You Cannot Put A Price On Human Life: OSHA Launches Trenching Death Investigation

You Cannot Put A Price On Human Life: OSHA Launches Trenching Death Investigation

“By some estimates, a cubic yard of soil can weigh as much as 3,000 pounds, equal to that of a compact car.” – OSHA

The U.S. Department of Labor and The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have opened an investigation and announced that OSHA will be implementing “Enhanced Enforcement” measures in the wake of what they refer to as an “alarming rise in trench-related fatalities” in 2022

Specifically, they cite a June 2022 incident in Jarrell, Texas where two workers lost their lives in an unprotected trench collapse. The trench shields that could have saved them were found sitting – unused – beside the excavation.

The deaths in Jarrell, TX are two of the 22 fatalities related to trenching and excavation that have occurred through June of 2022. That number surpassed the entire fatality total of trench-related deaths in 2021 (15), in less than six months. That is a 46.6% increase in just six months.

All trenches are excavations, but not all excavations are trenches. 

Trenching differs from excavation in that it is generally a narrow ground opening compared to its length (15 feet or less in width at the bottom), and is significantly deeper than a standard excavation. 

Further, if any structure within an excavation reduces the base of the opening to 15 feet or less, that portion of the excavation must be treated as a trench subject to 29 CFR 1926.652, and reinforced and shielded accordingly, with the exception of some home foundation excavations that meet OSHA criteria. 

The first U.S. safety standards for trenching and excavation were enacted in 1969, but did not become law until 1989. OSHA continually updates these standards and practices as technology evolves. The current standards for trenching require protective systems on any trench deeper than five feet. Further, they must be inspected by a person with knowledge of excavation and trenching, contain no standing water or other hazards, have safe entry and exit points, and all soil & debris must be two feet or more removed from the edge of the excavation.

Individual states that also have their own Occupational Safety & Health plans often mirror federal compliance requirements, and OSHA is recommending that “individual states seek criminal referrals for federal or state prosecution for trenching related incidents.”

According to OSHA, “trenching and excavation operations require protective systems and inspections before workers can enter.” Without safety measures like trench shields, hard hats, entry and exit routes, and inspections, workers can be buried by thousands of pounds of soil in seconds. 

“By some estimates, a cubic yard of soil can weigh as much as 3,000 pounds, equal to that of a compact car.” – OSHA

OSHA Cracks Down on Excavation Deaths with Enormous Fines

As demonstrated by the gruesome nature of the deaths in Texas, trench-related fatalities can happen in seconds, before anyone can react. That is why some of the largest fines OSHA metes out relate to trenching and excavation accidents. 

To give you some idea of scale, in March of 2022, OSHA issued more than $400,000 in fines to multiple construction firms in Ohio and Pennsylvania for trenching-related accidents. The fines ranged in severity from $14,502 for a “serious violation” in the failure of properly protecting workers along an excavation wall, to $175,480 and $214,636, respectively, for “willful & serious” safety violations that included failing to provide entry and exit routes from trenches, failing to provide safety systems that met manufacturer data, and failing to enforce a hard hat area, among other violations. 

In 2017, OSHA fined a Boston, Massachusetts firm $1.5 million for safety and equipment violations that resulted in the death of two workers who were trapped in a trench collapse and drowned when a fire hydrant supply line snapped and flooded the trapped men before they could escape. 

According to OSHA, all of these deaths were avoidable if safety standards were met on the jobsite.

GPRS is committed to safety for all of our team members and clients, which is why we strive for 100% accuracy in our subsurface detection services. We also sponsor Concrete Sawing & Drilling Safety Week, where we send teams out to job sites all over the U.S. to instruct partner firms and clients in how to avoid serious post-tension-concrete-related accidents. To learn more about our commitment to safety, click here.