workers on union sites are better trained. It also suggests that the union offers the kind of protection that workers need to speak up about safety issues on the worksite."

Just over half the employers had a written safety and health program, but, of these, only 40 percent covered trenching. Sixty-five percent provided no trench safety training. Most employers (71%) had never been inspected by OSHA, but 21 percent had been previously cited by OSHA for trench safety violations.

About three in every four fatalities occurred at residential worksites. Most companies were small; 42 percent had fewer than ten employees. Though, typically, five or less workers were present on the site when the incident occurred, most of the projects (52%) involved contracts worth $100,000 or more.

"Generally, it's the small, residential subcontractor who's responsible for trench fatalities," sums up Schneider. "These operations are hard to reach, but that's what OSHA needs to do."

Schneider co-chairs the trench work group, a subcommittee of ACCSH. The recommendations of the work group (see box) were adopted by ACCSH and forwarded to OSHA in early October. They are supported by a broad cross-section of the construction industry, including the National Utility Contractors Association (NUCA), the Association of General Contractors (AGC), some private contractors and consultants, the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) and LIUNA.

"OSHA will consider these recommendations, and we expect some action in 2005," says Schneider. "In the meantime, NIOSH is developing a new trench safety training CD that will soon be available." NIOSH is the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Its current publications on trench safety are available through its website .

For LIUNA signatory contractors that participate in the LHSFNA, the OSH Division can provide assistance in the development and implementation of trench safety programs. For help, call the OSH Division.

[Steve Clark]