One cubic yard of dirt does not seem like much until you realize that it weighs 3,000 pounds and has enough force to kill a human being. When a construction trench collapses with walls six feet high, that is enough dirt to kill everyone trapped in the trench. Trench work is an essential part of construction, but the work-related accidents that occur on a job site often go unnoticed by the public.
The Reality Of Trench Collapses
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 35 construction workers are killed every year in trench collapses. The rate of construction deaths with trench work is 112 percent higher than any other type of construction activity, yet the general public rarely hears about trench collapses.
One of the most frustrating things about trench collapses is that the majority of them occur because of a complete disregard for safety regulations. Any trench that is more than five feet in height needs to be reinforced in some way. A trench that reaches a depth of 20 feet must be designed by a professional engineer and include a variety of safety devices. Despite these laws, construction workers are still dying in improperly designed trenches.
The Trench Collapse Case That Could Create Accountability
In April 2015, a construction worker was working for Sky Materials on a job in New York City. The 22-year-old was working in a trench that was seven feet deep, yet it was not reinforced in any way. When a safety inspector insisted that job site supervisor remove workers from the trench until it could be properly reinforced, the supervisor refused.
By that afternoon, the trench had reached 13 feet high, which automatically triggered a series of special safety needs that the supervisor once again refused to comply with. By mid-afternoon, the trench collapsed and killed a 22-year-old worker. By 2017, the supervisor has been convicted of being responsible for the worker’s death and was given a prison sentence.
In the wake of this incident, municipalities around the country have started to bring criminal charges against construction companies that choose to ignore trench work safety regulations. In Boston, one case was severe enough to motivate the mayor to pass a law requiring any contractor to supply their history of job site violations when applying for a building permit. Municipalities are starting to take trench accidents very seriously, and construction companies should consider following suit.
The Fines For Collapses Are Steep
One of the primary reasons for trench deaths is that contractors cut corners on safety regulations to add to the company’s bottom line. However, when the fines come down for cutting corners, those companies wind up losing more money than if they had just invested in the right safety measures in the first place.
The company in Boston that caused that trench accident was fined almost $1.5 million by OSHA for a series of violations associated with the trench collapse. OSHA trench violations can run anywhere from $37,000 to $140,000 each, and most trench accidents elicit more than one fine. Some contractors try to play the odds by counting on OSHA’s inability to inspect every job site for violations because of a lack of manpower, but fines can be assessed after an investigation as easily as they can be assessed before an incident happens. Contractors need to be more proactive in their attempts to offer a safe workplace and follow safety regulations set in place for trench work.
Trench work in the construction industry is the most dangerous type of work available. But the reality is that trench work is only dangerous because so many companies cut corners on safety regulations. In order to reduce construction deaths, construction companies need to take ownership of safety and make trench safety a primary concern.