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Preventable Trench Deaths Highlight Shortcomings in News Coverage

It’s an unfortunate truth that most on-the-job deaths don’t get much news coverage. News desks these days are small, reporters are busy and many workplace deaths happen out of public view. One exception to that rule is trench fatalities – these incidents often draw emergency response personnel for rescue efforts and often happen next to busy streets, increasing the number of people who see them.

Even when trench fatalities or other workplace deaths do get news coverage, they are often called “freak accidents.” This kind of language makes it sound like nothing could have been done to prevent a worker from losing their life, which is almost never the case. It’s also a way to shift blame away from the employer’s responsibility to maintain a safe work environment.

LIUNA General
and LHSFNA Labor
Armand E. Sabitoni

“Trench collapses can happen in an instant. That’s why no worker should ever enter an unprotected trench, even for just a moment,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “Instead, contractors must take the time to safely secure every trench and make sure the proper protections are in place before workers enter.”

In many cases, news coverage of workplace deaths lacks important safety details and context, such as what protective measures were (or weren’t) in place. Take, for example, the recent deaths of Marcos Santiz-Lopez and Brandon M. Coburn in a trench on a jobsite in Florida.

The online article gives a brief overview of the incident – Santiz-Lopez and Coburn were killed when a trench collapsed during work on a water line. One man was pronounced dead shortly after emergency personnel arrived. The body of the other man wasn’t recovered until four hours later, when he was pronounced dead as well.

The article’s “What to Know” section of key facts includes the following: “cause unknown but foul play/criminal intent not suspected.” This statement really isn’t accurate though, because the cause is known. The cause is that these two men were working in an unprotected trench, and it collapsed, covering them in thousands of pounds of dirt. It took rescue crews four hours to recover the second worker’s body because it was eight to 10 feet below ground. OSHA’s trenching and excavation standard requires protective systems like sloping, shoring or shielding once a trench reaches five feet deep. The standard also requires a competent person to inspect the trench when it’s created and when conditions change. The article doesn’t mention whether the contractor had a competent person on site to meet this key requirement

The article never uses the words “unprotected trench,” but it’s clear enough from the other details in the article. As Charlotte County Fire and EMS Public Information Officer Todd Dunn noted, the biggest challenge for the rescue crew “was making sure the hole did not collapse any further. … For a good outcome, we’re hoping for a pocket of air for him to breathe.”

The real question here is why two workers were in a trench twice as deep as OSHA regulations permit at all. When trenches of that depth collapse, the weight of the soil and the time needed to rescue the workers involved almost always results in a loss of life.

When reporters write “It’s not clear what caused the trench to collapse,” what’s clear is that the safety and health community still has a lot of work to do in educating the general public about the protections that construction workers are supposed to have when they go to work.

Trench Protections Still Lacking on Many Construction Jobsites

In many unfortunate ways, this is a routine story of a trench collapse. Most trench fatalities happen during water and sewer work, which this project was. The majority of victims are between 25 and 54 years old; the two victims in this case were 25 and 41. And like almost all trench deaths, this incident could have been prevented if the required protections were in place.

A survey of foremen and supervisors, workers and safety and health professionals found that 75 percent of respondents said they see no trench protection in place “frequently” or “occasionally.” One third of those surveyed said they’d witnessed, been involved in or inspected a trench collapse. Construction laborers are the most likely trade to be killed in trench collapses. We can ensure that doesn’t happen by making sure LIUNA members and other workers never enter an unprotected trench.

For more information, visit the Fund’s Trenches, Excavations and Confined Spaces page. LIUNA signatory contractors and affiliates can order our Excavation and Trench Safety toolbox talk, Excavation/Trench Hazards health alert and Safety in the Trenches pocket guide.

[Nick Fox]

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