The results are excellent.

LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan

Just eight years ago, construction trench fatalities in the United States stood at 44 per year, and the following two years were only slightly better. But OSHA and union, industry and association professionals who advise the agency thought something could be done about it. They proposed an emphasis campaign. Six years later, the death toll from trench mishaps was cut in half.

“An emphasis campaign is a constructive, targeted and balanced way to address a problem,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “In this case, while new materials and guidance were issued and every effort was made to alert employers that the campaign was kicking off, the agency also fired up a no excuses enforcement policy, and that has made a big difference.”

No excuses got contractors’ attention because fines for willful violations often run to five figures.

Construction Fatalities

OSHA’s decision to launch the emphasis campaign was spurred by its detailed investigation of 34 of the 53 (44 in construction) 2003 trench fatalities. The study showed that:

  • 69 percent were in excavations less than nine feet in depth
  • 60 percent of the deceased workers had not been trained in trench safety
  • 86 percent of the designated competent persons were not onsite
  • 76 percent of the time no protective system was in use even though a system was often available
  • 21 percent of the firms had been previously cited for trench safety violations

The investigation spurred OSHA staff to recommend the emphasis campaign. The Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health (ACCSH) – then chaired by the LHSFNA’s Occupational Safety and Health Division Director Scott Schneider – made recommendations and gave its endorsement. Essentially, the agency decided that contractors had ample warning of the need to properly manage excavation safety and to shore trenches; therefore, going forward, trench safety citations would be handled as willful violations, subject to greater fines and less negotiated settlement.

The result is a dramatic reduction in trench-related construction fatalities, a drop of 57 percent since 2003. Nevertheless, almost two workers per month continue to be killed in trench operations. The effort needs to be sustained and further strengthened.

Last month, OSHA published a fact sheet, a QuickCard and a poster on trench hazards. Each is available in English and Spanish. The LHSFNA’s 27-page pocket guide, Safety in the Trenches, details soil inspection procedures, competent person duties and proper shoring options. It is available through the Fund’s online Publications Catalogue.

“The industry has made good progress in reducing trench catastrophes,” says O’Sullivan. “While we keep up those efforts, we urge OSHA to use emphasis campaigns more broadly and creatively to address other key workplace hazards. These campaigns use limited resources in the best possible way to get the biggest bang for the buck. After a few strong years of emphasis, any important safety or health problem can be brought under much better control. Cost-effective accident and injury control is a win-win for contractors and employers alike.

[Steve Clark]